Stay the course – but change the course. That was the meaning of the sudden, sharp, and understated change in Washington's Iraq policy last week. After the American civilian administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, made a hurried visit to the White

Stay the course – but change the course. That was the meaning of the sudden, sharp, and understated change in Washington's Iraq policy last week.

After the American civilian administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, made a hurried visit to the White House, President George W. Bush said he wants "the Iraqis to be more involved in the governance of their country" and offered some ideas toward that end. Two days later, the Iraqi Governing Council announced that the formal occupation of Iraq would end by June 2004, becoming at that time a mere "military presence."

Ambitious plans for an early constitution have now been shunted aside; instead, reports the Associated Press, Bremer will "name an interim Iraqi leader with authority to govern the country until a constitution can be written and elections held."

The military will be "Iraqified." The new emphasis is less on establishing a Jeffersonian democracy than on shifting power and responsibility to Iraqis, and doing so pronto.

This welcome shift marks a victory for the Defense Department's realism and a defeat for the State Department's dreamy hope (as the Wall Street Journal puts it) "to re-create the Philadelphia of 1787 in Baghdad." Sure, it would be wonderful if Americans and Britons could, in leisurely fashion, educate Iraqis in the fine arts of governance. But Iraqis are not children eager to learn from Western instructors. They are proud of their history, defiant toward the outside world, suspicious of Anglo-Americans, and determined to run their own country. Attempts to tutor them will surely fail.

Iraqi today is deeply dissimilar to Germany or Japan post-1945, primarily because a very different equation exists.

  • Germans and Japanese were each defeated as a people, ground down by a multi-year total war, and so they accepted the remake of their societies and cultures. In contrast, Iraqis emerged almost unscathed from a three-week war designed not to harm them. Feeling liberated more than defeated, Iraqis are in no mood to be told what to do. They take what serves them from the occupation and fend off, through violence and other forms of resistance, what does not.
  • Conversely, not having gone through a long and brutal war with Iraqis, Americans display limited concern about the future course of Iraq.

In brief, Iraqi determination is much greater than that of the occupiers, severely limiting what the latter can accomplish.

Washington's sensible new approach is in keeping with my call in April 2003 for a "politically moderate but operationally tough – democratically-minded Iraqi strongman," as well as my recommendation to let Iraqis run Iraq.

That's not to say that I want American, British, Polish, Italian, and other troops to abandon the country; no, they must remain but limit themselves to a lesser role.

  • Presence: Boots on the city streets should be Iraqi, not foreign. Remove coalition forces from the inhabited areas, transferring them to the deserts (which are ample in Iraq).
  • Power: Guarantee borders, oil and gas lines, and the government in Baghdad. Hunt down Saddam Hussein and his henchmen. Otherwise, Iraqis should maintain order.
  • Decisions: Let Iraqis make internal decisions (security, finances, justice, education, religion, etc.), keeping only foreign and defense policy in coalition hands.

Iraqis should – with only distant coalition oversight – be given the chance to make a go of it on their own. When a government has proven itself over an extended period, it deserves full sovereignty. Should things go wrong, those troops in the desert can always intervene.

And, make no mistake, Iraqification offers ample opportunity for things to go wrong. The Iraqi record of self-rule over the past 70 years has been disastrous; realistically, we must expect the future leadership to be less than exemplary. But so long as it poses no danger to the outside world nor brutalizes its own population, that should be acceptable, for Americans and Britons gave their lives in the spring war less to fix Iraq than to protect their own countries.

Iraq is not likely to serve the Muslim world as a model of democracy anytime soon. But if the Bush administration stays the course with its excellent new policy, a new Iraqi government has the chance of developing over years and perhaps decades into a decent country with an open political process, successful economy, and flourishing culture.

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Nov. 19, 2003 update: The article above builds on an early analysis I wrote a month ago, "Let Iraqis run Iraq."

Feb. 2, 2004 update: I futher pursue this theme at a weblog entry, "Let Iraqis Take Responsibility for Iraq."

Mar. 11, 2008 update: Years later, the same issue remains a problem, as I note at "Must U.S. Taxpayers Pay for Iraqi Electricity?"