Paul Bremer's Indifference to History

Roundup: Media's Take

South China Morning Post 3-16-04

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray
Visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore

Iraq could explode again as soon as American troops have gone, because American administrator Paul Bremer seems to have learned nothing from the past. He is inviting disaster by defying the logic of numbers to placate US allies among Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbours and to contain Shi'ite Iran. No wonder Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani looks to the United Nations for redress. A UN mandate might be the only way of averting another disaster.

Current wisdom - more propaganda than fact - is wrong on two counts. First, it attributes Shi'ite and Kurdish truculence only to former dictator Saddam Hussein's having brutalised both communities. Second, the Bush administration appears to believe that never before has the Middle East, not just Iraq, seen such a liberal democratic charter as the TAL, which comes into force on July 1.

To take the second fallacy first, the British beat the Americans by 80 years when they tried to saddle Iraqis with Westminster-style parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy. The 1925 constitution proclaimed that Iraqis had "confided ... a trust" in their foreign king, Faisal, who had been chased out of Syria and arrived from his European exile in a British gunboat. Though Britain's pro-consul, Sir Percy Cox, claimed that 99 per cent of Iraqis wanted Faisal, he timed the installation for 6am when there was hardly anyone around to object.

An Iraqi aspirant to the throne was seized and bundled off to Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known then. The British also crushed a Shi'ite revolt against the infant, artificially created kingdom. They were desperate to secure the route to India as well as grab the oil that Iraq's Ottoman rulers had been negotiating to sell to the Dutch, Germans and Americans since 1906.

It is anyone's guess how many of the TAL's 25 signatories, hand-picked by Mr Bremer, can claim more convincing credentials than Faisal. Mr Bremer's ingenious system, which relies on "local caucuses" instead of elections, is even more arbitrary than the British-imposed constitution. That document theoretically vested power in parliament's elected lower house, because sovereignty "resides in the people" whom the British endowed with "complete freedom of conscience" as well as a glittering array of other democratic "rights".

But though 16 parliaments sat under the 1925 constitution and 58 cabinets came and went, they were all dummies. It was the boy king's uncle and regent who exercised all authority until the end in 1958.

It suited imperial Britain to back control by the Sunni minority. Hussein benefited from Britain's precedent, which the Americans are now following. Hence, no elections. Naturally, Ayatollah al-Sistani resents this denial of the majority's political rights. Hussein also followed the west in discriminating against the Kurds. The victorious first world war powers reneged at the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne on their pledge of Kurdish self -determination. Then, both the Nixon and first Bush administrations double -crossed the Kurds, encouraging them to revolt, then withholding support.

Political manipulations to prop up minority rule while promising fancy rights on paper can never last, let alone ensure stability. Syria's constitution outlaws torture, Jordan's guarantees freedom of expression and Egypt's forbids imprisonment without charges. Even the Revolutionary Command Council diktats, through which Hussein ruled for 23 years, upheld many libertarian rights in theory.

It is a truism that men make constitutions and not the other way round. Just as the Iraqis gave short shrift to the 1925 document, they will reject the new dispensation if it subordinates 60 per cent of the people to fewer than 20 per cent. Asked about the wisdom of his decisions, Mr Bremer retorted, "I'll let the historians worry about that!" The real worry is that the new imperium is repeating all the blunders of the old. Only the UN can rescue Iraqis from the consequences of US folly.

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