CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. - President Bush and his advisers say they want to hand power in occupied Iraq back to the Iraqis as quickly as possible. That's an essential and great goal, and I don't doubt their sincerity. However, their current moves toward achieving it look fraught with serious problems - and this is in a part of the world considerably more central to global stability than Vietnam ever was.
I'll come back to the admittedly imperfect Vietnam analogy later. But first, what are the problems involved in the current move to "Iraqification?" They stem from the fact that a majority of Iraqis seem to actively distrust, or even oppose, the current American role in their country. A Zogby International poll conducted in August found that 50 percent of Iraqis said they thought the US would hurt Iraq over the next five years, while only 35 percent said they thought the US would help it. (Expectations about the UN and Saudi Arabia were much more favorable. Those about Iran were, interestingly, slightly less favorable than those about the US.)
Since August, the situation has gotten noticeably worse for the US in Iraq. A series of blunders committed by ill-prepared, overstretched US troops has heightened tensions between them and Iraqis in recent weeks. No turnaround is in sight.
So if Iraqification is carried out in a way that responds to the wishes of the Iraqis - as it ought to be - then the result would most likely be the creation of an authentically "Iraqi" administration that would be fairly, or even strongly, anti-American.
I agree with those in Washington who say that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are quite delighted that Saddam Hussein's genocidal, tightly authoritarian regime has gone. But Washington can't base its strategy on an expectation of Iraqi gratitude. An expectation that gratitude might inform political views is always a weak reed on which to build a strategy. Further, the Iraqi people have many longstanding and very severe complaints about US policies toward their country, which also weigh heavily in their view of Washington. And perhaps most important, the way the US has run its occupation administration in Iraq since April has alienated increasing numbers of Iraqis.
Today's big concern about Iraqification is how the future democratic leadership is chosen.
The US-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has promised the UN that by mid- December it will produce a timetable for a constitutional convention and then for holding the first democratic election under the new Constitution. But the members of the CPA-created Interim Governing Council can't even agree on how delegates to the constitutional convention should be chosen, much less when. (Many of them might reasonably fear that in a democracy they themselves would lose power.)
These "process" issues are significant in any move toward real democratization.
In South Africa, it took four years of intense internal discussions to move from a decision to democratize, through the negotiation of an interim constitution, to the landmark first democratic election in 1994. In the process of those discussions, South Africans in a very real sense reinvented their country as a democratic, pluralistic nation. Such discussions shouldn't be rushed in Iraq simply because of external deadlines - or because Mr. Bush wants to start drawing down US forces in summer 2004.
What to do?
Iraqification needs to happen. It needs to happen soon - but also well. That's where the sad history of "Vietnamization," the similar policy adopted by President Richard Nixon in 1969-70, is relevant. Vietnamization, like Iraqification, was accompanied by a lot of rhetoric about "democratization. "But because it was rushed, politically driven, and pursued unilaterally by the US according to US timetables, Vietnamization was a dangerous fiasco for most of the people of Vietnam and helped usher in the period of abusive communist rule that followed. It "succeeded" only in that it helped Nixon win reelection in 1972.
In Iraq, the stakes are even higher than they were in Vietnam. That's why a botched "Iraqification" that is pursued nearly unilaterally by a rushed, politically driven US is in the interest of absolutely no one. But I truly don't think that a successful Iraqification can happen if Washington continues trying to do it under its own almost unilateral control.
For everyone's sake, the UN has to be invited to take over this vital process. The UN alone - not NATO, not the present US-led coalition - has the international legitimacy, and can command the international resources that are needed to get this job done.
• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.