Jewish World Review April 21, 2003 / 19 Nisan, 5763

David Ignatius

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Groping toward democracy | KUWAIT CITY The new Iraq is barely a week old. But already Iraqis are beginning to take their new freedom for granted and wonder what's next. They are impatient: Yesterday, Americans were their liberators; today they are occupiers of a nation that wants to build its own future.

The answer to "what's next" lies largely in the hands of a small, genial man named Jay Garner. He's the retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who heads what's known as the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance -- the antiseptic term the United States is using for its transitional military government in Iraq.

Garner sketched some of his thoughts in an interview here Wednesday night, just after returning from his first meeting with Iraqi political leaders. It's hard not to like Garner. He's the sort of modest, self-deprecating man who makes you think of a more innocent America -- a nation of Rotary Clubs and Jimmy Stewart movies and kindly small-town sheriffs.

Garner is groping for answers in a country that neither he nor America understands very well. "You're feeling your way through it, holding your hand out in the dark to try to touch all the furniture and the walls," he says.

One of Garner's virtues is that he knows how hard his job is. When I asked what worried him, now that he had spent some time in Iraq, he answered bluntly: "Everything worries me." Anyone who proclaimed greater confidence about the mission ahead would be a fool, or lying.

The task Garner has taken on is a quintessentially American project -- a wildly idealistic effort to create democratic political institutions in a country that has been governed by brutal military rule. Iraq's underlying political structures are secretive networks of clans, tribes, religious sects and clandestine cells. On this grizzled political landscape, Garner is talking about holding local elections and a constitutional referendum.

Garner expects to make some mistakes as he gropes forward. He notes that the British flubbed in Basra recently when they chose an interim political leader who turned out to be too close to the Baath Party and angered many Basra residents. So the Brits got rid of him and started over. That kind of trial-and-error approach will be necessary in a country where nothing is likely to work right the first time.

Garner wants to allow the new Iraq to evolve from a loose, ad hoc process of debate that began this week in Nasiriyah and will continue next week in Baghdad. The aim of these meetings is to mix Iraqi external and internal opposition groups with some acceptable holdovers from the old regime. Soon they will form committees to discuss details of a new constitution and government process. It may sound like a vision of life as a PTA meeting, but Garner is that kind of guy.

Meanwhile, Garner says, American experts will be attached to every Iraqi ministry to help build a stable and efficient bureaucracy. Once the ministries are working well, the Americans will (in theory) disappear.

Garner doesn't have much time. The country is a mess. Neither Iraqis nor the international community (nor the American electorate, for that matter) will tolerate a prolonged U.S. military occupation.

A deeper worry is that Garner's efforts are so "American" -- in the sense that they are premised on the inherent decency of human nature. But as Garner well knows, he isn't in Peoria now. Iraqis have learned to mistrust foreign occupiers, do-gooders, politicians and most everyone else. Many scoff at the idea that America went to war to liberate Iraq and build democracy.

Garner and his interim authority cannot play by Andy Griffith rules in the land of the car bomb. He will need to be tough about imposing the values of America's more innocent culture.

If there is one Arabic word I would place in Garner's phrase book, it is karameh, or dignity -- the value at the core of Arab political culture. Saddam Hussein ruled, in a sense, by humiliation -- by his ability to inflict pain on his citizens and their families. Unless you played his game, you were nothing. The Iraqis won't be able to get the dignity they crave from Garner and the Americans. They will have to create it for themselves, in building a new country.

Constructing Iraqi democracy may seem like a naive goal, but it's a big, noble ambition and worth the pain it will require. Garner says that when he thought this week about the enormous task ahead, he got choked up with emotion. So should we all. What America does in postwar Iraq will test us as much as the Iraqis.

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