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U.S. shouldn’t rely on Iraq’s yes men
By Frank Smyth, May 5, 2004, Newsday

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Original story found here.

How did we end up in such a fix in Iraq? We did what we have long done abroad: We sought out not the foreigners whom we still need to work with, but the exiles who were most like us.

The practice of imposing unpopular proxies hardly began with this Bush administration. It is one that U.S. policy makers have long been pursuing with mixed results. But, in a world as complex as this one is after 9/11, the days of picking leaders like characters in a Graham Greene novel may be gone. Instead, we must build relationships with foreigners who have support among their own people and stop sidling up to the kind who merely tell us what we want to hear.

Favorite foreign sons often enjoy more support in this nation than in their own, and it may take years before the illusions they have peddled here are exposed. One such man was the late president of El Salvador, José Napoleon Duarte, who once enjoyed a broad bipartisan consensus in Washington.

Duarte was so dependent on us to keep him in power that he not only wrote his autobiography when he was still in office during his nation's ongoing war, but he wrote and published it in English for us to read - instead of his own people.

It took five years before U.S. policy makers finally realized that Duarte, for all his rosy promises, had failed.

But it has taken only one year for most policy makers to realize that America's handpicked Iraqis are failing. The Pentagon has favored Ahmad Chalabi while the State Department has preferred Adnan Pachachi. Both are exiles who did not set foot inside Iraq for more than three decades, and neither man has ever enjoyed any sizable constituency inside Iraq.

But they each looked good on paper. Fluent in English, Chalabi studied mathematics before becoming a banker, and he describes himself not in religious terms but as a secular Shia Iraqi. Pachachi, who has better ties to the Arab world, is a former diplomat who once represented Iraq in New York at the United Nations. Chalabi and his family were close to Iraq's old British-imposed monarchy, while Pachachi served Iraq's pre-Baathist military regimes. When different administration officials looked out at Iraq's colorful (and confusing) sectarian landscape, these two men stood out.

One reason Chalabi found favor for so long is that he, in particular, always said yes to us. Yes, Iraqis will rise up when you invade, even though America only betrayed them the last time they rose up. (Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack" reports that Vice President Dick Cheney did not know until after the invasion that "the trauma" among Shi'a Iraqis was still so bad.) Yes, you may exploit Iraqi oil through a sweetheart deal with Halliburton, even if few Iraqis benefit from it.

Yes, Chalabi argued, you may use me to shape a government to your liking, even if Iraqis do not elect it. Oh, and don't worry about all those messy ethnic and religious tensions -- with me in charge together we will transcend them.

The biggest fiction Chalabi spread was the same one Duarte told, that bringing democracy to his country was somehow synonymous with bringing him to power. This is the whopper the White House may have swallowed. Last month in Washington, President George W. Bush told newspaper editors that he still plans to bring democracy to Iraq. But what Bush may not yet get is that any democratic elections there are not likely to lead to any government he has in mind, or elect any leader he knows.

Everyone should know by now that Iraq's future could well hang on the word, or life, of a 74-year-old cleric of the Shi'a Muslim faith, Ali Sistani, who wears a black turban signifying that he is a descendant of the prophet Mohammed. But only after last year's invasion did policy makers seem to learn that they might even need support from Iraqis as unfamiliar to us as this grand ayatollah.

Instead, administration officials picked different Iraqis with whom they were most comfortable, and now American soldiers along with Iraqi civilians are dying for their mistakes.

For a nation with as many enemies as America has today, we need more allies and fewer puppets around the world.

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