The Iraqi Deadline

Michael Hirsh has an interesting piece Newsweek on the knashing of teeth on the June 30 deadline for handing off Iraqi sovereignty:

Interestingly, the main battle lines this time are not between those ever-clashing titans at Defense and State, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell. The fight is largely between Baghdad and the Beltway. And all indications are that Baghdad—in the person of Iraq civil administrator L. Paul Bremer III—is carrying the day.

As recently as a week ago, senior State and Defense department officials back in Washington, in a rare state of agreement, were suggesting privately that the June handover probably would have to slide—possibly until January 2005, when genuine elections could be held. This would almost certainly mean a political migraine for the president. Bush would face Democratic charges this fall that America is still mired in an Iraq quagmire and that he had reversed himself yet again on a critical issue. The problem is that administration officials in Washington fear a disaster, possibly civil war, if sovereignty is granted before the installation of a legitimate government created by proper nationwide elections. The United Nations new special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, this week called civil war a “very, very serious danger.”

Yet back in Baghdad, Bremer, America’s viceroy in Iraq, is determined to make the June 30 date. Bremer has been organizing town hall meetings and caucuses to create a groundswell of Iraqi support for transferring sovereignty at that time. Brahimi, dispatched by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to help resolve the election dispute, got of a whiff of that sentiment this week. He met with groups of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds and discovered that most were committed to June 30, even if elections or an even less-direct method of choosing a transitional assembly prove to be unworkable. “The closer you are to the ground, the more you understand how important the transfer on June 30 is,” a senior administration official tells NEWSWEEK.

I suppose the real question is what actually transfers on that date. It’s one thing to turn over nominal control–the illusion of sovereignty–quite another to actually relinquish the ability to shape events.

Some senior Bush officials back in Washington still say they genuinely don̢۪t know at this point whether the June 30 date will stick. Oddly enough, Bremer̢۪s key ally on this issue may be the White House political team, which desperately wants Iraq out of the headlines by the GOP convention this summer. But administration officials are already preparing the talking points they̢۪ll need if they announce that sovereignty will be delayed.

While domestic politics are always–legitimately–an issue, especially during an election year, that has to be secondary to the situation on the ground. Even if Karl Rove were more influential here than Jerry Bremer, the fact of the matter is that American troops will almost certainly be in Iraq in large numbers for years. And a messy turnover would be more harmful to Bush’s reelection efforts than a missed deadline.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.