Not good at nation building

Robert Novak's picture

WASHINGTON — A bus full of 15 Iraqi lawyers carrying a four-page, single-spaced letter to President Bush arrived at the White House Tuesday. The mission was to request less U.S. help for building prisons and more for establishing the rule of law. There was no immediate official response, and experience of the last four years indicates nothing will be done in the future.

Aswad al-Minshidi, president of the Iraqi Bar Assn., led the delegation. The lawyers had hoped to confer with White House Counsel Fred Fielding, with perhaps a drop-in by George W. Bush. But the president was campaigning in New Albany, Ind., and the Iraqis had to be content with meeting Special Counsel Emmet Flood, a staffer well down the chain of command. He could only promise the letter pleading for overdue help would be conveyed to Fielding.

“America’s rule of law effort in Iraq has focused almost entirely on police, prisons and prosecution,” said the letter to Bush signed by Minshidi. In a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq where detained terrorist suspects are still in jail after being cleared by the courts, the lawyers complained about “a policeman and prosecutor’s definition of what rule of law means.” It means a policy limited to law enforcement.

This faulty allocation of U.S. funds is part of a broader problem in Iraq: Americans are not good at nation building. The huge embassy in Baghdad is run by Foreign Service officers on the same model as U.S. missions worldwide whose function is reporting, not managing. Similarly, legal policy in Iraq is handled by assistant U.S. attorneys who focus on arrest and detention.

The Iraqi lawyers wrote Bush that “the number of Iraqi citizens in detention by Iraqi police and prisons as well as the detention centers of the Multinational Forces in Iraq is large and still growing.” While not mentioning it in the letter, they are appalled by $125 million in U.S. funds spent to build prisons while more modest amounts needed to build a legal system are denied.

I talked to some of these lawyers who told me of their frustration when courts release a detained prisoner, and the authorities — Iraqi and U.S. — ignore the judges. The letter requested U.S. funds for “the investigation and trial of all prisoners held by Multinational Forces in Iraq. It is in your fundamental interest that justice prevail in Iraq, and appear to prevail, in all matters associated with your troops and the American people. Needless to say that the Iraqi people will long remember how you approached justice.” Between the lines, the lawyers were politely telling the president he had failed to establish the rule of law in Iraq.

As an example of how the billions of American dollars pouring into Iraq do not promote an effective legal system, the letter noted that the State Department “has failed to move on final approval” of a proposed codification of Iraqi law. “Perhaps the people in Washington do not have a sense of urgency because they live in Washington,” the lawyers wrote.

The broader problem appears to be that diplomats, both in Washington and Baghdad, are not suited to be nation builders. Ryan Crocker, the highly esteemed U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is a superstar of the Foreign Service with the exalted rank of career ambassador. But he is essentially a reporter and negotiator, not a manager. So are his subordinates. His embassy is organized on the same basis as the small missions around the world, with the diplomats trained to send informative telegrams back to Washington and untangle bilateral difficulties, but not to manage large projects.

The Iraqi lawyers for an hour Tuesday presented their pleas to Flood, who made no comment. Flood assured them that Fielding, but not necessarily the president, would see the letter. They then returned to the bus, which transported them to the Supreme Court. There, much to the surprise of the Iraqis, they were given 45 minutes by Chief Justice John Roberts for a substantive discussion. “This was much better than the White House,” exclaimed an Iraqi lawyer, who can only hope that President Bush gets interested in building the rule of law in Iraq.


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