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November 30, 2003 1:03 a.m.

My posts have been sparse for the last few days in part because of the holidays but also because I am poring over a stack of books about empire for an upcoming essay. And with these various thoughts about empire swirling through head, reading this article about our ever-evolving Iraq exit strategy plan in tomorrow’s Post is an exercise in sinking feelings and dark humor.

The essence of the story is that the plan for a political handover that we announced just weeks ago is already on the fast-track to dead letterhood.

And it’s happening because the plan is being gamed by Iraqi political leaders who’ve clearly got more power on the ground than we do.

Our lack of effective power, as opposed to main force, of which we’ve got plenty, is what’s pushing us to get out of the country in the first place. But our efforts to get out have further weakened our position, thus diminishing our ability to get out on our own terms. It’s a vicious cycle, and as difficult to remedy as it is vicious.

Back on Wednesday the Post had a piece about how Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani was largely responsible for scuttling our original plan to appoint the drafters of the constitution, rather than have them elected.

Now he’s come out against the new plan for electing these folks through a complex series of town caucuses and called instead for direct nationwide elections.

It’s pretty hard to fault Sistani’s positions on democratic procedural grounds. But the bigger point, again, is our impotence in the face of his expressed views.

He’s calling the shots; we’re not.

And then there’s the Interim Governing Council, the IGC.

The greatest deceit perpetrated by the architects of the war turns out to have had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction or ties between Saddam and al Qaida. The profoundest deception was the claim that the IGC was designed to be a transitional governing authority when in fact, as is now becoming clear, its true purpose was to provide a sort of dark, Falstaffian comic relief to balance out the ominous backdrop of postwar Iraq.

Much of the jockeying we’re now seeing involves efforts by the IGC to perpetuate its power into post-occupation Iraq even though — with the exception of the Kurdish faction leaders — few of its members have any serious base of political support in the country or, to put it bluntly, any armies on hand for when things really get fun next fall.

So, while the real players jockey for position and await our departure, these boneheads are trying to use the paper power we’ve given them against us in order to hold on to authority even after we leave.

That’s just great.

Here’s a prime example …

Even if the United States can broker a compromise formula, council members are still trying to retain their leverage by arguing that the council should remain as a second legislative body, the equivalent of a senate, an idea likely to ignite further controversy, Iraq experts warn. Alternatively, the council could try to slow the process, hoping to preempt the latest U.S. plan.

Their leverage … Like I said, dark comic relief. We can’t even get our puppets in line.

Undemocratic or imperfectly democratic upper houses of parliaments usually justify themselves by their partial remove from the bustle of democratic politics or their identification with national unity or ancestral wisdom or some such thing. Think the British House of Lords or at the turn of the last century the United States senate. Such arguments are always strained. But why the council we installed in the first months of the occupation should play this role is a little hard to figure.

And then another nice passage …

One way or another, key council members are vying either to shape the transition or ensure the council remains intact and a powerful body, as the U.S. plan envisions. Because many of the 24 council members probably would not fare well in open elections, they pressured Bremer to establish an indirect three-step system to select a new national assembly, which in turn would pick a prime minister and cabinet, a process so complex that many Iraqis and U.S. experts doubt it will work.

A former U.S. adviser to Bremer described the plan as “an insane selection system of caucuses, like the Iowa caucus selecting those who will vote in New Hampshire.”

The U.S. plan effectively gives the Governing Council a kind of remote control because it will have the deciding vote in local caucuses that will pick a national assembly.

All of this adds up to the essential ridiculousness of the moment: On the homefront, the president is shaping his political campaign around the notion that we shouldn’t show weakness and we can’t cut and run. Meanwhile, it’s clear to pretty much everyone in Iraq that we’re doing both.

And they’re acting accordingly.

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