Thank Goodness for Iraq's Census Disaster

It's been postponed three times due to tension over disputed territories in the north. But unlike most of Iraq's bureaucratic messes, this one could save lives.

One of the silent victims of Iraq's political paralysis has been the country's long-delayed census. On Oct. 3, the census was postponed for the third time since 2007, when the cabinet pushed it back from Oct. 24 to Dec. 5. The main reason for the latest delay was the concern of some Iraqi politicians, neighboring states such as Turkey, and the United States that going ahead with the census now could just foment unrest in the disputed territories that border the federal Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

Given the current configuration of the census, however, a delay is not such a bad thing. If anything, Iraq's caretaker government should give serious consideration to delaying the census even further, until the new government can correct its flaws and turn it into something that will be truly useful for the whole country.

The Iraqi census stands to play a critical role in the country's development. Its data will help in drawing electoral districts, allocating funds, projecting future population growth, and planning education, public health, housing, transportation, and other essential elements of a well-regulated state. Particularly in Iraq, which has witnessed several false starts in reconstruction following the 2003 invasion, having accurate socioeconomic data will be indispensable to sound economic planning.

But there's reason to believe that this census, as it is currently designed, will polarize rather than unify Iraqi society. The problem lies in a question that asks Iraqis to define their ethnicity, aiming to get a sense of how big the country's various ethnic groups are. Although such a question will no doubt provide interesting information for academics and analysts, it is not in Iraq's national interest and risks destabilizing some of Iraq's most sensitive hot spots.

The ethnicity question is particularly likely to inflame passions in areas that Kurdish leaders have said they want to incorporate into the federal Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. Along with Kurds, these areas are home to a diverse population of Arabs, Turkmens, and smaller minorities, all of which have been engaged in a tense standoff over Kurdish aspirations, which they resist almost unanimously. The situation holds the potential for violent conflict. Several incidents in these disputed areas over the past two years required U.S. commanders to establish joint military checkpoints along the so-called trigger line dividing Iraqi Army troops from Kurdish regional guards. Finding a negotiated solution to the tug of war over these areas, with the city of Kirkuk at their center, will be critical for Iraq's future.

All sides see the census's ethnicity question as a proto-referendum on these areas status. Everyone assumes that in a referendum Kurds would vote in favor of accession to the Kurdistan region while the vast majority of non-Kurds would vote against. If the population in a given area is found to be majority Kurdish, the political case for linking this area to the Kurdistan region will be greatly strengthened -- regardless of the wishes of the area's non-Kurdish population, whatever its size. The census, in other words, would increase the momentum toward a non-negotiated solution of these areas' status via an ethnically driven, zero-sum-game plebiscite. Going forward with the ethnicity question intact, then, would almost certainly lead to an Arab and Turkmen boycott, as well as popular protests in disputed territories, likely culminating in violence.

Some of the analysts most familiar with the tensions along the Arab-Kurdish fault line have also lent their support to efforts to cut the ethnicity question from the census. Emma Sky, who served for three years as a senior political advisor to Gen. Ray Odierno, the former U.S. commander in Iraq, argues that asking the citizens of Kirkuk and other disputed areas will only increase the divisions among the population.

"Many of the people have intermarried over generations and speak each other's languages. Including the ethnicity question in the census will force people to identify themselves in narrow terms when they often have many different aspects to their identity," she said. "You are making people define themselves in a way that is not conducive to the healing process at a time when there is a desperate need to focus on issues which bring people together."

In Iraq, the census is designed, prepared, and implemented by the Ministry of Planning and carried out by schoolteachers. They, as well as members of the security forces, have already received the census form for them to fill out individually and soon will be given the forms for the general population. Clearly, the train has been set in motion. It is not too late, however, to slow it down or put it on a slightly different track.

As a first step, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's caretaker government should delay the census until the new government comes to power, lest ethnic conflict erupt during troubled negotiations over government formation. The tensions created by the census could also represent the breaking point for former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's al-Iraqiya list, which won a plurality of seats in the new parliament, as many of its Sunni Arab members hail from precisely these disputed areas. Al-Iraqiya, or at least a significant number of its most prominent Sunni leaders, might turn their backs on the political process altogether.

Moreover, if a U.N. compromise proposal over the ethnicity question, currently under discussion by Iraqi political leaders, should fail, the Maliki government should remove that question from the census. It should also remove for now a question that inquires about the respondents' mother tongue. Although this question could provide useful information for the education system, it will also be interpreted as using the same ethnic logic and thus will have the same pernicious effect.

The challenge of launching negotiations over Kirkuk and the other disputed areas that produce a final, peaceful, and durable status settlement still remains. Kurdish leaders have been rightly impatient over lack of progress. The new Iraqi government, with the full support of the international community and with the United Nations as a facilitator, should make a strong commitment to getting talks under way. A referendum, as outlined in the Iraqi Constitution, should only be held based on agreement reached between political leaders. Ethnically driven shortcuts, which the format of the census currently promotes, will only undermine this effort -- and endanger Iraq's fragile stability.



Goodbye, Mr. Jones

And good riddance. Why Jim Jones was the worst national security advisor in decades.

Gen. Jim Jones will go down in history as the least successful national security advisor since Adm. John Poindexter was forced out of office during the Reagan administration. This fact alone illuminates just one of the many miscalculations that were made in hiring Jones. He was a military man, went the conventional wisdom; military men do well in such jobs. After all, the most successful national security advisor in history was Gen. Brent Scowcroft. And Scowcroft was clearly the model President Barack Obama had in mind when he selected Jones.

The problem was -- as Poindexter demonstrated -- that military experience is no guarantee of success in the job. Poindexter's predecessor, Robert MacFarlane, also had an extensive military background, and he was another disaster. (And who was the freelancing go-to guy in the Reagan NSC? Col. Oliver North. 'Nuff said.)

But Jones was no Scowcroft in so many ways. Scowcroft came into office with a deep, personal relationship with the president. Jones and Obama, aloofness squared, never got there. Scowcroft came to the job with a well-defined worldview, cultivated over a life of intensive and thoughtful study of international affairs. One diplomat who worked with Jones when he was supreme allied commander in Europe said, "He never had the slightest interest in foreign policy." He was just interested in military affairs, and even in that respect he was not particularly creative or intellectually curious. Scowcroft was a master of both key jobs of the national security advisor -- he willingly and loyally spoke of the president as his boss (Jones started bad-mouthing Obama on the cocktail-party circuit months ago and never saw himself as anyone's staffer), and he was an exceptionally effective policy coordinator -- the honest broker trusted and respected by all (Jones was out-to-lunch literally and figuratively on the process from his earliest days, presiding over meetings without leading a process). 

Of course, even as he is acknowledged as the model to which all national security advisors should aspire, Scowcroft is often underestimated. He is so soft-spoken and smooth that he always made it look easy. And while part of his success was due to these traits and the fact that his team got along famously well following his example, underneath the surface, Brent Scowcroft is an extraordinary man. No one who ever had the job worked harder. No one was smarter. No one had a better, more nuanced worldview, and I include in that Scowcroft's boss when he was deputy, Henry Kissinger, who was almost certainly the second-best national security advisor ever.

So while picking Jones because superficially he seemed he might be cut from the same cloth as Scowcroft -- or even just actively emulate him -- was a perfectly reasonable thing for the president to want to do, he clearly picked the wrong man. That said, one of the most overlooked reasons for Scowcroft's success was his boss, George H.W. Bush, a president who was deeply experienced in foreign policy when he came into office and who knew just what he wanted from a policy process. And Barack Obama is no George H.W. Bush. 

The president's inexperience did in Jones more than any of the general's deficits. He didn't know what he wanted. He vacillated on key issues. He simply demonstrated the problems America repeatedly has when it hires men with no foreign-policy background to take on the most important international job in the world. Further, he did not really know enough about how the presidency works to nip in the bud the creation of the inner-circle bubble that effectively negated much of the work that the formal policy process did. Obama encouraged (or tolerated for long-enough that it looks like encouragement) his campaign foreign-policy deputies to continue to report directly to him, and this led to some public and private backdooring of Jones that undercut his authority dramatically. He did not empower Jones, and that combined with Jones's own shortcomings led to the zero-chemistry, ineffective collaboration that has been openly criticized by senior White House and foreign policy officials since the spring of Obama's first year in office.

In fact the situation got so bad that Jones was publicly undercut by true Obama confidante Denis McDonough more than once. It is something of a surprise he lasted this long. As one former national security advisor said to me while we were discussing a well-known instance of McDonough publicly undercutting Jones, "That would have only happened once on my watch. It would have been me or him."

Which raises the question: How will the NSC operate under Tom Donilon, Jones's replacement? There is no question Donilon starts out with a much better relationship with Obama (and McDonough) than Jones ever had. There is no question that he is more willing to staff the president or that he is a gifted master of policy processes. The question is whether he will imprint the process with his own stamp or whether he has been hired to make the memos run on time, eliminate controversy, and fade into the woodwork. 

Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, as noted earlier, that is not the Scowcoft model either. Honest brokers are needed, yes. But so too are men who bring insight, wisdom, and new ideas and who can, behind closed doors, tell the president when they think he should reconsider an approach. Scowcroft was a master of this. National security advisors do not need to be spokespeople and Obama has a great chief foreign-policy spokesperson in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who is strengthened by this move given her stature relative to Donilon). Nor should they be foreign-policy emissaries… though Scowcroft was on occasion and Donilon seemed to audition for the job with his recent trip to China with Larry Summers. 

But they do need to be more than paper-pushers or master-bureaucrats.

Just because Donilon has never done anything to suggest that he was a policy guru or someone who could regularly stand up to a president doesn't mean he can't do it. Compared with Jones, he has a running start on a number of key points. But there are some big open-ended questions regarding him -- and regarding whether Obama has learned enough from his Jones's experience that he can be the kind of president who can make his national security advisor a success. I understand there will be some who argue Condi Rice was worse. Certainly some of the Bush policies were. But as a close advisor to her president and as someone who sought to play a more engaged policy coordinator role, she gets higher marks. She, at least, was the national security advisor her boss wanted.

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