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Douglas Feith has never been a man who shies from controversy. An outspoken supporter of Israel’s Likud Party and a hawk on defense issues, he has long been identified with the influential neo-conservative movement and one of its goals — the creation of American-style democracies in the Middle East. Now, as the U.S.-led military efforts to oust Saddam Hussein from Iraqi leadership intensify, Feith is supervising a new Department of Defense office that will enable him to do a great deal to further his long-standing interest in fostering democratic institutions in Iraq. The DOD’s two-month-old Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance falls under Feith’s domain as undersecretary of defense for policy. Feith has, more than once, clearly set forth his vision of what the office needs to be doing. In a Feb. 21 press conference, he said the goal of the office is to lay “the foundation . . . for the kind of government that [President George W. Bush] has in mind, broad-based, representative government building on democratic institutions and the like. A government that will be humane to its own people and not a threat to its neighbors, not have weapons of mass destruction, not support terrorism, all those things that we’ve laid out as principles.” Outside experts on nation building agree that Iraq needs to develop the rudiments of democracy — things as basic as impartial courts, political parties, and a belief by its citizens that they can discuss public issues without fear of being brutalized. Experts also say that fundamental change won’t be easy to bring about in a nation whose politics have been systematically crushed by the totalitarian rule of Hussein’s Baath Party. “This is a slow and difficult process,” says Thomas Carothers, founder and co-director of the Rule of Law Project at the D.C.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Can a new political bargain be established? That’s hard to accomplish. You can build institutions, but they can easily be undermined by the lack of political consciousness.” Iraq won’t be the first time that Americans have tried to create democratic institutions in the wake of bloody conflict. Bosnia, Haiti, and Afghanistan form some recent precedents, and they don’t all bode well for success in Iraq. “Look at the Balkans, where [Serbian Prime Minister Zoran] Djindjic was just assassinated. Even in Russia, they still don’t have a functioning liberal democracy,” says Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This can be a decades-long process.” Those who know Feith, who was unavailable for comment, say it’s a task he feels strongly about. Eliot Cohen, professor of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, has known Feith for many years and says the office’s nation-building responsibility fits well with Feith’s ideology and with that of Feith’s boss, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz’s view, says Cohen, is that “you have to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and then create something decent. It’s a combination of hard-headedness and Wilsonian idealism. The idea is that a nation’s particular culture should not prevent you from forming a democracy.” FEITH’S RISE Feith, 49, is well-known on the Washington legal scene. After a stint in the Reagan administration as a Middle East specialist, then as deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations, he moved successfully to the private sector in the 1980s. Feith practiced commercial and international law for 15 years at his 16-lawyer D.C. firm, Feith & Zell — one of the few U.S. firms with affiliated offices in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Between 1999 and 2001, Feith was board chairman of the Center for Security Policy, a D.C. think tank that served as a virtual shadow government for former GOP defense officials during the Bill Clinton years. Many of these officials are now back in government, including Feith, who was confirmed in 2001 to his post in the current Bush administration. In addition to the democracy-building task, the reconstruction office has been handed the assignments of rebuilding Iraq’s physical infrastructure and coping with what is anticipated to be a serious refugee problem. The office has quietly bulked up to 200 employees, including civilians on loan from the departments of Agriculture, State, Justice, and Treasury; the Agency for International Development (AID); and other branches of the government. The reconstruction office is headed by retired Army Maj. Gen. Jay Garner, who reports to Feith. Last week, the office relocated from the Pentagon to Kuwait in anticipation of a U.S. military victory, an event that would quickly put the group’s activities at center stage. Although definite plans haven’t been made yet, the government will almost certainly turn to outside advisers and contractors to help in the nation-building process. The American Bar Association, which has pioneered similar projects in post-Communist Eastern Europe and in Afghanistan, wants to participate in Iraq as well. “We will be available. We will respond to a solicitation from AID if we are asked,” says ABA President A.P. Carlton Jr. “We can help create courts, constitutions, legislatures, the whole rule-of-law infrastructure.” The ABA relies on volunteer lawyers who spend a year or more on the ground, drawing salaries of less than $1,500 a month for setting up courts of law and writing statutes. But since lucrative AID contract proposals will soon be on the table, the private sector is sure to jump in as well. D.C.-based consulting firms like Chemonics and Checchi & Co., which do economic and trade consulting, also have judicial reform and legal institution-building specialists, and the ABA sees them as its primary competition in places like Iraq. LIBERATION, NOT OCCUPATION But the new reconstruction office first has to decide what needs to be done, and when. Feith explained in the Feb. 21 press conference that the office grew out of a series of position papers and studies that had been under way for months in the State Department, the National Security Council, and elsewhere. “You’ve got to make sure that all of the stuff which was all basically briefings and papers can be something real on the ground, which means those people have to deploy to the country when the time comes and implement their plans,” Feith said. In congressional testimony on Feb. 11, Feith said the administration plans “to involve Iraqis as soon as possible” in setting up the post-Saddam government. “Our intention, in case of war, would be to liberate Iraq, not to occupy it,” Feith said. The Bush administration has given mixed signals on how quickly it plans to turn over power to Iraqis if Hussein is vanquished and the situation stabilized. The present plan is that rather than set up Garner as a military “governor,” the United States will appoint a civil administrator, probably a DOD civilian manager, to take charge until Iraqi self-governance is established. This process is expected to take several months. Garner has some experience in the area. He was the Pentagon’s top operative in providing humanitarian aid to the Kurds of northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. He retired in 1997 as assistant vice chief of staff of the Army to become president of a division of a California defense contractor that makes communications and targeting systems for missiles. Feith said in his congressional testimony that some possibilities for democracy building in Iraq could include a commission to write a new constitution, a judicial council to recommend legal changes to bring about the rule of law and protect human rights, or immediate town and district elections. But some scholars say the efforts have come later than they should have. “The administration is unfortunately only in the early stages of thinking this through,” says Hill of the Brookings Institution. “It’s an incredibly tall order, and one that requires a great deal of patience. You have to have grass-roots developments first. There’s no one there to run the institutions, unless you plan to deploy thousands of Americans.” Other thinkers point out that if post-war Iraq turns out to be a lawless place ruled by local warlords, it won’t be possible to build legal and political institutions. And unless the message gets through to the entire nation, even the best-intentioned efforts will fail, they say. “After the walls came down in Eastern Europe, half the lawyers in the United States thought they could be James Madison and write a constitution,” says Charles William Maynes, president of the D.C.-based Eurasia Foundation, which funds programs to build democratic and free-market institutions in the states of the former Soviet Union. “That’s OK,” Maynes says, “but it’s just top-down. [For Iraq,] you can do that from an office in Baghdad. You can do that from Washington. But you have to be out there in the towns, too. Who’s telling people there what to do — the legal code or some local governor?” But the ABA’s Carlton replies that the fact that “it’s a tough row to hoe doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.” Neil Kritz, director of the Rule of Law Program at the U.S. Institute for Peace, a small government agency that advises Congress and the executive branch on conflict resolution, says investment in legal reform “is inexpensive compared with almost any other infrastructure task. And that small investment pays off. If you don’t get the rule-of-law piece straight, you can win the battle and lose the war.”

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