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Sovereignty-lite: The Devil is in the Details
John Negroponte, a veteran enabler of human rights abuses,
to head up post-handover operations in Iraq

by Bill Berkowitz
May 27, 2004

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Iraqis are ready to "take the training wheels off."

-- President George W. Bush, presidential pep talk
to Republican Party lawmakers, May 20, 2004

On Thursday, May 20, President Bush high-tailed it over to Capitol Hill to give his sagging troops a pep talk on Iraq. Four days later, the president went to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., and tried the same elixir in a prime-time address to the American public -- the first of six speeches on the handover of so-called sovereignty to the Iraqi people to be delivered before June 30. The Washington Post called Bush's new campaign "a tightly orchestrated public relations effort."

The president's Pennsylvania mission consisted of laying out a five-point transition plan aimed at convincing the American public and Iraqis that this blueprint for the future of Iraq is sound. The reality behind "full sovereignty," however, is that the U.S. will control the major military and economic decisions relating to the post-handover government.

Despite hastily-formed courts martial of low level troops geared toward bringing closure to the prisoner abuse story, the Abu Ghraib affair is still humming along as additional photos -- recently published by the Washington Post -- and new revelations of abusive practices at other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan come to light. Because of the media's focus on the prison-abuse scandal, in-depth attention to the June 30 handover of "sovereignty" is just now beginning to garner attention.

Case in point: The nomination of John Negroponte -- Bush's controversial ambassador to the United Nations -- to head up post-handover operations in Iraq recently sailed through the Senate practically unnoticed.

From the time the Bush Administration set the June 30 date, the American public has been fed the notion that some kind of handover of power to some body of Iraqis will lead to an improvement in the situation. What the administration had intended to be the final glorious stage of democracy implantation now seems like a desperate search for light at the end of the tunnel.

In a flip-flop of major proportions, the Bush Administration is now counting on a stamp of approval from the United Nations Security Council, a body it scorned repeatedly during the run-up to the war. UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi -- in consultation with the Iraqis and Robert Blackwill, an aide to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice -- has been called on to set the stage for the handover by selecting an interim government.

According to Bush, the new government will have a president, two vice presidents, a prime minister and more than two dozen ministers. Questions remain to be answered as to who these U.S.-appointed officials will be, and what they will be doing.

If a recent report in the Wall Street Journal is anywhere close to accurate, it appears that the Iraqis will not be doing much of anything significant: "As Washington prepares to hand over power, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer and other officials are quietly building institutions that will give the U.S. powerful levers for influencing nearly every important decision the interim government will make."

Recent "edicts" handed down by Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority "created new commissions that effectively take away virtually all the powers once held by several ministries." A newly established "security-advisor position" will take "charge of training and organizing Iraq's new army and paramilitary forces, and put in place a pair of watchdog institutions that will serve as checks on individual ministries and allow for continued U.S. oversight." CPA advisors will also remain active "in virtually all remaining ministries after the handover."

And many of these arrangements are not intended to be temporary. According to the Journal, U.S. and Iraqi "proxies will serve multiyear terms and have significant authority to run criminal investigations, award contracts, direct troops and subpoena citizens."

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines sovereignty as "supremacy of authority or rule, as exercised by a sovereign state" and "complete independence and self-government." This definition clearly conflicts with the CPA's recent actions.

Bush Administration officials also appear to be in quandary over what sovereignty means. Some officials are claiming that if the Iraqi interim government wants the U.S. out of Iraq, the U.S. will leave. Bremer has basically said as much. But he's also said that he can't envision a scenario where that might actually happen. Secretary of State Colin Powell has also stated the same ideas.

Several current members of the Iraqi Governing Council are angry at being cut out of the action. Since the new body will not make laws, control the country's natural resources, manage the country's purse strings, or have any authority over military operations, they see the process as a severely proscribed.

The now-damaged Ahmad Chalabi -- the council member that once was the darling of the Pentagon and the neo-cons' choice to head Iraq, whose residence was raided by Iraqi and U.S. forces in late May -- told the Arab television station Al-Arabiya: "We tell him [top U.S. administrator Bremer] that Iraqis should have a bigger role in security, we tell him that Iraqis should have a bigger role in taking financial decisions, we tell him that Iraqis should have a role in running the Iraqi reconstruction fund."

"I think the sovereignty will be weak and not complete," Mahmoud Othman, another member of the Iraqi Governing Council, told the Associated Press.

Negroponte of Iraq

The man who will preside over the uncertainty of the handover is John Negroponte, who as the U.S.'s UN ambassador was present for all the discussions and deliberations leading up to the Iraq war. Negroponte was at Secretary of State Colin Powell's side when the Secretary made his now-discredited case for invading Iraq in February 2003.

"The ambassador to Iraq," who will be presiding over a staff of nearly 3000, including 1500 or so Americans, "will be at the epicenter of international efforts to secure and reconstruct Iraq and provide the developing Iraqi government with the opportunity to achieve responsible nationhood," said Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN.), who has been a strong supporter of Negroponte.

Negroponte, who has consistently denied there were human rights violations or death squads in Honduras while he was ambassador to that country during the early 1980s -- the first four years of Reagan Administration -- has been fast-tracked by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Lugar made it clear that unlike his 2001 confirmation hearings, there would be no embarrassing questions about Honduras asked this time around. In 2001, Negroponte told the Senate committee that he did "not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras" during the 1980s.

According to the's Nat Parry, "Negroponte also was accused of concealing information about these secret activities from the U.S. Congress, including information about Battalion 316, which was organized, trained and financed by the CIA. The battalion specialized in torture using 'shock and suffocation devices in interrogations,' according to an investigation by the Baltimore Sun in 1995. Prisoners were often 'kept naked and, when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves,' the newspaper reported."

"Some critics of Bush's Iraq policy have suggested that the choice of Negroponte as ambassador may foreshadow even more aggressive tactics against Iraqi insurgents," Parry recently wrote.

"If a country doesn't have the sovereignty to make national security decisions for itself and military commitments, then I'm not sure I would define it as a sovereign government," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., observed.

"A country that controls neither its military nor its finances cannot be called sovereign," said Svetlana Tsalik, director of the Open Society's Revenue Watch Project.

According to the Associated Press, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told a news conference on May 14 that in order for things to really change in Iraq, the new "government has to be in a position to manage its affairs, to handle the economy, the justice, manage its natural resources, manage the internal security forces -- at least the law enforcement officials. And also, it has to have a say in the use of multilateral forces that will be in Iraq from July until January," when elections are supposed to take place.

That's a far cry from the Bush Administration's plan.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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