The Bremer Chronicles: The Two Ayatollahs

One of the great stories that former Illini football coach Ray Eliot told us as new freshmen was the story of Alan Ameche and Ray Nietschke. Wisconsin has arrived in Champaign’s Memorial Stadium with a powerhouse team, led by All-American Alan Ameche. A spirited Illini team turned the game into an even match. Wisconsin was threatening to score. On the field, Nietschke yelled “Send Ameche at me!” It was a war call.

Wisconsin answered by sending Ameche right at Nietschke, and Ray stopped the powerful player. The moral: sometimes you have to challenge your opponent to run right at you–”and stop him. We need a little of Nietschke’s boldness in Baghdad–”and we don’t have it.

A similar morality tale is playing out between the two ayatollahs: Ayatollah Paul Bremer and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

December 2nd’s Washington Post reported that Bremer was lobbying hard against elections in Iraq. Like then-candidate Ronald Reagan, I have to say “There you go again.” Bremer has responded to Sistani’s challenge by creating a game Bremer can only lose.

First, let’s look at Sistani. He has been a good ayatollah by anyone’s measure. He stalled Shiite Iraqis from defending against the American invasion. Not only lives were saved; whole cities were spared. So Ayatollah Sistani is no knee-jerk opponent. He may have his own agenda, but he has proven to be reasonable, as well as resolute.

Second, Bremer. Yes, him again. I wrote my first attack on Bremer’s leadership years ago, back in June, 2003. Even then Bremer’s prissy mode of leadership boded ill for the future. Notwithstanding that President Bush likes Bremer, and the White House slammed me by implication a week ago, I still do not like Bremer. “Ambassador” Bremer has repeatedly made wrong decisions, isolating the U.S. mission, and setting up a potential disaster next year. What’s not to criticize?

Why is Bremer “intensely lobbying” against elections? Among a seemingly endless menu of choices to choose from–”of stupid U.S. policies and decisions–”the effort to prevent elections ranks among the stupidest. It is “world class” stupid.

What the bad guys in the Middle East fear most is elections. Free elections. We have been in Iraq for almost eight months and we have not taken one step, not one step, to hold elections. What a disgrace. We have fumbled the ball into the hands of Ayatollah Sistani and–”being given the ball–”he is holding on tightly. Sistani has become the advocate for elections. For shame, Mr. Bremer.

If I win the Illinois primary in March, the first thing I am going to ask president Bush is: hold elections in Iraq. Stop stalling. Let our opponents take their case to the Iraqi people. We will take our case to the same people. Let the chips fall where they may. There are no guarantees in government, only risks. How you manage risks determines whether you win or lose. Bremer is incompetent at managing risk.

Iraqi elections would electrify the entire world, not just Arabs. Everyone. It would be a bold, confident step. It would do more to undermine the “regime remnants” than the Phyrric victory Americans are celebrating in Samarra. We need to hold elections, and we need to invite the U.N. to supervise them. It is the ultimate exit strategy.

The baloney we are fed by Bremer, that it is too complicated to hold elections, is just that, baloney. Bremer cowers in his “palace,” hiding from the Iraqi people, and telling them they are not competent to vote. Pathetic.

Elections would force the Ayatollahs out into the open: either put up or shut up. They could not hide behind cryptic messages. They would either have to jump in or stay out. It would be a free for all. There would be some violence and, no doubt, constant attacks from the Saddamites. But we would be risking American lives to do something real, something positive. Saddamites fear elections more than anything else.

Because elections confer legitimacy. The lingering suspicion that the 2000 presidential election was rigged by the U.S. Supreme Court still robs President Bush of some of the legitimacy had he won–”and he would have won–”fair and square. Nothing confers legitimacy like elections. We see it every day in democratizing nations. People want to vote. They want to choose. They want to hold the power of the ballot in their hands.

And Ayatollah Bremer is doing everything he can to deny Iraqis this power. The ultimate power. Because he’s afraid of the outcome. If we are afraid to meet the Iraqi people as equals, as decent human beings, who we can trust and take into our confidence, no amount of shooting will ever confer legitimacy on the U.S. mission or those who support it.

So I say to Ayatollah Bremer, and to President Bush: Let the elections begin! Stop stalling the vote! Stop trying Chicago tactics. Stop making a joke of America’s great power and great gift to the world: freedom to choose and, occasionally, freedom to make a mistake.

Or as Joan Rivers might put it to “Ambassador” Bremer: Let them vote already!

America will be stronger, the world will be safer, and Bush will look like a champ, not a chump.

My last word to the Ayatollahs: send your best at us. We don’t want to kill Iraqis who oppose us, we want to give life to democracy. We want to see you face choices, make difficult decisions, be challenged, compromise, and start acting like part of the real world, not Saddam’s world. Elections would be the final nail in Saddam’s coffin. It’s a pity our leaders can’t see that. Maybe Ayatollah Sistani can.