Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

  Who's to blame that Maliki can't govern?

The secret November 8 memo by National Security advisor Stephen Hadley, just published by the NY Times, tries to identify a plan under which the Bush administration can work with Nouri al-Maliki to establish some kind of order in Iraq. Hadley identifies three basic problems from which all the others arise: (a) We can't fully trust Maliki's intentions; (b) Maliki favors Shia power and is distrusted by Sunnis; (c) Maliki's own base of political support is so small that he is a hostage to Sadr's coalition of Shia radicals.

Dating from the day after the election, the memo reveals a welcome new seriousness of purpose and relative candor about the scope of the problems we face in Iraq. But it begs some obvious questions:

Why weren't these problems addressed long ago? And who's to blame that such an inappropriate candidate became Prime Minister in the first place?

The answer to both questions, of course, is George Bush.

It was abundantly clear the moment that Maliki's name was floated as the favored "compromise" candidate that he was likely to turn out a disaster. I had never heard of the man, which seemed a little odd in itself, so that evening of April 21st I did perhaps two hours of research on the man's career and on that basis posted a commentary predicting Maliki would be disastrous ("Abrasive and inflexible" is better than nothing). It was really that easy to see, from what little information that was publicly available, that Maliki was a terrible choice to lead Iraq out of the chaos.

Unmitigated good news. Except that there are one or two small doubts nagging at me. There is the odd fact that until quite recently the Sunnis and Kurds both regarded al-Maliki (his real name is Nouri Kamel) as an extremist Shiite.

Just one day ago, Sunni Arab leaders and Kurdish officials had expressed a preference for the other Shiite politician who had been considered a strong candidate for nomination as prime minister, Ali al-Adeeb. They had described Mr. Maliki as too sectarian and inflexible to win wide support among other political groups.


Another description of al-Maliki caught my eye as well, in the NYT sidebar: "Some rival coalitions see him as abrasive and inflexible." Those qualities must be a great advantage in certain government positions, I have no doubt. Yet I do have to wonder whether they are quite the right qualifications for a prime minister. Given that the country is riven by sectarian divisions, his selection may have been a tad too hasty.

There's also the fact that al-Maliki was an exile for 23 years, who returned only after the invasion. That almost guarantees that personally he does not have a broad base of support in Iraq. In fact, until today he was also virtually unknown outside Iraq as well.


I went on to explain that the reason a "compromise" candidate had been sought for so long was that the Bush administration objected to allowing the current Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, to continue in that position. Jaafari had given indications that he might just renew his call for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from Iraq, which Bush was intent on blocking.

You see, the identity of the new Prime Minister was our choice to make, or at least to exercise a veto over.

So who was fool enough to settle upon a man such as Maliki, an obscure operative who had so little political support in Iraq that he would almost inevitably turn out to be a puppet of whomever he owed his selection to?

The collapse of Iraq under Maliki is the predictable consequence of his appointment, and George Bush bears primary responsibility for it. Here is how Hadley assesses the core problem:

The above approach may prove difficult to execute even if Maliki has the right intentions. He may simply not have the political or security capabilities to take such steps, which risk alienating his narrow Sadrist political base and require a greater number of more reliable forces. Pushing Maliki to take these steps without augmenting his capabilities could force him to failure — if the Parliament removes him from office with a majority vote or if action against the Mahdi militia (JAM) causes elements of the Iraqi Security Forces to fracture and leads to major Shia disturbances in southern Iraq. We must also be mindful of Maliki’s personal history as a figure in the Dawa Party — an underground conspiratorial movement — during Saddam’s rule. Maliki and those around him are naturally inclined to distrust new actors, and it may take strong assurances from the United States ultimately to convince him to expand his circle of advisers or take action against the interests of his own Shia coalition and for the benefit of Iraq as a whole.

If it is Maliki’s assessment that he does not have the capability — politically or militarily — to take the steps outlined above, we will need to work with him to augment his capabilities. We could do so in two ways. First, we could help him form a new political base among moderate politicians from Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and other communities. Ideally, this base would constitute a new parliamentary bloc that would free Maliki from his current narrow reliance on Shia actors. (This bloc would not require a new election, but would rather involve a realignment of political actors within the Parliament). In its creation, Maliki would need to be willing to risk alienating some of his Shia political base and may need to get the approval of Ayatollah Sistani for actions that could split the Shia politically. Second, we need to provide Maliki with additional forces of some kind.


Well if pie was going to meet sky at all in Iraq, why were the two of them not introduced to each other back in April before Maliki was hand-picked to replace Jaafari? Why did it require a disastrous defeat in the Nov. 7 election for this administration to consider the problems inherent in imposing a political outsider—even worse, a recently returned exile—upon a badly fractured country?

Already by April, when this foolish choice was made, the emerging Iraqi government had become a patchwork of fiefdoms centered upon dozens of ministries, each with its own "defense" forces, handed out to powerful, warring political factions as the spoils of victory in the election. In such circumstances, a prime minister without his own substantial base of support would barely be able to hang onto his office much less bring the entire country under his sway. He would be a titular head of state, much like the early medieval kings of Europe who clung to their own domains mainly by staying in the good graces of their own barons, each having his own powerful army.

But George Bush did not have to understand anything about how feudal societies function in order to see that Maliki was going to become increasingly marginalized. All he needed to do was look at our recent past. In Vietnam in the 1960s, too, we interfered repeatedly by helping to remove or install presidents, seeking a reliable puppet. In the end, after the American-backed coup against President Diem in 1963—because he appeared to be willing to compromise with North Vietnam—we ended up being stuck with the notorious President Nguyen Van Thieu. His corruption was legendary, but what is often forgotten is that he was also very much the outsider. He had been trained and sided with the French against his countrymen during the first phase of the war in Vietnam. Thieu was in many ways a hostage to his own position; just as Maliki, he was loathed and resented as a puppet of the U.S., unable to exercise much authority even if he had wanted to do so.

All of this George Bush ought to have known. A shame he never served in Vietnam, because he could not have failed to have seen how a puppet-regime collapses from within. And Bush would not have needed to travel to Amman to discover that, in the end, despite all the the interference, his plans easily turn to dust.

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