Thursday, March 15, 2007

Spitting in the wind

Back in October 2006, Arab papers began reporting news of plans and threats by the Bush administration to topple Maliki and replace him with a "government of national salvation", complete with suspending the constitution, and so on. I reported that, but it was ignored everywhere else. Maliki was said to have dismissed this as pre-election (US congressional election) posturing, but it was enough of a concern that a confidence-building teleconference session was arranged. At about the same time, there was news of direct or indirect talks between the US and the Baathist resistance in Amman, followed by news of Maliki's displeasure with that development. National security adviser Hadley visited Maliki in Baghdad, and the reports of those talks were a little more explicit about the gathering hints: It appeared that, to some degree, Washington was shifting from an anti-nationalist (pro-federalist) to a pro-nationalist stance, or at least that Washington was sufficiently dissatisfied with the way Maliki was handling the situation to start threatening him with regime-change.

The execution of Saddam had a number of side-effects which can only have served to heighten Washington's concern with a process gone off the tracks. Arab-language papers carried reports that said the disgust felt by a lot of Sunnis was strengthening the armed resistance; and was further derailing the National Reconciliation process.

So far, this was a process that was described in the Arab-language press, and it is important to notice that this wasn't reported in any consistent way in the English-language press. Hopefully you get the picture: If you scroll through Oct, Nov and Dec in the missing links archives (in each month, the earliest is at the bottom, so you scroll up), you will see the history and how it evolved. The Bush administration, alarmed about the fact that Iraq was coming apart, developed a plan to threaten Maliki with being replaced by a government that would do the things Washington now understood were urgent: Reconciliation with Sunnis, ending sectarian infiltration of the government security apparatus, and if necessary suspending the constitution in order to do so. There were also reports about post-Rumsfeld Washington connecting the cleanup of the militias with withdrawal of its troops. And as soon as that became apparent, Abdulbari Atwan, writing in Al-Quds al-Arabi, pointed out the longer-term issue: This could well represent, he said, a last-ditch attempt to pacify Iraq, but only in order to smooth the way for the long-planned attack on Iran.

That pretty much set the stage for the current drama. At the Amman Bush-Maliki meeting, Bush gave Maliki his deadlines. The emergency-government hypothesis came to be personified in Allawi. The government, complying to some degree, started arresting Iranians, and taking other steps showing that SCIRI was no longer sacred territory. Sadr decided to take himself out of the equation. As the US and Allawi turn up the heat, you see Maliki even making an unprecedented visit to the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi (or at least to a US base nearby).

Given the history outlined above, you don't have to be a political scientist to understand that the Allawi scheme is part of current US policy to try and pacify the Iraqi situation in order to make possible some degree of orderly and face-saving US troop-withdrawal. The big question is: As Allawi tries to put together a coalition to make this regime-change as "legal" as possible, negotiations will be going on with respect to a number of questions, but the biggest question will be: What if any degree of commitment will be demanded, or obtained, from the US with respect to the troop-withdrawal part of this ? In this sense, what is going on now is a continuation of the sporadic negotiations that have gone on with various resistance groups respecting "joining the political process" in exchange for US commitment to withdraw its troops.

Within this broad picture, obviously there are a lot of very important specific problems. Will the parliamentary numbers permit this to be done "legally"? What about Sadr and the Shiite masses? And so on. But my point is that the broad picture has been distorted for English language readers, obscuring understanding of even the most basic points. The Allawi scheme has become like a UFO sighting. One report claims the US is violently opposed to it. Another ties it to passage of the oil law (even though it is Allawi and his friends that are blocking parliamentary discussion of the oil law).

Regrettably, the outline published yesterday by Marc Lynch didn't really help. By putting the person of Allawi ahead of the question of US policy, Lynch pretty much obscures the whole point of the exercise. His main points are that Allawi has a corrupt and violent history (true, but so does the Maliki administration); that this could inflame Shiites (true, that could be a major problem); that in sponsoring him the US would be commiting itself further when what people want is withdrawal (an interesting theoretical point considering the depth of the existing commitment), and that a coup would end "democratic aspirations" in Iraq (if it was a coup, it would certainly end the Bremer-to-Maliki history, if you want to call that "democratic aspirations"). What he doesn't explain is that this has been from the beginning an American initiative, and that its aim is pacification and reconciliation of Iraq sufficiently to permit a face-saving withdrawal. The question is can it be done in this way; and if it can, what comes next in terms of Iran. If it can't, what comes next in terms of Iraqi disintegration. It is discouraging to have followed this issue via some of the Arab-language coverage, to no effect. I am spitting in the wind.


Blogger Reidar Visser said...

Badger, I think you are covering an important track here. I just wonder whether Washington is sincere in the apparent revival of ties with Allawi. Allawi may have been visiting Riyadh, but Abd al-Mahdi was in Washington recently…It is not clear to me whether this policy is intended merely to put pressure on Maliki, or is a real attempt to push for his replacement. Perhaps the administration hasn’t made up its mind? Theoretically, a coalition that had Allawi and Fadila at its heart would certainly dovetail with Washington’s declared aim of a unified, non-sectarian Iraq.

10:43 AM  
Blogger badger said...

Good points, and food for thought. Having re-read some of the material, I think I would put it this way: The political logic in Washington (Democrats in 2008: "Republicans gave Iraq to our enemy Iran") and in the region (the problem of alienating the big Sunni regimes) mean that replacement of Maliki is more than a pressure-tactic, it has to be a medium-term goal. However, you're probably right about the shaky nature of the specific link to Allawi. I think you could say Allawi has unilaterally grafted himself onto the American strategy, and there isn't any actual evidence of US commitment to him, except circumstantial. It think that's perhaps where Washington hasn't made up its mind, and where the Mahdi visit with Bush makes sense. The composition of a new government is sort of open-ended (in Bush's mind), but at the same time I think the commitment to a new non-Maliki government, of some kind, at some time pre-2008, is bankable. Needless to say I could be wrong. (Now that you raised this, I do recall something, I think it was in Azzaman around the time of the Bush-Maliki meeting, where the Wasington correspondent was talking about the Bush administration "auctioning off" the Green-Zone government. I didn't get it at the time, but perhaps this was his idea). Naturally, from the resistance point of view, they would be bidding on something of no real value, but that of course wouldn't be the way Washington and Riyadh see it.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Badger, you ought to clarify what you mean by a face-saving withdrawal, namely a reduction of the military footprint, not a COMPLETE withdrawal - no one in Washington is contemplating that. The megabases will remain, come what may....

9:47 AM  
Blogger badger said...

"The military footprint", I like that. But seriously, you are right. Where I wrote "some degree of orderly and face-saving withdrawal", I probably should have been clearer and said "some degree of orderly and face-saving 'redeployment' that would qualify as 'withdrawal' for some political purposes". One has to be so careful these days...

10:21 AM  
Blogger annie said...

military footprint? its just another 'lillypad'

The U.S is "dedicated to strengthening those commitments and defending our interests for the decades to come. And we will do all in our power to protect and defend our homeland,"

cough, we aren't going anywhere, maybe just shuffling the deck chairs.

an excellent post btw, i have come back numerous times for the references ,links and timeline.

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Compulsive Reader said...

Watch out, Allawi is peddling his/our crap to the British:

9:29 AM  

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