Thursday, August 30, 2007

Scoring points

David Ignatius wrote in the WaPo this morning something pretty misleading about the run-up to the January 2005 Iraqi election. (This was the election to choose a constituent assembly to write a constitution; it was a later, Dec 05 election, that resulted in the current Parliamentary membership). Ignatius says the CIA, which backed Allawi, said Iran was covertly supporting the Shiite parties, and there was a need to do something about that:
To counter this Iranian tide, the CIA proposed a political action program, initially at roughly $20 million but with no ceiling. The activities would include funding for moderate Iraqi candidates, outreach to Sunni tribal leaders and other efforts to counter Iranian influence. A covert-action finding was prepared in the fall of 2004 and signed by President Bush. As required by law, senior members of Congress, including Pelosi, were briefed.

But less than a week after the finding was signed, CIA officials were told that it had been withdrawn. Agency officials in Baghdad were ordered to meet with Iraqi political figures and get them to return whatever money had been distributed. Mystified by this turn of events, CIA officers were told that Rice had agreed with Pelosi that the United States couldn't on the one hand celebrate Iraqi democracy and on the other try to manipulate it secretly.

Ethically, that was certainly a principled view. But on the ground in Iraq, the start-stop maneuver had the effect of pulling the rug out from under moderate, secular Iraqis who might have contained extremist forces. (Asked about the withdrawal of the intelligence finding, spokesmen for Rice and Pelosi declined to comment.)

It didn't exactly happen that way, if we are to judge by a piece written in July 2005 about this same incident by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker. He wrote that by fall 2004 the State Dept was already involved in handing out money to influence the election, but supposedly the President rejected that approach in favor of a more clandestine one. He writes: the same time period [fall 2004], former military and intelligence officials told me, the White House promulgated a highly classified Presidential “finding” authorizing the C.I.A. to provide money and other support covertly to political candidates in certain countries who, in the Administration’s view, were seeking to spread democracy. “The finding was general,” a recently retired high-level C.I.A. official told me. “But there’s no doubt that Baghdad was a stop on the way. The process is under the control of the C.I.A. and the Defense Department.” It is not known why the President would reject one program to intervene in the election and initiate another, more covert one.
In any event, there was a signed Presidential Finding, according to both accounts. And both accounts say Pelosi, briefed on the Finding according to law, objected. But here's where the stories differ sharply. Ignatius says the operation was in fact stopped, CIA agents asked their Iraqi contacts for their money back, and "mystified" CIA officers were told the program had been halted because of objections from Pelosi and Condoleeza Rice. Not so at all, according to Seymour Hersh's account. Hersh wrote:
Sometime after last November’s Presidential election [Nov 2004 US presidential election], I was told by past and present intelligence and military officials, the Bush Administration decided to override Pelosi’s objections and covertly intervene in the Iraqi election. A former national-security official told me that he had learned of the effort from “people who worked the beat”—those involved in the operation. It was necessary, he added, “because they couldn’t afford to have a disaster.”
In other words, the CIA attempt to covertly influence the outcome of that election went ahead (and was unsuccessful in any event). Which makes Ignatius' version of those events look like a crude piece of disinformation designed to make the Democrats in some sense responsible for the current chaos. The point being that yes, Pelosi did object to covertly buying elections, but in point of fact the objection was overruled and the vote-buying went ahead anyway. The Netroots exploded over this, with denunciations by Matt and Atrios, in addition to several lesser individuals, and even the great Markos himself, who says in his judicious way, "this is all horseshit being peddled by Allawi's expensive lobbying firm in DC".

We don't get that too often, the white-hot, extatic rage. But notice what the actual reasoning is. Ignatius has slanderously suggested that the Democrats' principled opposition to vote-buying was in any way effective. It wasn't! The manipulation went ahead as planned. Thus do the Netroots score a point for the Democrats. So it goes.

(I took down an earlier, much more confusing, rendition of this point. Apologies to commenter Dan, whose informative comment also got washed away in that).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interestingly both versions of the story illustrate how the proportional representative electoral system Iraq currently enjoys minimises the impact of vote buying.

Vote buying can only really have effective impact in district first-past-the-post votes, where the "buying" can be targeted in favour of specific candidates by buying off specific interest groups district by district. It has minimal impact on "party list" voting in a system where parliamentary representation is allotted neutrally according to the percentage of vote received.

If Allawi's party received covert CIA financial support in the Dec 05 it didn't do him much good. Similarly the Iranians would also have wasted their money. The seats Allawi lost between Jan and Dec 05 went directly to the Sunni parties; as did the seats the UIA (Shiite) lost. The reason was that the Sunni parties contested the second election, whereas they boycotted the first.

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Once again highlighting rifts in Washington as much as anything. We shouldn't forget the power of the crude in these events and note that the USA's man for PM following the undermining of Jaafari was none other than Adil Abdul-Mahdi. We may need to search around for a while to understand why but Antonia Juhasz with her tenacious reporting on this subject gave us what you wouldn't see in the NYT or WaPo.

December 22, 2004: Iraqi Finance Minister Mahdi, in a joint press conference with U.S. Undersecretary of State Alan Larson at the National Press Club, announced Iraq's plans for a new petroleum law to open the oil sector to foreign private investment. Mahdi explained, "So I think this is very promising to the American investors and to American enterprise, certainly to oil companies."


7:34 AM  
Blogger badger said...

You're right. He's somebody people are forgetting at the moment. Khalilzad was pushing hard for the UIA to nominate him Prime Minister back in the Jan-March 2006 period following the elections. And here's the link to that very informative profile by Antonia Juhasz.

10:34 AM  

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