Friday, November 30, 2007

A more plausible reading of US policy: Maliki "under control", leading Iraq to US-protectorate status

There are a number of left-over questions relating to the last year or so of Iraqi political history, among them: (1) Why exactly did Khalilzad and the US end up supporting Maliki for prime minister in spring 2006 in spite of Maliki's well-known Iranian connections; and (2) what was the meaning of all the subsequent newspaper leakage from Washington citing complaints about Maliki's "weakness" and "incompetence" and so on; not to mention (3) why did the US swing to the Sunnis take the form it did (arming Sunni tribes) rather than any effective Sunnification at the level of the Green Zone government. These are of course part of the Big Question: Whether the American policy has actually been to help dismember the country--including via the Maliki administration--or whether on the other hand there is still any sense in clinging to the idea that US policy "really" aimed at keeping the country together, but was plagued by mistakes and failures.

An important missing hypothesis in this question comes as part of a commentary by Haroun Mohammad in his regular op-ed in Al-Quds al-Arabi this morning (Friday November 30, it's on page 19 if you have to go to the archives for the pdf), his immediate topic being the agreement in principle signed by Maliki recently committing to long-term US military "support" for the Iraqi government, something this writer says will in effect turn Iraq into an "American protectorate" by the time Bush is ready to pack his bags for home. The agreement was the result of a 20-minute phone conversation between Bush and Maliki, no prior studies, no negotiations, no consultations, no nothing. Just like that.

What this shows, says Haroun Mohammad, is something important about the personality of Maliki, which is not only devoid of any kind of Iraq-national component, but is really devoid of anything else either, except for doing what he is told to do, in this case by the Americans. And he explains:
It is no coincidence that the American occupiers selected him to use as head of government...even though his connections to Iran were well-known, having fled there and spent a long time there. His connection to the Americans started to strengthen right after the occupation, for instance according to Dawa party sources, it was Paul Bremer who picked Maliki to be a member of the DeBaathification Commission and to be its general manager, in spite of the fact that the Dawa Party had proposed others in its leadership who had experience in the human rights file.

And according to people in Ibrahim Jaafari's circle, Maliki didn't vote for Jaafari as the party's candidate for Prime Minister [in spring 2006] but stood against him, even though he was his comrade in the party, and instead supported Adel Abdul Mahdi, then Jaafari's rival, once he [Maliki] found out the Americans didn't want the Jaafari administration to continue, and were leaning to Mahdi instead. ... And now [Jaafari] has been working for months to cure the party from the hegemony of Maliki, and to rescue it from the grip of the Americans, his followers say.
In other words, the Americans liked Maliki because he was at their fingertips, so when Mahdi was unable to garner the necessary votes, the nod went to Maliki, for his subservience.

In the same vein, Haroun Mohammad tells about a member of the former Allawi government, who went to Washington in 2005 to work as a "researcher" in a Washington think-tank, and he found out about the thinking behind the US support for Maliki.
[He told] how senior people in State, Defence, National Security and the CIA called him to a meeting in April 2006, during the crisis over the formation of the [current] government, and they asked him about his information and views on Maliki, who at the time wasn't yet a name among those being talked about as a candidate. He explained to them that Maliki was of modest [or insignificant] intellectual and political abilities, and he gave details about his political career and his connections with Iran and Syria. They said: "We know all that. We're asking you about his personal character. We would like you to put aside your prior attitude against him and talk to us objectively." He replied that his personality was weak and closed, and he proceeded to give them details on that point, to expressions of pleasure on the faces of all.

And this former official said when he told a number of his friends in Baghdad, including Allawi, that the Americans were going to support Maliki, they all had the same reaction: Surely you're joking.

A member of the Iraqi Accord Front says he heard with his own ears US Ambassador Khalilzad tell IAF leader Adnan Dulaimi: "Support al-Maliki, he is under control--" this was in May 2006 before completion of the composition of the current government. And there are many witnesses who can show that the Americans brought him [Maliki] and set him up as Prime Minister for their own purposes, thinking him a person who will carry out whatever they want and desire, without discussion. And in fact we have seen how American officials and members of Congress have dealt with him in ways that aren't even suitable for any human relationship, and they give him instructions and orders as if he were a flunky in some institution in Washington or California, without ever hearing any opposition not to mention the word "no". And this has led many American newspapers to call his performance "disappointing", "a failure", "unsuitable", and so on. And certainly these names didn't come out of nowhere, rather this was the gist of his character and his concerns and his abilities, as it was known beforehand. Because it is well known that the Americans reject having partners when it comes to running countries they occupy, rather they have only cooperators and those who submit to their agendas and their plans. So it is that we have seen Bush dictate to him the terms of this so-called American initiative...
And he goes on to elaborate on the absurdity of giving away a country's sovereignty based on a 20-minute phone call.

This seems almost self-evident. But having followed this issue for the last year or so, I would like to underline how this analysis of Maliki--seemingly very simple and straightforward--would actually give the lie to much of what has been written about this period of Iraqi political history. Because it has been popular in the media and elsewhere to file all of the Maliki-Bush events under the heading of Bush's stupidity in unwittingly giving the control of Iraq to an Iranian partisan; and to call for American withdrawal on the basis that political events there are out of control. The hypothesis outlined here--namely that Maliki is and has always been "under control"--would require a different reading, putting more emphasis on the idea that in fact the dismemberment of the country, which Maliki has done so much to promote, is part of the American strategy, not an index of its failure.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Jaafari group turns against knee-jerk federalism

Azzaman his morning (Tuesday Nov 20) headlines remarks by a spokesman for former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, a member of the same Dawa party to which current Prime Minister Maliki belongs. The Jaafari spokesman said Jaafari's wing of the party is going to form a "nationalist current" with participation of leaders of various religious, political and social groupings, which will function not as a political party, but as a grouping of
"...national [or "nationalist"] and social [or "socialist"] personalities along with organizations of civil (meaning not political-party) society, in a project aiming at putting an end to the sectarian antagonism, and having a national breadth and depth that doesn't lean to this sect of that."
The only specific programmatic point he mentions is that this new "current" will be opposed to any implementation of federalism based on sect, and furthermore it will stress that there needs to be ample consideration and reflection before any implementation of federalism on any other basis, whether geographic or what he calls "qaumiyya," which could mean a range of things, but probably here he means "ethnic".

The two stalwart members of the governing coalition, the Supreme Council and Dawa, were exile groups that returned to Iraq with the US invasion, and have been associated from the beginning with the American-sponsored sectarian character of the "new Iraq". Groups outside of the political process including the nationalist part of the Sunni resistance, and the anti-Qaeda tribes as well, along with the Shiite currents centered on Sadr and Fadhila, all have a nationalist core, so that even when they fight among themselves they are "fighting over competing versions of Iraqi nationalism," (borrowing a phrase from a presentation at the recent MESA conference in Montreal by Fanar Haddad of the University of Exeter) and not with the aim of defeating the other in the sense of breaking up the country.

What makes this new move by the Jaafari branch of the Dawa party noteworthy is that for the first time a substantial part of that stalwart US-sponsored sectarian bloc is defecting, in principle at least, to an overtly anti-sectarian and nationalist line in rebellion against the leader of their own party (Maliki).

By the way, I did make my way to the MESA conference, but since I was in learning mode and not in reporting mode I don't have a lot I can reliably report from there, except for this: The Brookingses and the whole Washington think-tank nation were nowhere to be seen, and they were not missed. In fact (or rather mostly just as a feeling), it seems that whole Washington cabal that argues back and forth about US military strategy and calls it "Iraq" is held in considerable contempt by the scholarly community. One commenter remarked after a particularly fact-filled panel discussion on how different this was from what normally goes down in Washington, "and I am not talking about people in Iowa who have maybe heard of Iraq, I am talking about the people who drive US policy. Maybe what they should do is just 'recognize the right of Iraq to exist'". It was the kind of remark that stays with you for its many meanings.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The other military-policy debate, the one about Iran

Here's another discussion about US military policy in Iraq, not about withdrawal of conventional forces, but about the implantation of non-conventional forces to confront Iran, a debate that is time-sensitive because in order to carry out this kind of preparation there's nothing better than the "distractions" and the cover provided by the conventional forces, so the idea is that this should get well under way before they leave.

David L. Grange is a retired US Army general, president and CEO of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, and founder and president of a Washington-based special-ops boutique called ViaGlobal Group. When he talks military policy and minimizing media coverage of the important points, we should listen.

With a co-author, and with input from several members of "the special forces community," Grange has written an essay called Confronting Iran: Securing Iraq's Border: an Irregular Warfare Concept. In the section headed "Moving forward", Grange says the Executive Orders signed by Bush, such as the one designating the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, "allow a more aggressive approach against Iran." And in particular:
Through these Orders, some effective options to defeat Iranian influence include: Information Operations, Unconventional Warfare, Zones of Separation (ZoS) and Demilitarized Zones (DMZ), [and relevant factors in doing this kind of thing will include] US Armed Forces Withdrawal, the Media, and Diplomacy.
Under "US Armed Forces Withdrawal", his point is not that these proposed special forces programs depend on US policy being for the continuation of regular forces operations in Iraq. Rather, his point is merely that in order to get started in border operations, the cover provided by having regular forces operations going on at the same time is key. He puts it this way:
The debate on proper SOF application in Iraq also hinges on when the US will pull out conventional ground forces. While conventional forces challenge some unconventional initiatives and disrupt some counterinsurgency operations, SOF personnel and adtivities can benefit from hiding and blending among the large force activities to screen sensitive SOF movements. The conventional force distractions to media and insurgents can provide additional time to build SOF camps and communications networks, while large force elements still remain. SOF practitioners can gradually implement a plan that isolates their activities. SOF plans should commence immediately, provided [he means "while"] the conventional military elements remain in Iraq, while media coverage remains centered on conventional "surge" forces, Department of State security contractors, roadside IEDs, sectarian violence, and local car bombings.
In other words, this is a time-sensitive proposal. Now is the time, Grange is saying, to start implanting the camps and networks in the border regions, before the conventional forces leave, so that the SOF operations can take advantage of the cover provided by large-scale conventional forces operations, and the media "distractions" connected with their presence and operations. For Grange, in other words, the debate about US troop withdrawal has quite a different meaning from what the public is being let in on via the debates involving Colin Kahl and the others.

Back to the question of what types of activities Grange thinks will be permitted under the Bush Executive Orders, the first he calls "Information Operations". You can read the whole thing under that heading in the report, but in a nutshell what he says is that in addition to the US Executive Orders, the UN Charter permits embargos in cases of military aggression, and he says an "electronic embargo", taking down Iran's electronic communications with the rest of the world, would be much more effective than conventional embargos, and he adds:
Should Iran choose to counter such a UN-mandated (apparently referring to the Charter provision on embargos) embargo, with cyber attacks against the US or the West, it would open itself to large-scale military operations by the US, a US-led coalition, or--with UN approval--a UN force under Article 42.
In other words, war.

But even without the whole electronic embargo, he says there should be an information operations campaign using conventional means, including radio and so on, in order to spread disinformation and sabotage:
Content will be sewn [he means sown] in the form of sabotage, distrust, persuasion, impersonation, conformity [?], and ingratiation, and multiplied by widespread dissemination, expecially televisive [!] dissemination deeper within Iran's territory.
After going on a bit more about information operations, Grange turns to Unconventional Warfare (UW). He talks about the US Defence Dept definition of UW, and he recalls the US used the Kurds in this type of thing in support of the Shah of Iran in the 1970s (observing by the way that the Mujahedeen e Khalk could be another surrogate currently), talks a bit about the experience in Laos, then says:
Through UW, the US can perform a similar broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, conducted through indigenous or surrogate locals, to accomplish subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, agent recruitment, and guerrilla warfare...
And this isn't intended as some kind of a temporary set of operations either. Grange envisions a special operations regime implanted in the border area for many years to come. He puts it this way:
The duration of SF stay should be committed in terms of years...Long stay activities win hearts and minds, and generate trusted information sharing...Trust is built through years of SF presence through unabated medical, construction, engineering and educational assistance...These schools should focus on children in order to create future relationships, and build immediate communication bridges and area sensors for adversarial movement information.
Under "Media", Grange's main point is that efforts should be made to minimize press coverage of the Special Forces operations, taking care to try and avoid the outright fabrications and lying that hurt credibility in the VietNam war. Reporters and news organizations should be continually reminded that coverage can adversely affect the troops, and when that reporters are wounded it is an additional drain on resources.

You can read all this and more at the SmallWarsJournal website linked to above. And if you should be a government official thinking of taking him up on the "electronic embargo" idea, you know where you can turn: As it happens, just that kind of thing appears to be one of the specialities of Grange's Washington-based firm, ViaGlobal, which says on its website:
Information Operations

In today's world, we no longer deal principally with threats and challenges from nation states that respond to the traditional levers of military, diplomatic, or economic influence. The new paradigm requires an organization able to:

- Anticipate Conflicts or State Failure
- Shape Events or Mitigate Effects
- Utilize Non-Kinetic Influence

Information Operations have become essential and necessary tools of U.S. diplomacy, military effectiveness and international business. Dealing with today's threat requires:

- Knowledge of the Human Terrain
- Understanding Cultural Nuances
- Skills to Effectively Influence the Enemy and Those Who Support Them

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Another contribution to the discussion

If you feel as I do a certain sense of ideological sameness in the recent expressions of Democratic Party views on Iraq strategy ("nation, not ours, unfortunately but irremediably falling apart in Hobbesian chaos, alas how can we help") perhaps you will find the Al-Quds al-Arabi lead editorial this morning (Thursday Nov 15, p 19) refreshing (wrong word). I am trying to find the right Washington expression: Perhaps you will find in it a more nuanced view (that's better). Or at least one offering a little more historical context.

The editorialist draws a parallel between the Sunni-Sunni fighting (reflected in AQ versus the "awakening councils", IAI versus AQ, and now the Sunni Endowments board militia versus AMSI) and the Shiite-Shiite fighting pitting the national Sadrist movement against the Iranian-leaning Badr Corps, and reflected more broadly in the collapse of the parliamentary UIA coalition, which the editorialist sees as imminent, if it hasn't happened already. The Americans, he says, are observing these developments with satisfaction. But he adds:
The American feeling of ecstasy over these great accomplishments might be somewhat exaggerated, or premature. The current reversals in the map of alliances, and the developing rapprochement between the American forces and some of the Iraqi tribes and Sunni groups might not be that long-lasting. The history of the tribes is full of reversals of alliances, and shifts from one extreme to the other, and there is the greed of some of these tribal leaders for money, and the fact that the gratification of one tribal sheikh can lead to the anger of another, and on. But perhaps the most important point is this: Just as the American alliance with the Shiite groups led at the beginning of the occupation to an escalating rebellion and resistance in the so-called Sunni Triangle, this new alliance with some of the Sunni tribes can lead to a broadening of the circle of resistance in the milieu of the various Shiite camps. It is possible that the explosion caused by a large roadside bomb just outside the Green Zone yesterday could be the warning bell for what the state of the capital could be in the weeks and perhaps the months ahead, following the recent brief period of calm. Which could turn out to have been the calm before the storm whose whose clouds are now gathering.

A parable

From this morning's Al-Quds al-Arabi (Thursday Nov 15, p 1):

The director of the southern-region office of the Iraqi Human Rights ministry, Mahdi Tamimi, said his ministry rejects what the American forces have done at their Camp Bucca prison camp, segregating prisoners on a sectarian basis, because of trouble-making elements that have caused sect-based violence. Tamimi said:
This is alien to Iraqi society whether on the street or in a prison. We have worked hard in many meetings with the Americans to see that we isolate those individuals who are responsible for starting sect-based troubles. And this is the view of the ministry and of his excellency the minister, that Sunni and Shiite prisoners are treated the same, and that we segregate those who start the trouble. The ministry is opposed to segregation on a sect basis, but agrees to segregation of the troublemakers and those who help them.

A good start ?

Having a discussion is always better than having no discussion at all, and the recent series of posts and comments on the Abu Aardvark blog included some interesting points for policy-buffs. But that is quite different from initiating a thoroughgoing debate about what Democratic Party policy in Iraq (or the related Mideast region issues) should be, or what kind of changes the party should offer to the electorate. Perhaps it was a start, but there was a disturbing amount of ambiguity and unclarity. For instance:

(1) Were the posts intended to be blueprints for a Democratic Party strategy for Iraq, or were they recommendations for policy in the remaining months of the Bush administration? It appears participants were cross-purposes about this. Lynch presented the discussions as "from within the heart of current Democratic Party thinking about Iraq..." suggesting this was about what the next-administration policy should look like, and commenters clearly thought this was what it was about. But Colin Kahl, in response to a comment, points out that his argument (which was actually the main focus of the other comments) for only a partial draw-down and for using the prospect of further draw-downs as a bargaining tool was only meant to apply to the remaining months of the Bush administration. If that didn't work, then quite probably he wouldn't disagree with the more-complete-withdrawal position proposed by Katulis and the Center for American Progress (CAP). As Kahl puts is: "If there is no political compromise on the two central national objectives (oil and provincial powers/elections) I emphasize by the late summer of 2008, then I suspect that the political environment will force the next administration to move toward a CAP-like position -- and this may indeed be the right position by Jan 09. It is simply not the right position now." So was the debate about what should be a post-Bush policy; or was it about what should be the policy in the waning months of the Bush administration.

For Kahl, what "may indeed be the right position" by the end of the Bush administration wasn't the subject of his piece at all. But the "strategic reset" essay that Katulis referred to clearly was intended to be about next-administration policy. So this was apparently at cross-purposes.


(2) It is true that the "strategic reset" essay correctly pointed out that US policy in Iraq is going to be tied to US policy in the region generally, adding that there need to be changes in that regional policy. In the argle-bargle of the profession, this was expressed as follows:
  • Initiate regional security and diplomatic efforts to contain and resolve Iraq’s conflicts while reshaping the geopolitical balance in the region.
  • Develop a realistic strategy to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and stabilize the broader Middle East.
In other words, be less belligerent overall. But generally the recommendations came down to the application of competent and "quiet diplomacy", the governing idea being that this switch from belligerent to less-belligerent should be done out of the limelight. And as far as the Kahl-Katulis discussion was concerned, it was so far out of the limelight as to be completely invisible. Disappointing for a debate between parties at the heart of current Democratic Party thinking...

(3) Even on key points of existing Bush-administration policy, there was less than the necessary clarity. For instance:

(a) The recent semi-secret meetings at a Dead Sea resort between parties said to include American mediators and people connected with the armed resistance were the subject of three recent posts of mine, but there has been absolute and total silence about the meetings from any Washington sources, whether conventional media or "progressive" national-security experts in the blogging world, or anywhere. Except that yesterday Marc Lynch included in his post a reference to this as having actually occurred, writing: "It is somewhat heartening that this grouping [referring to the Political Council for the Iraqi Resistance] is evidently being recognized and courted behind the scenes by Americans (at the secretive Dead Sea reconciliation track 2 meeting, for instance). But it isn't clear that those talks are going anywhere, and even if they do this isn't going to be easily integrated with the currently evolving power structure." He refers to this as a "reconciliation track 2 meeting", where apparently the expression "track 2" explains why nothing in English has been reported about this or about the followup. Having spent much of the last four years denigrating the Sunni resistance, the Americans are now trying to negotiate with them, so this would seem to be an extremely important point in policy discussions. But because it is so important, it is kept under a cloak of absolute silence.

(b) There is one point where Lynch provided an important insight. He writes:
The focus on the provincial elections really seems to be driven by the hope of creating what Kahl calls “better local representation (via new provincial elections) and enhanced powers for provincial councils." But I think it's worth calling this what it is: an attempt to empower an alternative, more compliant local-level leadership in the place of the factions which have claimed to represent the Sunnis by virtue of their armed struggle.
meaning that the focus on local elections is motivated by a desire to sideline the Sunni resistance groups and create a rival and more US-compliant Sunni elite. Lynch warns:
The promotion of alternative elites is always a risky business, one which sets up all kinds of problems down the road - think back to various Israeli efforts over the years to promote local leadership in the West Bank and Gaza (or Mohammed Dahlan for that matter), or South African efforts to promote alternatives to the ANC back in the Apartheid era.
An excellent point. The references to the West Bank and Gaza refer to early Israeli promotion of Hamas to act as a rival to Fatah, and more recently to the US-Israeli support for the Dahlan-wing of Fatah as part of a strategy to put an end to Hamas, a strategy that has resulted in the current Gaza crisis. This is a useful parallel to notice. But it is a point that deserves to be highlighted as part of the overall Bush-administration divide-and conquer strategy in the region, as a starting-point for talking about changes from that strategy.

The point being that if the Democrats are going to offer voters a clear alternative to the Bush strategy, at some point it would have to be spelled out in a clear fashion, without all the ambiguity about what is being talked about, without burying the important policy shifts in hush-hush secrecy, and with a much clearer delineation of what the existing strategy is, and how a new less-belligerent policy would differ from that. And how likely is that, you ask.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Philosophy and the Iraq War

I have noticed something in the year or so I have been doing this. (As readers will be surprised to learn).

What I have noticed is that certain types of Iraqi aims and ambitions and values are consistently hooted down by the American media-and-policy people as nothing more than rationalizations for power-grabs on the part of the people expressing them, or else are completely ignored. And yet certain other types of ideology or organized sets of values--namely religion and race-- are puffed up by the American media-and-policy people as the major motivating factors in Iraq and in fact as the standing in the way of implementing the benevolent and wise policies that the Americans had been proposing.

The first group includes Iraqi nationalism, Sadrist social-group loyalties or any other expression of social solidarity, along with regional loyalties of many types. These expressions of nationalist and other values are either completely ignored, or else debunked as mere "instruments" in a power struggle, not actual bona fide expressions of meaning. (In case you're wondering, I just read the last section of Charles Tayor's Sources of the Self, the Making of the Modern Identity Cambridge Mass, 1989). I gave a couple of examples of this kind of debunking in the earlier post called "What it's all about", and the point could certainly be further elaborated, but lets just leave it in this rather general form for the time being. These types of aims and ambitions and values (including such things as national, regional and group loyalties) are regularly either debunked in this "instrumentalizing" way, or else completely ignored.

And by contrast other expressions of values and loyalty and so on are not debunked, but on the contrary they are elevated to the status of the major motivating factors in the whole country, in fact in the whole region. These are sect (Sunni versus Shia) and to some extent race (Kurd and Persian versus Arab). What is the difference between these two classes of values, that causes them to be treated by the Americans so differently?

The first idea that suggests itself is that Sunni/Shia is the Americans' instrument in a power struggle, and in order to be used as an instrument, the Sunni/Shia theme has to be built up and armed, so to speak, not only with real arms, but also with ideological importance. Hence in the aftermath of the invasion the use of Chalabi and the others to harass Sunnis, and more recently we have the arming of Sunnis to provide "military balance" against the Shiites. This kind of policy wouldn't be even explainable if it were not that "Sunni" and "Shia" are touted as almost military or at least militant and powerful enemies of one another. For which of course there was no real pre-existing evidence at all, and for which the evidence has to be provided by this American media build-up of these. This is so not only in the media sense, but really in terms of arming the two sides respectively.

In other words, the American strategy has been to aggressively sideline anything having to do with nationalism, or social solidarity, or regional loyalty, or any of the other civic virtues that would be so highly praised and prized in any other situation, debunking all of this in Iraq as mere fancy words dressing up the respective groups' roles in a brutal value-free struggle for power. While at the same time the American strategy has been to elevate Sunni-versus-Shia and to a lesser extent racial loyalties to a level of supposedly decisive importance. (If you say this is only a reflection of what happened, you are begging the question. What happened was that the Americans invaded, and they invaded, if not with a particular strategy in mind, at least there was a strategy that was quickly developed).

And the American people have bought into this. People have been expected to believe, and have believed, that nationalism, social solidarity, regional loyalties, and so on, are, in the Iraqi case, essentially nothing but covers for respective roles in a brutal struggle for power. And people have been expected to believe, and have believed, that the struggle in question is "really" religious, that this religion (or these religions) are not a mere cover for anything, but are the real thing, the real motivating forces. (Now you will say that people are gullible and succumbed to the media bombardment, but again I would like to take a step back and see if that isn't another case of begging the question: Why were people ready to believe that?)

Here's a proposed explanation for that part of it: People feel, as part of their overall moral upbringing, an obligation to be universally benevolent and good to one another, and in the Iraqi case the only way to justify the brutality of the invasion and the occupation was to buy the idea of "promoting democracy". Democracy is a "secular" value, an expression of universal equality not dependent on religion or any other factor except for the people themselves. This idea of a pure and religion-free value, and more particularly the idea of "promoting" it in a far-away country like Iraq, carried with it from the beginning a heavy burden of hypocrisy. And when it went wrong, who to blame? Here's where the proposed explanation gets a little "philosophical". Who you blame is you blame those factors that historically had to be overcome in creating an ideology of democracy: primarily religion. You blame, primarily, "Sunnis" and "Shiites" as natural enemies of democracy (as was specifically done in the aftermath of the 2005 and 2006 elections). Never mind that "Sunnis" included nationalists and a variety of other more particular loyalties; or that "Shiites" included a variety of different social loyalties and affiliations. It was all, supposedly, the fault of the Sunni-Shia difference in religion. Certainly the media megaphone was responsible for a lot of the touting of this, but the point I am making is that perhaps there was a preexisting disposition in Westerners to go for this "blame it on religion" approach, as a reflection of the historical archaeology of their whole moral world.

(Charles Taylor, in the book cited above, talks about "benevolence on demand" as part of the moral world we have inherited ultimately from religion, often bearing with it a latent sense of hypocrisy, and he warns: "The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward. The bad, the failure is now identified with some other people or group. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated." p.516. The book was published in 1989. Pretty clear-sighted, I would say).

And if moral history can help explain the puffing-up of the Sunni-Shia theme as the scapegoat in the story, what about the other side of this? What explains the ease with which people have fallen for the idea that expressions of the other sets of Iraqi values including nationalism and regionalism and so on, have been nothing but instruments and weapons in a power struggle, as opposed to bona fide expressions of values? As I read some of the would-be debunking that has gone on over the last year or so, I get the feeling the debunkers think of this as something like hard-headed realism battling against the naivete of listening to hollow expressions of emotion-laden tradition and the like. In fact I myself have been the target of this "don't listen to their words, look at the killing they are all doing" type of objection whenever I have tried to propound what it was the nationalists, for example, were saying. These expressions of value are merely "rationalizations", and should be debunked, so the argument went, because all these types of "rationalizations", whether emotional or calculating, need to be debunked in principle. All that matters, and all that underlies those types of discourse, is the drive for power or a share in power, and deploying the tools and weapons for that, including these verbal weapons. (Of course those making the claim think they are exempt from that: What they say is a genuine and sincere expression of values, but what everyone else says is a rationalization or an emotional sideshow of some kind).

And here's the philosophical part: This debunking attitude is a distant but living remnant of the Enlightenment idea of the power of (what Taylor called) "disengaged reason" to beat back all the superstitions of religion and tradition and the rest of the bad old medieval world. This "disengaged reason" has had a long and complicated history, but certainly it lives on in various forms, and one of them is this idea of our ability to debunk expressions of mere tradition, authority, prejudice, and so on. But here, in this case, in the Iraq-war context, this debunking "reason" is turned against bona fide expressions of value, merely because these people are thought of as the enemy. It is another example of a living part of our moral history gone bad.

This is all very sketchy. But suppose the above discussion is basically right. Suppose both of these mass-mediated phenomena--the (knee-jerk) condemnation of Sunni/Shia as the obstacle to Iraqi democracy; and the (knee-jerk) debunking of what would otherwise be considered valuable civic virtues--suppose both of them reflect living parts of our cultural heritage, that have gone bad or more likely been manipulable and manipulated to help support the vicious demolition of a great nation and maybe a whole region. What would that mean?

I don't know, but for me what it suggests is that for America to have abandoned the study of its own moral and philosophical history--and the liberal arts in general--is possibly having effects that are far more destructive than some mere "loss of depth and richness in our lives".

And if you don't find the above general line of argument convincing, then how do you propose to explain the fact that Americans are at one and the same time against this war and occupation, and powerless to mobilize to stop it? Isn't it plausible to think that in some way or another (even if not in the ways I suggested here) the moral power that one assumes would be fired up in a case like this has been hijacked or disabled in some way? Is this not worth thinking about?

US versus Maliki?

Al-Quds al-Arabi says the standoff respecting execution of former Iraqi Minister of Defence Sultan Hashem seems to have produced something of a Sunni-American "deal".

Sultan Hashem is from the Tai tribe, the reporter tell us, a big tribe that extends from the ex-minister's hometown of Mosul in the north to Basra in the south. And Hashem is recognized by all of the armed resistance factions as a professional, who back in the day represented neither the Baath as a party nor any of its tendencies, but worked for the defence of the nation. Moreover Iraqi president Talabani is opposed to his execution. So in the current atmosphere of reported reconciliation discussions between the Americans and resistance spokespersons (quite apart from the question how exploratory or real these may be, or with whom, exactly), there would be ample reason to avoid igniting another round of sectarian rage such as followed the execution of Saddam. (And the reporter adds: "It is officers in the former Iraqi army who form the backbone of the armed resistance)". That is the background, says this Al-Quds reporter. (And as a matter of fact the general picture of a reconciliation atmosphere versus another provocation is the same as what the NYT suggested late last month about this issue).

The Al-Quds al-Arabi reporter has this to say about the pressure to go ahead with the execution anyway:
The two groups that are known to be hard-liners for the carrying out of this [death-sentence] decision are the Dawa Party (Prime Minister's party) and the Supreme Council [SIIC] which was founded in Iran in the mid-1980s, both of which incline to the Iranian position, which is known to want a settling of accounts with the Iraqi armed forces by way of revenge for the eight years war. At the same time, execution would represent the igniting of the sectarian fights, and it would be a moral and legal scandal whose consequences Washington has learned about in the case of the execution of former president of Iraq Saddam Hussein.
This isn't just another Baghdad-mediated tug-of-war between Washington and Tehran. Rather, the reporter says it has important implications for the direction of the Iraqi domestic scene. He puts it this way:
Observes see General Sultan Hashem as having become an index in the question of escalation or calming of the chronic sectarian fighting in Iraq. In spite of which, Maliki, and the tendencies he represents in the governing Shiite coalition, refuse to see this issue from that angle, and is pressing ahead for the execution of all three who have been sentenced to death.
There is another current dispute in the Green Zone, parallel with this one, and it is the question of how to deal with the recent resignation of five cabinet ministers from the Sunni bloc. Their resignations were intended as pressure on Maliki to do more to reconcile Sunnis, including implementation of a general amnesty for those in custody who haven't been convicted of anything. But Maliki appears to be taking this as another opportunity to stick his thumb in the eye of the Sunni bloc, by simply accepting the resignations. And names mentioned as candidates to replace them--according the the latest news in this same Al-Quds Al-Arabi article--include a renegade from the Sunni bloc as a deputy Prime Minister, Chalabi as Minister of Communications, and Sami al-Askari (who, among other things, used to be in Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress) as Minister of Transport. But as the journalist notes, this part of the story is still in its early stages.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The other Iraq

Our friend the historian Reidar Visser has a post on his website at that includes lengthy excerpts from the new book--An Iraq of its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?--co-edited by him and UK historian Gareth Stansfield. And when I say our friend, I am talking about those of us who are trying to understand Iraq from a perspective outside the vortex of Washington-beltway politics and the narrow sectarian narrative.

The theme of the book is first: that there are many regions on Iraq with deep historical roots and abiding local loyalties--and not necessarily uni-sectarian either--quite different in character from the artificial three big race- and sect-based divisions of the south the center and the north, famous as the centerpiece of the "Biden plan"; and secondly, there are many conceivable ways in which these regional loyalties could manifest themselves if the federalism legislation is actually implemented. And in connection with the second point, they stress that the actual legislation favors in several important ways the idea of smaller or medium-sized regions comprised of one or only a few existing provinces, and significant obstacles in the way of the creation of mega-regions. The process is scheduled to begin in April 2008, when the existing moratorium on the creation of new federal regions runs out.

They start with three illustrative examples of regionalism in contexts quite different from the Sunni-Shia-Kurd mentality. The introductory paragraph reads like this:

A closer look at the politics of Iraq since 2003 reveals the fascinating pervasiveness of regional identities in Iraq, even in the face of an increasingly hostile environment where foreign forces such as al-Qaida have sought to maximise the drive towards sectarianism. Among the Shiites, for instance, the first tentative pro-federal efforts followed precisely a regionalist formula – not a sectarian one. Based in the triangle of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar in the extreme south of Iraq, a project was launched in 2004 to amalgamate these three (mainly Shiite) provinces into an oil-rich federal entity that would have left the vast majority of Iraq’s Shiites (who live to the north) without much oil. The project continued to flourish in 2006, and formed an important but often overlooked dimension of the internal Shiite struggle that prompted Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki (himself a Shiite from central Iraq) to send troops to Basra as one of his first ministerial actions in May 2006. Similarly, in the area often described by Westerners as the ‘Sunni heartland’, attempts by US think tanks and advisers to encourage a territorial ‘Sunni’ entity have met with marked resistance. The mediocre local response to this federalism propaganda drive has almost universally been explained (again, by outsiders) with reference to the absence of energy resources in this region and the supposed lack of incentives for pro-federal attitudes. But elsewhere in the world, areas that are far poorer than the Iraqi north-west have produced vibrant secessionist and pro-federal movements. There is much to suggest that one factor impeding the crystallisation of a ‘Sunni’ region is territorial attachment to smaller units – often towns rather than whole regions as such. (Lately, foreign Islamists have become another advocacy group for a ‘Sunni’ region, but they too have met with resistance by their native brethren.) As for Kurdistan, many analysts argue that what was formerly often described as ‘internal regional tensions’ between eastern and western parts of Kurdistan are now a thing of the past. Nevertheless, the process of establishing a Kurdistan region within a federated Iraq is in itself an act of regionalism: Kurdish leaders thereby seek a pragmatic role for themselves as Kurds within an Iraqi federation, separate from the much wider Kurdish world, and at least partially in opposition to pan-Kurdish nationalist sentiment that calls for Kurdish unification on a far larger scale.
What about the current would-be Democratic Party programs represented so far by Kahl and Katulis? What do they have to say about these issues? The answer is in two parts: First, it appears some combination of common sense and having perhaps listened to Visser's consistent dissent from the Biden mantra, both of these proposals agree that a decentralized Iraq will not have the famous Biden shape or character. But the second part of the answer is that they don't say anything else about how federalism will or might affect American plans. They talk about "local" power structures, and they debate in the abstract whether or not it makes sense in terms of inter-sect stability to arm some Sunni tribes. But the conceptual framework is still Sunni versus Shia and the implementation ideas are primarily military. You can slog through this literature all you want (including the Kahl reply to Katulis and other related essays accessible by following the links), and I don't think you will find one single word on the potential importance of respecting bona fide regional ambitions as opposed to the sect- and race-based three-part idea. Which isn't surprising, given the fact that the very existence of these regional loyalties has been driven out of the discussion by the double megaphone of American divide-and-conquer ambitions, and the AlQaeda takfiiri depredations.

So to put it in a nutshell, what the Visser/Stansfield book tells us is that perhaps a "strategic reset" (Katulis' phrase) isn't going to be enough, and we could also use a "conceptual reset" (my expression). How likely is that, you ask?

To put the matter another way, this suggests a followup to my point in the prior post about the ultimately racist implications of nonchalant and off-hand blurring and smearing of what people stand for ("AQ=Sunni insurgent"; or "Shiia resistance=internal power-struggle"; and so on), and the crackpot "science" that goes with it. Namely that the aggressive sidelining of history and geography is another vice that, if the Democrats are going to be serious, ought to be corrected. How likely is that, you ask?

What it's all about

One of the things that happens in public discussions in America about Iraq and the Arab world is that there is a tendency for the decency and the humanity of the people being talked about to gradually get chipped away. This is not necessarily anyone's personal aim, although sometimes it is. By chipped away I mean that gradually people's impression of an Iraqi dissolves and degrades until it seems now about the only concept people have is of Iraq as a nation of animals, not some of them but all of them, poised to be at each others throats but for the calming presence of the US military.

We got to that degraded conception in stages. One of the stages was the conflation of the Iraqi national resistance with the takfiiri crazies of AlQaeda, and it was in that connection that I called attention to the problem in the case of Juan Cole, who was doing quite a bit of that (conflating, that is). It seemed to be just sloppiness, and the tacit explanation was always: AlQaeda, Baath, Sunni insurgents, what's the difference really anyway, they're all for indiscriminate violence, aren't they?

Another stage was the denigration of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr movement, and in that case the thing that made me hit the roof was a couple of bloggers with their jocular "Mookie" stories, depicting al-Sadr as mainly a crime-boss interested primarily in taking the shrine-revenues away from the Ayatollah Sistani and his group. Their theme was that the movement as a social phenomenon and more particularly its nationalist component, were largely cosmetic, the underlying assumption being that while what you and I say is to be taken at face value, the discourse of the likes of Sadr and Sistani is mainly a cover for financial objectives. And so it went. When I called attention to those cases, I didn't make my point very well, because all I was able to notice was the coincidence that what they were denigrating happened to be the main US military target at the time. And the issues looked uncomfortably personal.

And of course the corporate media was doing the same thing all the time.

What I wasn't able to spell out was really the nub of what has been bothering me, namely that the careless nonchalance and off-handedness about how these people and others discuss Iraqis, eventually leads to plain contempt. Or at least to a lack of the kind of direct grasp of the humanity and the decency of the human beings that we have involved in this catastrophe. What that, in turn, leads to is a tolerance for brutality. While people blame the media for no longer telling us about US military tactics, really it is the sensitivity that has worn off. Some will say that is normal over the course of time, but the argument is circular. And what I am calling this careless nonchalance and off-handedness in the public discourse about them has a lot to do with it.

The event that really crystallized this in my mind was the publication of a piece of crackpot science on an academic blog yesterday (see the prior post), the gist of which was to show that the engineering profession is overrepresented in "terrorist groups", and that the reason is that the "mindsets" of jihadis and engineers are similar. I am pleased to say that the vast majority of the comments on that blog were critical of the study, and for a variety of reasons. My reason was this: The study lumped together members of Hamas (80 people in the "sample", out of a total of 404), with other groups that presumably included actual cases of violent activity. All under the same "terrorist groups" rubric. And while the "share of engineers" was noticeably different between Hamas and non-Hamas, which was interesting in itself, the point was the audacity of taking one group that belongs to a national-resistance organization, conflating them with a group of essentially violent individuals, finding a common denominator (lots of engineers), and then interpreting that common feature in a denigrating way (supposedly both single-minded, hyper-conservative and prone to violence).

This kind of shabby argument clearly wouldn't wash if the subject was any other religious or ethnic group but Arabs and Muslims, and as I read it I realized that the procedure has the same kind of easy nonchalance and off-handedness that I have been talking about in those other cases. So what if some in the group are bombers and some are no more than members of a social movement. They are all Islamists! Radical Islamists! That was the argument. The parallel, in the sense of an anti-Muslim version of anti-semitism finally dawned on me.

Regrettably my objections weren't answered. Instead the presenter of this study launched a counter-attack. (I recall "stupid" and "quasi-paranoid" and there was more, from this professor). The gist of his defence seemed to be that the appropriateness of having Hamas in the study couldn't be discussed because it would be tantamount of a "dogfight" over Israel, and he has a policy against that. In other words, from my point of view, another case of: Hey, it's close enough for government work: Hamas, jihadis, what's the difference, really? The professor presumably being aware that in fact it makes all the difference in the world to differentiate these two competing groups, as American policy gradually squeezes Hamas thus pushing it in the radical direction.

In all of these cases the problem for me is in communicating the substance of what is involved, namely the dangers of continuing to tolerate what are seemingly only a slightly-offhand or only a tiny bit contemptuous treatment of Arabs and Muslims, as the process moves toward a form of full-blown racial and religious hatred. Maybe I'll get better at it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Science marches on

Academic group-blog Crooked Timber highlighted an "absolutely fascinating" statistical study of 404 Islamists (sometimes calling them Islamists and sometimes calling them violent extremists) showing that "they" are disproportionately of an engineering background. The report's conclusion was that probably (in addition to secondary sociological factors) there is something about the engineering "mindset", that is "given to simplification, monistic understandings of the world and a desire that existing social arangements be preserved..." (in the words of the absolutely fascinated presenter of this, Washington-based social scientist Henry Farell).

The "study" didn't distinguish between members of a progressive movement like Hamas (81 people in the sample out of a total of 404) and people you could genuinely call "violent extremists", a distinction that is obviously of the utmost importance for any real understanding that goes beyond stereotypes.* Instead they were all thrown carelessly into the same pot, and (after stirring in a good dose of prejudice about what engineering is all about) sure enough the conclusion was defamatory of all Islamists (and engineers as well, as at least one engineer noted in a comment: He said "Now I know what it must feel like to be a Muslim these days"). Nor was there any acknowledgment of the fact that Islamist groups in Palestine and elsewhere are to some degree at least the inheritors of the progressive instincts of the earlier secular-left movements. The innuendo about a hyper-conservative Islamist "mindset" prone to simplistic views and violence, as an explanation for the overrepresentation of engineers in this sample, was pure [word deleted by the blog administrator]. But the blog-owner Henry Farell, who called attention to this "fascinating" study, wasn't having any of it. In reply, he says the author of the study is "in the top two or three" world-wide, among "rational choice sociologists", suggesting his readers would be impressed by the structure of the academic hierarchy, if not the argument itself, and he added if there are mistakes in the study, "they're unlikely to be wrong because of stupid or obvious methodological errors." He didn't mention ideology.

My suggestion is that if you want illustrations of groups that are "given to simplification, monistic understandings of the world and a desire that existing [academic hierarchical] arrangements be preserved", you might want to take a peek at this kind of thing.

* In fact the Palestinians in the sample (mostly Hamas members) had the lowest share of engineers of any of the national groups, and the authors noted that "many engineers [in Hamas] are prominent in senior management positions with no technical [by which they mean bomb-making] functions". But they use this observation merely to bolster their point that it is the broadly conservative "mindset" that tends to attract engineers to "Islamism", rather than any narrow need on the part of groups for such "technical" skills.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Americans said to have proposed a six-month truce to the resistance groups

Al-Hayat says this morning that it has learned from "sources in the government and sources close to the armed groups" about a plan including a followup reconciliation meeting, to be arranged by the Iraqi Reconciliation Agency, but to be held under American and international auspices, along with a proposal for a six-month truce between the armed resistance groups and the American/Iraqi forces. The story begins like this:
Al-Hayat learned from government sources, and from other sources close to the armed groups, that the Reconciliation Agency is working toward a broad-based meeting, to be held before the end of the year, under American and international auspices, with the participation of fighting groups, politicians including former Baathists, and the government. A preparatory meeting has been held at a hotel on the Dead Sea in Jordan.

[Then following a paragraph on the release by the Americans of nine Iranians, the journalist continues with the reconciliation story]: A source told Al-Hayat that messages from the Iraqi government, and additional messages from the American forces, and a third [set of messages] from regional and international organizations, not named, have in fact been sent out to the leaders of the armed groups, most of whom are involved in one of two political fronts, namely the "Political Council for the Iraqi Resistance" and "Jihad and Change Front", in addition to the groups led by former vice president Izzat al-Douri, being Sufi and Baathist groups.

The source said most of the parties expressed willingness to attend the proposed meeting, provided there are international guarantees and that it is held outside of Iraq.

The journalist then notes that not much is known about the recent preparatory Dead Sea meetings that were held behind closed doors, quoting Saleh al-Mutlak to the effect that the pupose was to bring together the views of various Iraqi parties that are fighting each other, with a view to holding a reconciliation meeting under international auspices. He quotes someone from one of the Kurdish parties, who was there, as talking about two (exactly two) representatives he called "from the other shore", referring in that way, says the journalist, to two Baathists who were there.

The journalist talks a little about reactions, and this is where he talks about the reported proposal for a truce.
A spokesman for the Al-Douri group of the Baath party denied the party was represented at the meetings, and said it is not bound by the results.

A source close to the Jihad and Reform Front, which has recently formed the Political Council for the Iraqi Resistance, said it has received invitations from the Americans to launch new negotiations, adding that [the negotiation proposal] was conditioned on a six-month truce, during which time the political process would intensify, and shooting would stop, while the Americans would stop arresting members of these groups and would release those held.

The sources said the factions have yet to reply to the truce-proposal, noting that lack of confidence in the Americans is hindering progress toward direct negotiations with them in the current stage, however others [no hint who this refers to, some person or persons other than the "source"] say that agreement on a truce would represent an implicit American recognition of the resistance.
Political parties and some tribal leaders, the journalist adds, have reacted favorably, on the basis this is the only way out of the crisis. The journalist concludes:
Knowledgeable people said the armed factions are studying the proposal for negotiations, and the prevailing view in those circles is that this [meaning negotiations] should be with the American forces, "in order to avoid confusion on the principle objective, which relates to the fate of the occupation and the recognition of the resistance, [so that it isn't] turned into a peace conference among Iraqis sponsored by the Americans".

Thursday, November 08, 2007

On the Kahl essay

The overall assumption behind the Kahl essay is that the US has at least four specific aims in Iraq, and that they are all altruistic. They are: (1) Helping create and maintain a "stable equlibrium" in the sectarian and regional sense (the recent centerpiece of that being the arming of Sunni tribes in Anbar); (2) Degrading AlQaeda in Iraq; (3) preventing genocide; and (4) deterring any further extension of Iranian influence, so as to "prevent any wider conflict". Naturally there is a lot wrapped up in this, but the first and most important point to notice is that no one in the Arab world thinks those are American objectives. On the contrary, on point (4), states of the Gulf think it highly likely there will be a US and/or Israeli strike against Iran, contrary to Kahl's point about preventing any wider conflict. Palestinians and Israelis are convinced there will be an American supported military attack on Gaza once the Annapolis conference is over, something that contributes skepticism about this idea of "preventing genocide" as a policy objective in and of itself. War in south Lebanon is less immediately anticipated, only because the defenders are seen as much more capable and dangerous (as opposed to a feel-good bombing attack on Iran, or a gallant attack on civilian areas of Gaza). The condition of Iraq, in the view of people who are bracing for the effects of this bellicose American-Israeli policy, is completely secondary and derivative. Moreover the idea of a set of altruistic aims and objectives there seems ludicrous.

What then to make of the Kahl essay? If you look at some of the sensible remarks in his Mother Jones interview of last month it seems hard to take him as a regime propagandist, for the current regime, that is. On the contrary, the idea suggests itself that he is an ideologue for the coming Democratic administration. Because if you assume that a Democratic administration is going to abandon the warlike ambitions with respect to Gaza, South Lebanon, Syria and Iran, then his altruistic package of Iraq aims and objectives might arguably make sense. But how likely is that? Democrats are just as AIPAC-compliant as Republicans; and the remarks of the "mainstream" Democratic candidates for president indicate they intend to outflank the Republicans on Iran and other defence issues to the right, not to the left. So what sense does it make to try to shape Democratic party opinion with respect to Iraq on the basis of assumptions about regional policy that will seem just as ludricous under a Democratic administration as they do now under the Republicans?

It follows from this line of thinking that the whole point of shifting the PR focus on American efforts from the national-level national-reconciliation theme to a bottom-up balance and equilibrium theme, is deeply enmeshed in a bi-partisan PR strategy. Republicans like it because it is a talking point for the "surge"; mainstream Democrats (presumably) are expected to like it because it will be part of their justification for a continued American military presence in the country, namely to prevent such an equilibrium from falling apart. But apart from the PR strategy, where does the truth lie? And more specifically, how in the name of all that is held sacred, can you talk about Iraq policy based on a hypothetical American regional policy that might come about in the future, but where the change in public attitudes that alone could bring that change about, is precisely what you are helping to suppress (by glossing over what the current regional policy is)? It beats me.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The new rationale for keeping American troops in Iraq indefinitely (with an update)

This morning (Thursday November 8) Al-Quds al-Arabi prints the first report in any major Arab newspaper about the secret political meetings that took place during three days from Saturday through Monday (Nov 3 through 5) at a resort hotel on the Dead Sea in Jordan. Unfortunately it doesn't appear this major paper has any sources for this other than those promotional-sounding ones quoted in earlier web-site reports. The newspaper does spell out who the organizer was: it was "an institute headed by a former US assistant secretary of state, Richard Murphy", (referring to Richard W. Murphy, Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs from 1983 to 1989, and more recently Director of Middle East Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations).

The body of this is merely a more complete transcription of what the meeting organizers had to say about the success of the meetings. What is new and important in this report is in the concluding paragraph, where the Al-Quds reporter says remarks by the American delegation to other participants in these meetings indicated that the "bottom-up reconciliation" process modeled on Anbar, appears to be the centerpiece of a new American policy, in replacement of the earlier policy-efforts for reconciliation on the national level. Which as it happens is exactly the nub of what Colin Kahl preaches in his widely-read recent essay, where this switch to local-level "stability" provides him with the rationale for keeping American forces in Iraq for the foreseeable future (meaning under a hypothetical Democratic administration).

The topic of the Dead Sea meetings, says the Al-Quds reporter, was the state of affairs in Iraq and national reconciliation, and this was followup to a similar meeting last year in Istanbul.

These meetings were attended by Iraqi parliamentarians of most major parties, by Baathists (in their personal capacity), and by representatives of the resistance (no details), along with representatives of the Anbar Salvation Council. The "atmosphere was positive", and participants agreed to another meeting at an undetermined date, at which they would ask for the participation of Russia, "in order to understand its views on the issue of Iraq as an international participant". Most of this tracks exactly the earlier reports, right down to the exact expressions about the "positive atmosphere" in discussions that were "serious", and the fact that the Baathists weren't representing their party because it "up to now" refuses direct negotiations [with the government], and the fact that the discussions included "a project for transitional justice, to deal with violations of the prior regime, implications of the struggle, the matters of prisoners and of those displaced and of the martyrs and the victims and an accounting for those responsible for them". And [the sources said] they discussed a number of axes of interest to Iraq and Iraqis presently and in the future, and they arrived at two conclusions: (1) In spite of differences as to the nature of the state and the shape of the governing authority, all parties agreed on the need for democracy and procedures for peaceful transfer of power under the rule of law, along with the acceptance of federalism as a form of government system, but not based on race or sect, and following procedures for expression of the popular will locally. Some said it would be better to take up these issues after the departure of the foreign forces. (2) They agreed on the principle of Iraqi sovereignty, and the need for withdrawal of the foreign forces in conjunction with the completion of establishment of the [Iraqi] armed and security forces on a professional and national basis. And they agreed to continue communications on these and other national-reconciliation issues.

Here is the important part for an understanding of American policy:
And the sources said that the organizers of the American delegation asked that the Baathists understand the model of the Anbar Awakening as an example of participation by representatives of these support councils in this negotiation, and which perhaps is the inauguration of a new stage of American activity in Iraq, relying on new local [midaniya: usually translated "in the field", but here corresponding to the US government expression "bottom-up"] agreements, and the conviction of the need to dispense with the assumptions [or conclusions] of the earlier policies [a little vague, but clearly referring to the idea of focusing on local-level reconciliation in replacement of the "earlier policies"] . This is in spite of the fact that, the Iraqi government delegation rejecting the demand of the Baathists and the resistance for dissolving the present army and replacing it with the prior Iraqi army, the US government maintained neutrality on that particular issue.

[It is true that] in the discussions between the government, and the Baath and the resistance, there were no shared points of view, and each side held to its attitudes and choices; nevertheless everyone said the discussion was positive and they agreed to continue it.
It is clear that a lot of the language describing these discussions is the kind of argle-bargle that a experienced American diplomat like Richard Murphy would have picked up and honed over the course of his long career. But the point is that the positive-sounding language of "transitional justice" and so on, coupled with the idea of focusing American policy on local-level Anbar-type stability and dispensing with the national-level reconciliation scheme, makes for a very peculiar mix. Because the language makes it sound as if there is some hope for overall reconciliation. But the policy switch from national-level to local-level stability indicates acceptance of a fragmented country. The language, whether you look at that crafted by Richard Murphy for the edification of the Iraqis, or that crafted by Colin Kahl for the edification of the Americans, is merely the cover for something else. In the Iraqi case, Murphy and his people have been able to dig up a few unnamed yes-men to make it appear the government and the resistance are in serious discussions, and this is being used to create a very positive status-quo atmosphere for the Green Zone people; and in the American case Kahl, and no doubt others who will soon be emerging from the woodwork, are using the same positive atmosphere to roll out a rationale for keeping American troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future even under a Democratic administration. Which will sound just as comfortable for the Washington people as for their counterparts in the Green Zone.

UPDATE: A reporter for the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Watan got much of the same information, often in the exact same words, but added some other points, for what it is worth, including these:

(1) He said the US State Dept delegation to the talks promised to convey to Washington the Baath demands respecting schedule for withdrawal; preserving national unity; abolition of the De-Baathification law; and reconstitution of the former army, and appropriate action would be taken. This was described as the beginning of a process of resolving the major national problems.

(2) He said the Baath was represented by people from both the Yunis al-Ahmed and the Izzat al-Douri wings, and that the Political Council for the Iraqi Resistance was also represented.

(3) He described this as the second meeting of something called the "permanent dialogue on Iraq".

(I saw this here, but the link to the paper's website doesn't work.)

The Dead Sea meetings: Parliamentary junket, or fund-raising exercise for think-tanks?

Azzaman has a small item in its Iraqi edition today headed: "Altercations between Iraqi personalities at a meeting on reconciliation by the Dead Sea", consisting of two points: (1) an Iraqi parliamentarian said there were indirect communications between the Iraqi government and representatives of armed factions who showed positive interest in the national reconciliation project (no further details); and (2) there have been reports of verbal arguments between persons who attended a meeting in Jordan yesterday on reconciliation between Iraqi groups. The journalist then quotes the head of the National Dialog party Saleh al-Mutlak with some fairly unenlightening remarks on the Jordan Dead Sea Meeting. It was organized, he said, by a "non-governmental organization"; it was followup to other meetings that have been held in various regional capitals; he, Mutlak wasn't there; the purpose of the meeting was national reconciliation.

A news site called has two items, on the meetings, and the reporter dispenses with journalistic niceities, pointing up rather than glossing over, the absurdities. He writes:
A parliamentarian described the meeting at the Dead Sea between a parliamentary delegation and opposition people living in Syria as a bridge linking the two shores, a meeting organized by an American organization [actually an American tufut or tafawwat organization, but that word has me stumped] as the third [of its kind] after the meeting in Istanbul, and it is expected that there will be a another meeting in a month's time in Beirut, and another in Rome under Italian sponsorship. The parliamentarian told al-Iraq News that there were three axes to the discussions:

(1) The federalism axis: The opposition delegation, which was composed of only two persons, namely Abdul Razzaq al-Dulaimi and Khalid al-Muayani, brought out the federalism issue and the demand for a revision of the constitution, but in the result the discussion led to agreement that this issue is dependent on the will of the people of Iraq, and subject to referendum and future modifications.

(2) The withdrawal of the Americans from Iraq: The parliamentary delegation explained the difficulty, by reason of the zeal for the unity of Iraq, of the immediate withdrawal of the Americans from Iraq, without a appropriate program for the realization of security, and the discussion led to the need for a schedule for the American withdrawal.

(3) Participation in government: The parliamentary delegation set out its point of view on this issue, and the parliamentarian told al-Iraq News that the result of the discussion was positive. And the opposition delegation asserted that they don't represent any particular group, but that came to represent themselves. And the same source said it had been expected that Harith al-Dhari would attend, but he didn't show up for reasons that were not known.
Under the heading "Why was the discussion of National Reconciliation held behind closed doors?" this al-Iraq News reporter says the meeting was first described as organized "on the initiative of the American International Institute for Permanent Dialogue, which is a non-governmental organization...but then this was corrected to The Italian Institute for Studies, which is what financed the aforementioned institute".

The journalist occasionally lets his frustration show, for instance when he writes: "The funny thing is that the head of the parliamentary committee on National Reconciliation, Wathab al-Dulaimi, attended the meetings, but [when we spoke to him] he denied knowing anything about the meetings, despite our already knowing about his role in organizing them".

And he concludes:
Journalists and media people don't expect any breakthrough from a meeting on national reconciliation held in secrecy. Rather they see this in the context of public relations efforts carried on, since the 2003 invasion, by Research Centers to gather funding and contributions, for problems that are not susceptible to solution by finance, or by weapons either, since the 2003 invasion, once the language of constructive relations between the competing parties was disabled.
"Fine," you may say, "but where is the positive spin one expects from these things?" The answer appears to be an outfit called Iraqi Press Agency, (website, which says it was started up two months ago in September 2007 (which explains why I had never heard of it). Here's how the Iraqi Press Agency describes what went on:
For three days Iraqi parliamentarians and Baathists and parties related to the Iraqi resistance met for an open discussion by the Dead Sea in Jordan to arrive at a common denominator respecting discussions on finding a new opening in Iraq following the occlusion that has afflicted the political process. The meeting was organized by an American institute led by a former foreign secretary Meerphy (phonetic)attended by political personalities from Britain and Italy, with participation by representatives of the Iraqi Reconciliation Agency...
There isn't any additional identification for these mysterious "entities connected with the resistance", and it is explained that the Baathists were there not as Baathists but as individuals, because the party doesn't yet agree to negotiations with the government. This "Iraqi Press Agency" report makes the whole affair sound a little more substantive also with respect to matters under discussion, reporting that they talked (in addition to the items noted above) about matters like prisoners held without charges, "transitional justice", and so on. Speaking just for myself, I have never seen the expression "transitional justice" in Arabic, but I guess that, like the highlighting of the British and Italian participation, could well be part of the think-tank appeal the al-Iraq News reporter talks about.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

More birth-pangs expected, the Sadrist news site, cites informed sources in the Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the effect that these states have over the past three weeks been instituting states or military and civil-defence readiness for repercussions from an expected US attack on Iran. The measures include canceling military leave, setting up special military and civil-defence command headquarters, testing warning sirens, and so on. In the case of Saudi and the UAE, the sources said the state of readiness is "level c" which is the highest. The report concludes:
These Gulf sources say senior political and military leaders in these countries have become convinced that a military strike against Iran is coming, without any doubt, in the coming three months and that in fact it could be very close. The sources said the military leaders are dealing with the possibilities of an attack on Iran because they have concluded that this is a certainty and not just a "possibility" !! What they are not able to anticipate is the size of the attack and the scope of the targets of the rockets and deadly bombs within Iran. Nor are they able to predict whether the attack will be carried out by America alone, or together with Israel.
Meanwhile in Lebanon, a UN source denied the UNIFIL commander had warned the Lebanese government of a possible withdrawal of the European troops from south Lebanon in the coming months, in the face of possible war between Israel and Lebanon. This followed disclosure of a large-scale maneuver by Hizbullah (but without showing weapons or uniforms) in reponse to reported large-scale Israeli maneuvers near the Lebanon border late last week. A Hizbullah spokesperson said the purpose of the operation was to demonstrate to friends and enemies that Hizbullah is ready for an Israeli attack.

And in Israel, a member of parliament said Defence Minister Barak told a committee that the present moment is not the right time for the expected broad attack on Gaza, implying that the Annapolis Conference preparations are the reason.

And NY Congressman Gary Ackerman served as the vehicle for the expected additional pressure on Egypt respecting smuggling arms and other things into Gaza from Egypt. Egyptian officials had earlier told Ackerman that corrupt Israeli officials were fostering this, but he wasn't buying that, or rather he said contribution from Israeli side was "random" while the contribution from the Egyptian side was "systematic".

As for Egypt, Abdulbari Atwan reminded readers in his Monday op-ed that the country is a broken reed, no longer having meaningful influence anywhere in the region. On the occasion of the ruling party's annual meeting, he noted that the speech by Mubarak fils, greeted with a standing ovation, was actually the same speech that has been delivered at these meetings for each of the past 20 years (the regime is actually 26 years old), promising in almost identical language improvements in conditions for the poor (Atwan notes around 20% of the population lives on less than the equivalent of a dollar a day), and so on. At the end of the piece, Atwan adds this:
The population of Egypt is actually quite intelligent, with enormous cultural reservoirs, and they are not going to be fooled by these circus games. They are a people with admirable patience, but once they rise up, no one will be able to stop them, moreover they will find the military establishment standing side by side with them, perhaps even ahead of them, leading them to deliverance, as they have done in earlier times when [like now] the falsification of the democratic process emptied it of all meaning.

Monday, November 05, 2007

"MB hoping to use the US as leverage in the Egyptian power-struggle" : Iraqi resistance site

As Marc Lynch notes, the website devotes considerable space to his recent public discussions with, and about, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, as part of a story on the whole MB project of publishing a comprehensive political program. Islammemo is affiliated with the Sunni armed resistance in Iraq (don't ask me what their affiliation is more particularly), so the piece is interesting in its way, as an indication of how they understand the MB project. The journalist gives a detailed account of the various exchanges between the MB and its spokesmen and Lynch and others, naturally focusing on the various issues including the MB commitment to democracy as compared with its recent "Islam is the answer" approach, doubts about the MB commitment versus the even bigger issue of Egyptian government repression, and so on, without too much additional spin in the body of the narrative. But then at the conclusion of the piece there is this. Lynch is quoted to the effect many people were shocked by one of the drafts, to which the journalist adds:
In other words, it wasn't American enough.

We also observe that much of the American reaction reflects an attempted rapprochement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the US, and this confirms that the message behind the announcement of this Muslim Brotherhood program is directed fundamentally toward the United States, because at the present time the Egyptian government is clashing with and persecuting the Brotherhood, so how do they expect to be allowed to form a party? [The explanation is that] the MB has set their hopes on the United States on the basis the US is the prime world power with influence on the attitudes of the Egyptian regime. However, one needs to understand that while in the current Egyptian regime setup they cave in to American pressure on matters related to foreign policy and [some] domestic issues, but when it comes to matters relating to the struggle for power [between the regime and the MB], they cling to [power] and they rebuff [the MB] fiercely, and this explains the latest campaigns of repression against the MB leaders.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Arab left

Hisham Bustani is a Jordanian activist and frequent writer on political movements in the Arab world from the point of view of the traditional (secular) left, which makes him part of the relatively small group of intellectuals (who, in the case of Iraq, include Jabbar al-Kubaysi and the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance, referred to in earlier posts here). The decline of this trend and the rise of Islamism, in recent decades, is something that if you haven't lived it (and I haven't) you can understand perhaps in words, but not viscerally. Bustani, Kubaysi and others naturally concede that Islamism is not only dominant as a political movement in the region, it is the only movement. The secular left for all practical political purposes is moribund, but that doesn't mean the leftists don't understand what has happened and where the region is headed. On the contrary.

Meanwhile, another venerable and temporarily out-of-favor institution, the Monthly Review, this month publishes an excellent translation of an interview with Hisham Bustani, taken from a Jordanian newspaper, providing English-language readers a good summary of what their position is.

In a nutshell: The American programs and policies of divide-and-conquer fragmentation are being carried out most aggressively in those areas where they are meeting resistance to their control, namely Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, while in other areas, where governments are compliant, the potential for fragmentation is still latent (Sunni-Shia in the Gulf; Muslim-Copt in Egypt; and so on). The problem with Islamist resistance groups is that they themselves are susceptible to fragmentation. The Hamas-related Islamic Party of Iraq is one of the mainstays of the puppet regime; Lebanese Hizbullah has been unable to extricate itself from the "vortex of sectarianism where it has been trapped by its opponents since the victory of 2006". (And analgously, the MB outfit in Syria reminds him of nothing more than a Syrian Chalabi; and as for the Jordanian MB they aren't particularly progressive domestically either). In Palestine, Fatah and Hamas both have succumbed to the temptation of participating in an appearances-only governing authority, another cause of fragmentation. (And on the same general lines, I guess one could also cite the weak or non-existent moves to jihadi-resistance unity among the armed Iraqi groups). In any event, Bustani's point is that as things have developed, the Islamist resistance and proto-resistance movements haven't been able to grasp or implement that kind of cross-group and cross-nation unity that would be necessary to make them really effective. Instead they tend to wind up participating as "subordinate" entities in the existing power structures.

The main recommendation is, you might say, predictable:
Islamists who see themselves on the side of political clarity must comprehend the impossibility of attaching a liberation program to a subordinate authority structure, and they must decide on their options by removing themselves from a so-called pragmatic approach that enables containment and manipulation by international and regional powers. Islamists must open up internally to other non-religious forces (Marxist and nationalist) and espouse a civil, secular liberation program; and they must learn from the experiences in Lebanon and Iraq, where the religious and sectarian element was the basis for the game of hegemony and the foundation for fragmentation setting people against each other instead of being united against their common enemy.

Overall and as a prime desideratum, there is a huge and pressing imperative today for Left unity, of all its currents: the left of the Islamic movement, the left of the nationalist movement, and the left of the leftist progressive and revolutionary movement, on the basis of a program of resistance, liberation, and political clarity. The opposing Right of all those currents is already united and taking action.
The orientation here is similar to that of the recent open letter of AMSI to the Iraqi resistance groups; to the editorializing of Al-Quds al-Arabi about the pitfalls of resistance groups grasping prematurely for a piece of governing power; and, perhaps you could also say, to the AlJazeera/IAI spin on the recent Bin Laden message (whether correct or not is another question) ascribing to that message some kind of a rudimentary opening, under the guise of "admitting mistakes" and avoiding "factionalism". But in any event, certainly Bustani's focus on the need for cross-group unity is not surprising or even peculiar to the secular left.

What is a little more unexpected, as an analytical point, is this: Many people think the US targets political Islam because it is a threat to their client regimes in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere. Bustani says that isn't right. What America targets is resistance under any label: It targets different movements in South America or in SE Asia, for instance. "The common factor is resistance to America's hegemony and agenda for control, not Islam."
In reality, [he goes on] the U.S. finds no objections to dealing with a moderate Islam (such as the "Turkish model" and its copies). It is worth noting that the Islamists of Turkey maintain their traditional strategic alliance with "Israel," and I presume that the Americans favor delivering the Arab region to moderate Islamists for a variety of reasons. Such Islamists represent a force with popular and social extensions; they can speak to people in a language the masses understand; and they can offer operative social/economic/political structures, contrary to the Arab regimes which have nothing comparable. That is why the Arab regimes use techniques of oppression to preserve their authority and U.S. interests in the region. This oppression can, under certain circumstances, cause explosive situations or generate uncontrollable phenomena. Therefore, from this perspective, currying favor with "moderate" Islamists might be seen by the imperialist project to be a more viable and longer-lasting alternative.

This might explain the tremendous fear and loathing the Jordanian and Egyptian regimes have in regard to the Islamic movement (the Muslim Brotherhood), despite the fact that the latter is not completely radical, and still presents itself as a moderate wasati1 movement, still functioning within the "classical" understandings. What is new is the regimes' perception of a more potent alternative being formed. Consequently, they seek to dismantle the Islamic movement internally, while at the same time fighting a fierce public relations campaign externally to convince the U.S. administration that these Islamists are in fact anything but moderate, and therefore part of the target and its bull's-eye in the "war on terror."

In other words, the current US-client regimes fear political Islam could, in the long term, prove to be attractive to the Americans as an alternative to the current clients, as a vehicle for control, and it is in this that feeds their "fear and loathing" of the Islamists, quite beyond what you would expect given the MB's quite moderate orientation.

And if you want to bring the argument full circle, you could say that where existing resistance movements including Lebanese Hizbullah, Hamas/Fatah, and the Islamic resistance in Iraq, have all fallen in one way or another into the "sectarian vortex" through some combination of religious narrowness and the temptations of power, the MB movements in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere represent the same thing waiting to happen, but in those cases it will only come about when the Americans decide to replace their current client regimes in those places. Hence the plea for a return to a common denominator able to overcome sectarianism.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

War is Peace

The Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, citing diplomatic sources, said this morning (Saturday Nov 3) the US administration has given the green light to Israel to launch a wide-ranging attack on the Gaza Strip, although timing is complicated by preparations for the Annapolis peace conference. The paper said the planned incursion is based on Israeli intelligence warnings about the arming of various Palestinian groups, including an allegation about funding from Lebanese Hizbullah, and Israeli demands for more US pressure on Egypt on the issue of arms-smuggling.

The paper sayd the US "green light" was based on reports that Ehud Barak brought with him on his recent visit to Washington, warning of increased arming and financing of three different groups: Qassam Bridages (Hamas); Quds Brigades (Islamic Jihad); and Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (Fatah). The reports allege among other things that the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have received "huge funding" from various parties, particularly the Lebanese Hizbullah. Among the changes and reorganizations going on, the reports say there are dozens of senior people who had military positions in the government of Gaza before it fell last June, who have now joined the Quds Brigades. And the newspaper says the reports put particular stress on the issue of arms-smuggling from Egypt. "This is also an issue [the reports say], that cannot be dealt with without a broad military operation, that will have to be continued for a long time, in order to eliminate the financing that is doing this weapons-smuggling, and this is something that requires right now a limited military operation in order to assemble as much intelligence as possible on the funding sources and their size and the means of getting them under control".

The sources said Olmert and Barak have since then been meeting frequently to work out the timing and other details for the attack on Gaza, adding however that the American green light is being complicated or held up by current multi-party efforts to come up with some kind of an Israel-Palestine agreement ahead of the Annapolis peace conference. They said the Israeli troops currently on the Gaza border are receiving instructions and training, in preparation for a giant military operation in the Gaza Strip which will begin in the north and central parts of the Gaza Strip, and then be extended throughout.