Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for July 6th, 2010

Delahunt, Biden and Obama’s Contradictive Public Diplomacy in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 6 July 2010 12:30

The contradiction in the Obama administration’s public diplomacy in Iraq is encapsulated in a recent letter to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from Congressman Bill Delahunt and signed by some 30 other members of the US congress, mostly Democrats. In it, they congratulate the Iraqi electorate for having voted en masse for what is described as the two “cross-community” lists in Iraq, Iraqiyya led by Ayad Allawi and State of Law (SLA) headed by Nuri al-Maliki. That is just about right: Both Iraqiyya and SLA started out as non-sectarian projects, and although they both ended up looking more sectarian (leaning Sunni and Shiite respectively) thanks to de-Baathification, there was no doubt that the pressures towards sectarian repolarisation came from the other parties. Those other, sub-identity-oriented parties, in turn, did a lot worse: The Iraqi National Alliance and the Kurdistan Alliance could manage only around 115 seats altogether, which is markedly less than the 180 seats shared by Iraqiyya and State of Law.

So, having correctly taken note of this important distinction, the congressmen presumably go on to recommend that the two cross-community lists join each other in a strong alliance? Alas, this is where the logic stops. The letter from Delahunt goes on to talk about a “national unity” government and while in theory this could have meant just Allawi and Maliki, the accompanying press release makes it perfectly clear that the US politicians want Maliki to include all the “winning coalitions”. In other words, they want to add the “retrograde” sectarian lists (their implicit judgment) to the “progressive” cross-sectarian ones (ditto) in government! What a remarkable way of reasoning this is:  “Even though you brave Iraqis clearly prefer a non-sectarian government, we, fat-cat congressmen in Washington feel a little uneasy about that prospect. You see, certain highbrow think tank types over here who just recently did a terrific crash course on Iraq keep telling us that in order to avoid a complete unravelling of the situation we must also include the straw men of Masud Barzani and Ammar al-Hakim in the government. Oh, yes, we know those two are the authors of many of the problems in Iraq over the past five years including the silly idea of a Shiite sectarian region and the purge of most competent bureaucrats from the machinery of the state in the name of de-Baathification but you see these men are very important, and if they feel ever so slightly unhappy things could go seriously wrong. So it does not really matter what the electorate said about cross-community dreams; unfortunately you will just have to put up with another dysfunctional, incompetent and weak government in Iraq for the next five years. We really do hope you may understand our concerns.”

And unfortunately, this is precisely the message Biden has been pushing publicly in Iraq during the weekend. After having held his cards tight to his chest on his first day, some worrisome signs were beginning to emerge after the visit to Ammar al-Hakim early Monday. According to an ISCI statement, Biden had “conveyed the respect of President Barack Obama to Ammar al-Hakim and his praise for ISCI’s role in bringing about rapprochement between the Iraqi parties [!] in order to form a government of real partnership of all Iraqi factions…” Of course, this was an ISCI press release and it could have been suspected of perhaps bending the message a little to fit the party’s own agenda. But shortly afterwards, Biden himself spoke to the media, and there it was: “In my humble opinion, in order for you to achieve your goals you must have all communities’ voices represented in this new government, proportionately… Iraqiyya, State of Law, Iraqi National Alliance, the Kurdistan Alliance, all are going to have to play a meaningful role in this new government for it to work”. In fact, the basic idea of including “all the winning lists” was also conveyed during the meeting with Maliki on Sunday according to his spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

This is the Paul Bremer fallacy repeated. It just seems America will never pass ontological puberty in Iraq: Even as they celebrate non-sectarian tendencies they still want to make sure all the sectarian parties are in there, disregarding that the Kurds have actually already been empowered locally through federalism and the fact that Shiites and Sunnis clearly dislike the idea of enshrining sectarian identity at the level of the state. The element of proportionality, in turn, is of course a veritable cave-in to the Iranian agenda in Iraq – Tehran has openly argued in favour of a “strong Shiite-led government” of the kind Biden’s formula will produce if it succeeds. No one should be surprised though, since Biden previously spoke glowingly about the idea of “bringing in the region” in Iraq, and has been unable to move beyond the paradigm of “Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds” ever since he was charged with the Iraq portfolio by Obama.

Even more worryingly, with respect to the practical aspect Biden repeated his own past mistake of not reading the Iraqi constitution properly. For a long time back in 2007 he thought there were constitutional mechanisms in place that could easily produce his preferred vision of a tripartite Iraq of three ethno-sectarian regions. Only gradually did he realise that the federalisation law passed in October 2006 is a lot more complex and if activated can produce countless scenarios, with the tripartite one being one of the least probable. And so this time, he wants four parties in government. But in 2010, does he realise that if the constitution is followed, the chances of getting his four preferred ones into government are actually quite small? And that if it does succeed, it is likely to take a lot more time than most other scenarios? What Biden does not appear to understand is that Iraqiyya will disintegrate in an oversized government where they are not given the premiership and that Maliki is unlikely to go quietly if there are attempts by other Shiites to use his votes while at the same time marginalising him as premier candidate (did Biden even notice that relations between SLA and INA deteriorated to a new low in the middle of his visit?) Absent any rewriting of the constitution, the particular four-way alliance preferred by Biden is actually a rather unlikely outcome, no matter how much some Iraqi politicians may pay lip service to the idea.

Curiously enough, Iraqi newspapers keep publishing rumours about “secret” American support for rapprochement between Allawi and Maliki. If such a thing exists behind the scenes but within the overall context of a four-party unity-government scenario, then it is hardly sensational. If on the other hand these rumours really relate to US backing of a bilateral Iraqiyya-SLA alliance, then it is at variance with everything the Obama administration says publicly about Iraq. That kind of double game would be uncharacteristic of Obama, and for Iraqi politicians who favour that scenario it is time to realise that it is first and foremost they themselves who must turn it into reality.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 36 Comments »