Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for the ‘US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues’ Category

VP Biden and the Great American Reposture in the Middle East

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 2 December 2011 19:35

So, it’s over, or mostly so. The visit to Iraq by US vice-president Joe Biden this week marked the symbolic end of the US-led Iraq War and the beginning of a new era in which a so-called Strategic Framework Agreement will govern US-Iraq relations.

First, don’t get fooled by that impressive framework term (yes, it’s called the SFA in US government parlance). This may sound fancy, but to Iraq it means simply a normal bilateral relationship between two independent countries. Other countries may have their own SFAs with Iraq as well, formal or informal, and in the long run it’s the realities on the ground – not how US government media advisors choose to spin it – that will count.

But the vice-presidential visit this week was of course mostly about spin. Basically, it was the usual Biden menu of gaffe, humour and pomposity delivered with unmistakable self-confidence and no particular regard for the facts on the ground. Biden even referred to US hospital-building in the great Iraqi city of Baku!  (The Transparent White House© was courageous enough to publish the little hiccup as delivered, with a tiny sic inserted not so gently within the flowery prose of the VP).

More substantially, the remarkable feature of Biden’s speeches was that he is finally beginning to talk about Iraq as a nation, instead of the compulsive references to Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that characterised the public Iraq diplomacy of the Obama administration in 2009–2010. Instead of references to the sub-categories of Iraqis, Biden now talked about “this great nation”. Those who talk about civil war and fragmentation, according to Biden, “not only misunderstand the Iraqi politics, but they underestimate the Iraqi people”! Apparently, this time around Biden even forgot to visit his old favourite, Ammar al-Hakim of ISCI, a Shiite sectarian party that for a long time enjoyed access to most areas in Washington.

Too bad it’s too late to talk like that now. Biden’s remarks come at a time when Iraq as a nation appears to be in far greater danger than back in 2006 when Biden himself prophesised disintegration and advocated controlled devolution. Biden would have realised this had he focused on qualitative instead of quantitative indicators in his speech: The number of violent incidents may be down, but Sunni-majority areas of Iraq are showing an unprecedented interest in self-rule and even separatism from what they see as a Shiite Islamist monopoly in Baghdad. When Biden says, “we were able to turn lemons into lemonade”, refers to “a political culture based on free elections and the rule of law” and even highlights “Iraq’s emerging, inclusive political culture… (as) the ultimate guarantor of stability”, he is simply making things up.

It is perhaps symptomatic that Biden’s exit from Iraq – probably the last top Washington official to leave the country prior to the full withdrawal – should take place via Arbil, the Kurdish regional capital. Even though rhetorically, the Obama administration has moved away from Biden’s erstwhile predilection for sects and ethnicities, it has never backed this up consistently in its own policies. Nothing symbolises the contradiction in US policy better than the tension between a rhetorical focus on the national whole and the constant pandering to centrifugal forces: US state visits to Spain do not always include Catalonia and the Basque Country as separate ports of call, so why should Iraq – another federal country – be any different?

Biden closed by saying that “oil’s the glue that’s going to hold this country together”. That’s an optimistic forecast at a time when Biden’s own Kurdish hosts are considering using oil as a weapon to dismantle Iraq as a country, and increasingly enlist US oil companies as part of their efforts.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 12 Comments »

The Iraq End Game: The Krauthammer Version

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 8 November 2011 19:17

Not all of what Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer writes is easy to agree with. However, in his latest take on the Iraq policy of the Obama administration, despite some degree of simplification and hyperbole, there are some good points relating to Iraqi government formation in 2010 that are not usually articulated in US policy-making circles.

Krauthammer writes,

“Three years, two abject failures. The first was the administration’s inability, at the height of American post-surge power, to broker a centrist nationalist coalition governed by the major blocs — one predominantly Shiite (Maliki’s), one predominantly Sunni (Ayad Allawi’s), one Kurdish — that among them won a large majority (69 percent) of seats in the 2010 election.

Vice President Joe Biden was given the job. He failed utterly. The government ended up effectively being run by a narrow sectarian coalition where the balance of power is held by the relatively small (12 percent) Iranian-client Sadr faction.”

This is true.

At least to some extent. Krauthammer is making the valid point that not everyone needed to be included in the second Iraqi government, and that the eventual inclusion of the Sadrists did make Maliki overly reliant on Iran.

At the actual time of the government-formation struggle, the idea of a more compact government was propagated most enthusiastically by former US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who as early as in April wrote in an op-ed in The Financial Times,

“The Obama administration should not sit back and allow Iran and sectarian parties to decide Iraq’s political future. President Barack Obama needs to send a message that Iraq is for the Iraqis, not for the mullahs in Tehran and their Iraqi surrogates.

To this end the US needs to adopt a more hands-on approach and encourage the Maliki coalition, the Allawi coalition and the Kurdish alliance to form a grand coalition and avoid steps that would drive Mr Maliki into accepting Iran’s proposals.”

The problem was that this and other US proposals for “intervention” only envisaged a desirable end result, i.e.  a coalition of Iraqiyya, State of Law and the Kurds. They did not address or engage with the question of how their preferred nominee for prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, would actually end up getting that position in accordance with Iraqi constitutional procedure.

When the Americans found themselves unable to square desired end games with constitutional process, instead of looking more carefully at the constitution or ideas circulating among the Iraqis at the time, they began making up the rules themselves. This included complete inventions like the strategic policy council – designed as a consolation prize for Ayad Allawi  in lieu of the premiership –  as well as a last-minute attempt to oversell him the largely symbolic presidency. Khalilzad’s own preferred solution was a suggestion for splitting the premiership in two two-year terms, which again was unconstitutional and almost certain to end up with an acrimonious struggle once the first term neared expiry, if not earlier.

The disastrous outcome of these failures – both that of the largely passive Obama administration as well as the general haplessness of the minority “hands-on” crowd that preferred the Khalilzad approach – is the oversized, still-not-quite-seated Iraqi government of today, unable to deliver Washington the extension of the SOFA that at least the Pentagon, if not the White House, had been craving for.

What the Americans could have done instead was to listen to the Iraqi debate at the time, where ideas that could have solved the whole issue actually existed. The first step would have been the formation of a super-bloc of Maliki’s State of Law and the secular Iraqiyya. This coalition could have ruled itself with a majority of about 180 deputies in parliament, or could have added the Kurds later on (the Kurds had signalled they would not be part of a greater bloc formation, so the premiership issue would have to be settled between Allawi and Maliki). The key point is that the new bloc could have agreed on a prime minister, most probably Maliki, that would not have been dependent upon the Sadrists or Iran.

Arguably, to all parties including the Kurds, the best way of structuring the government would actually have been to exclude the Kurds entirely. By so doing, the government would have had greater incentives for developing internal coherence and autonomy versus the stormy regional environment, and would also have been in a better position to provide generous concessions to the KRG. The problem was that the sheer thought of not having the Kurds included would have prompted immediate panic in Beltway circles, where there seems to be general ignorance of the fact that the whole idea behind deep autonomy for the Kurds in the constitution is precisely to safeguard them against the prospect of no representation at the level of the central government. The checks and balances were already in place, and yet Washington kept clamouring for more!

A smaller governance-oriented cabinet would have confined the federalism question to the KRG and in turn provided for greater leeway in oil-related negotiations and territorial bargains. Conversely, in today’s situation with a weak, oversized cabinet and 15 un-federated governorates that are increasingly looking like potential federalism threats, paranoia and authoritarianism are likely to characterise the executive in the months and years to come.

Let’s not forget that Charles Krauthammer enthusiastically gave his stamp of approval to the happy-go-lucky federalism clauses of the Iraqi constitutional draft in September 2005.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 26 Comments »

Christopher Hill and the Iraq War Legacy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 30 October 2011 19:42

In a recent opinion piece for CNN, Christopher Hill, the former US ambassador to Iraq who served there from April 2009 to August 2010, discusses the legacy of the Iraq War in light of the recent US decision to not seek a continued military presence beyond 2011. Among his key points is that it would be wrong to plunge into a discussion about “who lost Iraq”… Full story here.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 22 Comments »

Sadr Demands Resistance against the US Embassy in Baghdad

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 22 October 2011 18:21

What some had warned about during the discussion of a possible post-2011 US military presence in Iraq has now happened. Muqtada al-Sadr feels he won the debate about withdrawal, instructors, and immunities, and has moved down to the next target on the agenda: The US embassy in Baghdad.

In response to a question from one of his followers, Sadr now says that after the expiration of the SOFA, the staff of the embassy should be considered “occupiers” and must be “resisted”.

This may well be the single most significant item in all the news stories about Iraq this weekend. Everyone should have known for months (if not years) that there would be no new SOFA and no immunities for US instructors. Thanks to the failure of the Iraqi politicians to create a pro-extension coalition – and due to the failure of Washington to stimulate the formation of such a coalition – the projected US mega-embassy in Baghdad has become the next vulnerable element in American Iraq policy.

Posted in US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 23 Comments »

Maliki Pulls It Off Again: The State of Law Minority-Government Strategy Is Working

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 4 October 2011 22:08

What is nominally the second partnership-government of Nuri al-Maliki can increasingly be described as a minority government of his own Shiite Islamist State of Law bloc relying on ad hoc support from other players including the Kurds, Sadrists and White Iraqiyya. The outcome of tonight’s high-level meeting of political leaders in Baghdad suggests that Maliki’s apparent strategy of proceeding with the slimmest possible parliamentary support base could in fact be working.

The main issue at today’s meeting appears to have been conflict over the agenda. It had originally been envisaged that the meeting would address such issues as the security ministries, the proposed national council for high policies, and more broadly the future of the “Arbil framework” that led to the formation of the second Maliki government in December 2010. However, Maliki apparently managed to turn the meeting into a more limited discussion about the parameters of the US “instructor” presence after 31 December 2011. On this issue, the meeting concluded with a formula that apparently gives Maliki what he wants: There will be instructors but they will enjoy no special legal immunities. Maliki will be able to sell this arrangement to his constituency in the same way that he sold the SOFA agreement in 2008, arguing that by appealing to the values of nationalism it is possible to squeeze the Americans: In 2008, the Bush administration pushed for a long-term arrangement and ended up with a 3-year withdrawal plan; in 2011 the focus is on mere “instructors” and Maliki will apparently not give the Obama administration what it wants in terms of legal immunities for those instructors. No agreement on numbers was reached at today’s meeting.

In terms of politics, the significant development today was the withdrawal from the meeting of two Iraqiyya leaders, Ayyad Allawi and Tareq al-Hashemi, apparently in protest against the more limited agenda. The lone protest by Allawi and Hashemi in turn symbolises the problems of the opposition to Maliki. At least four Iraqiyya leaders (Usama al-Nujayfi, Salman al-Jumayli and Salih al-Mutlak plus Arshad al-Salihi of the Turkmen Front) must have remained in the room after Allawi and Hashemi left. Maybe the recent visit to Iran by Usama al-Nujayfi and the rumours about friction between him and Allawi has played a certain role? Similarly, the participation at the meeting by Qusay al-Suhayl (Sadrist) and Muhammad al-Hashemi (representing ISCI) signifies the reluctance of those forces to challenge Maliki, despite the widespread assumption in some Iraqiyya circles close to Allawi about their willingness to do so. Significantly, too, there was no word about any Kurdish withdrawal. As expected, White Iraqiyya participated.

What this all means is that the repeated calls from Iraqiyya for fresh elections are unlikely to go anywhere. If Maliki should get into trouble with the Kurds, as some recent parliamentary defeats might suggest, he can probably rely on elements from Iraqiyya that are critical of Allawi as far as oil and gas legislation and Kirkuk are concerned anyway. More probably, though, Maliki may seek to continue to defer decision on these contentious  issues as much as possible until such time that he believes his own State of Law coalition can win a parliamentary election and form a smaller majority government proper.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi nationalism, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 23 Comments »

Realistic Policy Options in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 25 August 2011 17:52

A strategic policy council, more Arab Spring, or maybe the fall of the Iranian regime? The two articles linked below offer the opinion that the most realistic way forward in Iraq is for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of the Shiite Islamist State of Law alliance to grant the defence ministry to secular Iraqiyya in exchange for Iraqiyya giving up its claim to the national council for high policies – which is likely to prove dissastisfactory even under the rosiest of scenarios. One element in such a move would be agreement betweeen Iraqiyya, State of Law and the Kurds on instructors in Iraq, as argued in “Of Instructors and Interests in Iraq”. Another factor would be a move by those three parties to the deliberately exclude the most pro-Iranian Shiite parties from the Iraqi government and also revert to the pre-2003 oppositional formula of a bi-national federation between Arabs and Kurds – as proposed in “Power Grabs and Politics Are Stalling Progress in Iraq”.  Discussion/comments section for both articles is open below.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 19 Comments »

Ramadan Agreement Provides Some Answers but Many Uncertainties Linger

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 3 August 2011 20:37

As has become usual in Iraqi politics, a nightly gathering of politicians during Ramadan has helped towards resolving certain political issues, although yesterday’s meeting at the invitation of President Jalal Talabani also left many questions unanswered.

The one thing that is clear is that Iraq will now ask some US forces to stay beyond 2011 as “instructors”. The dissenting voices on this were the Sadrists and ISCI, meaning that the decision probably involved something that Iran did not want to happen.  At the same time, the latest move poses a challenge to those in Washington that may have been hoping for a straightforward SOFA extension: Any activity by the US forces in Iraq after 2011 that cannot be plausibly described as “instruction” will now be susceptible to challenges – politically as well as military – precisely from forces such as the Sadrists.

The other points of “agreement” from yesterday’s meeting come with greater ambiguity. Firstly, there is the festering issue of the strategic policy council – demanded by the secular Iraqiyya as a key element in “power-sharing” and resisted by the Shiite Islamist coalition headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who finds it “unconstitutional” (and not without reason, since the council simply isn’t in the constitution). There is now agreement that the draft law will be presented to parliament through the presidency, and apparently there is agreement on the text of the draft that will be introduced. Let’s not forget though that there will be two readings of the law in parliament before it gets voted on, and members of Maliki’s alliance are already signalling that they may bring up again some of their points of opposition to the bill. What has largely escaped notice is that in its current form, the council has such a high threshold for making executive decisions (80% majority) that it is unable to constitute much in the way of an effective check on prime ministerial power anyway. In that context, the demand by Iraqiyya that the head of the council – expected to be Ayad Allawi – be voted on by parliament rather than by the council members seems more like a way of symbolically restoring some of Allawi’s dignity after he won the elections and then lost the premiership last year.

That kind of ambiguity applies also to the remaining points from the meeting. One issue that was agreed to in principle at Arbil in 2010 but so far has yet to be implemented concerns the bylaws for the cabinet. A committee will now be appointed to look into that issue, meaning that the parties are probably as far apart as ever. Much the same seems to be the case with respect to the somewhat elusive concept of “balance” in the state institutions at the levels of director generals and above, for which another investigative committee will be appointed. In the official summary of the latest proceedings, the term “constitutional balance” is used, which is interesting since that word – balance (tawazun) – occurs only once in the constitution, and in that case refers to the proportional balance of the “components” of the Iraqi people in the army and the security forces. Already Turkmen leaders are indicating that they intend to use the latest agreement as a basis for seeking the appointment of security ministers with an ethnic Turkmen background.

Finally, it was reaffirmed at the meeting that Iraqiyya will provide candidates for the defence ministry and the all-Shiite National Alliance will nominate the interior ministry. The reported agreement in the media that Maliki will automatically approve any candidate presented by Iraqiyya for a temporary role as acting defence minister is not reflected in the  official statement from the meeting.

It is important to note that this latest agreement does not reflect any sudden kind of dramatic rapprochement between the main Iraqi parties.  What has happened is that at a time of continuing disagreement, Maliki has agreed at least tacitly with the Kurds and Iraqiyya to keep a limited number of American troops as “instructors” –  and to kick other political problems a little further down the road. It all comes at a time when sectarian fronts could actually be perceived to be hardening somewhat, as seen especially in the latest co-option of the rump of the Wasat alliance, the Sunni Islamist Tawafuq, into the Iraqiyya coalition. This came after the other half of Wasat, the more secular Unity of Iraq, recently joined Iraqiyya, meaning that there are now no Sunni parties that are not nominally part of Iraqiyya. Simultaneously, Maliki has reiterated his belief that the defence ministry must go to a particular sect (Sunni), rather than to a political party (Iraqiyya), which again highlights the way in which politics in Iraq is being reshaped in a more sectarian fashion after the 2010 elections. Indeed, the formally tripartite nature of the latest meeting , with representatives of the Kurds, Iraqiyya and the National Alliance, would seem to suggest a return to more sectarian framework than, say, two years ago.

The two factors that continue to cut across sectarian alliances and prevent a repeat of the Shiite-Kurdish monopoly on Iraqi politics seen in 2005 are the continued desire of Maliki to pursue different policies than ISCI and the Sadrists (which in itself largely invalidates the National Alliance as a real, cohesive political force), as well as the growing Kurdish criticism of Iran, which is sometimes leading them to find common positions with Iraqiyya. It is this kind of tactical shift, rather than the emergence of any kind of coherent, pro-American “moderate coalition” that will now enable the US to keep some of its forces in Iraq as “instructors” beyond 2011.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, UIA dynamics, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 28 Comments »

Can US Aims in Iraq Be Squared with a Discourse of Iraqi Sovereignty?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 18 July 2011 16:53

“American instructors!”

It has been long in the making but finally there are more specific signs that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is beginning to publicly articulate a vision of a post-2011 US presence in Iraq that can fit with his own avowed aim to be an Iraqi nationalist.

Importantly, after his recent meeting with the new US defence secretary Leon Panetta, Maliki was talking about “instructors” or “trainers” (mudaribun) and not advisers (mustasharun), or, for that matter, regular troops.  Historically speaking, “advisers” would be a major problem given the chequered legacy of the British in Iraq during the mandate and in subsequent decades, where it was precisely the popular hatred of the advisers (and the connotations of their immense political influence) that played a key role in unseating the monarchy in 1958. Similarly, regular forces or the presence of military bases would also be at obvious variance with a discourse of Iraqi nationalism.

The areas in which Maliki envisioned US training assistance included border surveillance, logistics and intelligence capabilities. This is actually a discourse that can fit in with a notion of Iraqi sovereignty: The US is considered an undisputed world leader in many of these areas; hence, to ask for assistance from a global superpower in these specific areas would not harm the idea of Iraqi independence in the same way that the “advisers” of the British mandate did.

Contrast this with the prevailing themes in the Western debate about Iraq. “Absence of external defence capabilities” is a recurrent term. And while this is probably true, as long as it is presented as a general issue rather than broken up into digestible and specific areas  that can be singled out for cooperation with the US (preferably technology-related), kneejerk nationalist reactions are likely to prevail in the Iraqi parliament.  Similarly, many Western commentators like to highlight a US peacekeeping role in and around Kirkuk. This is also something that is susceptible to Iraqi nationalist criticism, because it is a kind of narrative that fits so well with the standard conspiracy theory to the effect that foreigners are plotting to keep the Iraqis divided in order to justify their own continued military presence. If Arab-Kurdish tensions around Kirkuk are used as a key argument for extending a US presence in Iraq, each bomb that goes off elsewhere in the country may soon be blamed on a US scheme to pit Sunnis against Shiites so that they can extend the American presence in the oil-rich areas in the south.

The challenge for Washington is now to find out whether the parameters defined by Maliki – with an emphasis on “instructors” – can meet its own aims in a context where a straightforward SOFA renewal is becoming increasingly unlikely. Maliki seems to be aiming for a military presence that is so low-key that the anticipated parliamentary debate about the SOFA can simply be circumvented. For their part, the Iraqis still need to agree on a new minister of defence.

PS: Today’s vote in parliament to “support a reduction of the number of ministers in principle” is a non-issue. The real challenge is to actually do it and not least negotiate the constitutional modalities relating to such a move (i.e. the rules for dismissing a minister).

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 7 Comments »

How to Shrink the Iraqi Government, Consolidate the Cabinet and Make an Informed Decision about the US Military Presence

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 30 June 2011 9:08

The impact of the Arab Spring in Iraq has been comparatively negligible, with one significant exception: the idea of making the Iraqi government smaller is finally gaining some traction. When Adel Abd Al Mahdi resigned as vice president in May, he did so with reference to a growing chorus of dissent from street demonstrators as well as Shiite clergy who demand a smaller and more effective government. Last week, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki also began talking openly about the need for a much smaller government, and a few days ago the Iraqiyya party, too, said demonstrators had made legitimate demands about a government free from honorary positions whose sole purpose was to satisfy ethno-sectarian quotas…

Full story here. The comments/discussion section on this blog, below, is open as usual.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 28 Comments »

Obama and the Street Vendor of Manama

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 22 May 2011 13:41

Unfortunately, the sheer eloquence of President Barack Obama’s Arab Spring speech only served to underline some of the fundamental contradictions in US policy towards the wider Middle East region.

True to form, the US president made sure to enliven his remarks by incorporating stories of individual destinies into the more abstract themes of Washington’s policy towards processes of democratisation in the Middle East. He mentioned the experiences of protesters in Tunisia (“the street vendor of Tunis”), Egypt, Libya and Yemen. There was even a reference to Damascus.

There was no such special reference to Manama, the capital of Bahrain. It is true that in a later section of his remarks, Obama did comment on the situation on the island, albeit briefly. But in that particular case he refrained from sympathising with or personifying the protesters, relying instead on boilerplate phrases focused on “dialogue”, not dissimilar from what any US president could have come up with. There was even a silly reference to the effect “that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law”, as if to legitimise the government discourse that the demonstrators were primarily made up by criminals. What a joke.

The problem in the case of Bahrain is that the feeble attempts at dialogue between rulers and ruled – always with foreigners with vested interests in the country standing by as onlookers and more or less passively supporting the status quo – have been going on for quite some time.

For example, more than a half-century ago, on 6 March 1935, a British official commented, “it will not be easy for the Al Khalifa [the ruling family of Bahrain] to maintain their tribal form of rule but it is in many respects well suited to the Island…”

Similarly, on 14 April 1939, Trenchard C Fowle in the British residency in Bushire discussed the question of political reform in Bahrain as follows:

“[Reform would be] most unpopular with the Al Khalifa family and would make us unpopular with them, whereas at present they are extremely loyal and friendly to us. The Family have already discussed the question amongst themselves and regard the formation of a council as the end of the Khalifah rule in Bahrain… since the Bahrain administration is already good and efficient, what need is there for a council? To sum up, the present autocratic government of Bahrain suits us very well, and any advice from us to the Shaikh and his Family to change its form for a more democratic one would not be palatable and would tend to make us unpopular with them.”

And, unsurprisingly, there were hints that pockets of radicalism were unrepresentative, perhaps even of foreign origin? In a report dated 18 February 1935, a British official carefully pointed out the distinction between “country Baharina who are decent folk”  and “certain evil townsmen” who were trying to “lead them astray”.

Even more conservative voices reigned in Simla in India, home of British policy-making in the Gulf at the time. Wrote O Caroe to the secretary of state for India on 6 November 1935: “I am directed to inform you that while the Government of India feel that there is much in the administration of Bahrain that is susceptible of improvement, they consider it desirable to proceed with caution in the matter of giving advice to the Shaikh of Bahrain in the constitutional as opposed to purely administrative sphere… To sum up, the GoI feel that no representations should be addressed to the Shaikh suggesting the introduction of popular institutions of a democratic nature, or carrying the implication that the support of government to the ruling family will depend on the degree in which the ruler meets the aspirations of the Baharina [indigenous Shiites].”

That was of course exactly seventy-six years ago, but the parallels to the way in which the US government is approaching the same ruling family today are quite striking. Back then, the British would typically censure only the worst of the excesses of the Al Khalifa. Indeed as late as in the 1950, only the most extraordinary in terms of mistreatment of the Gulf population by their Arabian rulers would ruffle feathers in British circles, as seen in a report from a British diplomat in Jeddah dated 5 March 1950: “We have noticed at para 14 of the Bahrain intel summary for the latter half of January that a Bahraini is reported to have been flogged to death at al Khobar [in Saudi Arabia, not even mentioned by Obama] for the heinous crime of playing a lute. We should like to have any confirmation of details of this which you may possess. We are as you know concerned with the administration of ‘Saudi justice’ as it affects British protected persons working here as well as citizens of the UK”. Fast forward to today’s situation when Obama says “Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain” and demands that prisoners must be released from jails. These are tiny steps forward compared to what is truly required.

Obama juxtaposed his meek call for dialogue in Bahrain to the situation in Iraq, which he appeared to highlight as a shining example of how multi-sectarian democracy can work. Two comments are in order in this respect. Firstly, sectarian conflict in Iraq and sectarian conflict in Bahrain are two completely different animals. Sectarian tension in Bahrain incorporates an ethnic component that is altogether absent in Iraq: Most Shiites of Bahrain consider themselves as “Baharina”, the indigenous, agriculturalist population of Bahrain that became subjected to the rule of raiding Bedouins from Arabia in the eighteenth century. As if to underline the overlapping dichotomies of sect, myths of origins and ecological patterns of adaption, as late as in the 1930s the Bahraini ruling family (Sunni, recently settled Bedouin) would let their camels graze freely around the island including in the gardens of the  agriculturalists (Shiites, original Baharina)! Even the British got slightly concerned about “a complaint of long standing [among the Baharina] that the Al Khalifa camels eat their crops.”  By way of contrast, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq both see themselves as descendants of the Arabian tribes and often try to outbid each other in proving their attachment to Arab tribal values. True, correlations between sectarian identity and myths of descent like those seen in Bahrain exist in other GCC countries too, but in many cases they are mitigated by a degree of further complexity and subdivision within both Sunni and Shiite camps, since there are often both Sunnis and Shiites of Iranian descent involved (as seen for example in Kuwait). But in Bahrain, the majority of Shiites are also Baharina and this adds a special dimension to the conflict.

Second, Obama, seems to overplay the extent to which Iraq truly is such a wonderful triumph of democracy in the Arab world. Yes, the Iraqis “have rejected the perils of political violence in favour of a democratic process”, as Obama said . (Incidentally, as Obama failed to remind us, they also rejected Vice-President Joe Biden’s agenda of comprehensive federalisation of the Iraqi state.) But even the participants in the current unity of government in Iraq are beginning to criticize the formula of government that was adopted when Maliki was appointed for a second term back in November 2010. 44 ministries and three vice-presidencies are seen as ridiculous and ineffective in terms of providing services for Iraqi citizens, and regular security ministers have yet to be appointed due to ongoing bickering between the many members of the oversized government. The truth is that in today’s Iraqi “democracy” parliamentary politics has lost much of its meaning since almost every decision of significance is arrived at behind close doors outside the parliamentary compound.

If he is genuinely interested in safeguarding regional stability in the Gulf, Obama ought to go beyond “dialogue” in Bahrain and do a more critical evaluation of  “multi-ethnic democracy”  in Iraq. To do that while at the same time making provisions for a post-2011 US presence in Iraq and securing a home for the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy somewhere in the Gulf can prove to be something of a challenge.

Posted in US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 26 Comments »