Leaving aside Baker-Hamilton for a moment, I want to throw this out for discussion: in the not so distant future, we may be looking at the return of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. This isn't my recommendation or my preference, just an attempt to piece together threads that I've been following for a while.
Here's why: The Maliki government clearly has lost the confidence of the Bush administration, and of everyone else. It has also lost its Parliamentary majority, as long as the Sadr bloc continues to suspend its participation. Most of the Washington buzz as an alternative has been, oddly, about Abd al-Aziz Hakim (SCIRI). This is very odd indeed, since Hakim has played a key role in driving the Sunni-Shia bloodbath, and evidently primarily wants to see even more of said blood to be shed; his party is a key part of the sectarianization of the Iraqi state; and his party is very close to Iran. Now, if the US wanted to pursue the Baker-Hamilton recommended dialogue with Iran, then this could be very useful (rumor is that Hakim did in fact bring some communications from Iran with him on this trip, though that's just a rumor). But Bush evidently does not want to go that route, for better of for worse. If Bush's preference is continued confrontation with Iran and Iraqi national reconciliation of some sort, then Hakim is the worst possible choice.
But if not Hakim, then who? Well, Salah Mutlaq, a key secular Sunni leader, has been saying that a new nationalist alliance is in the works, bringing together his Iraqi National Dialogue Front, Muqtadar Sadr's organization, and the al-Wifaq movement headed by Allawi (who recently returned from London to Amman), in a "nationalist" (wataniya) front. The Front would crystallize around a demand to end the American occupation, create a non-sectarian transitional government, hold new elections, and - implicitly - combat Iranian influence (Mutlaq said that the front would be open to all Iraqi factions except for SCIRI and the Dawa Party because of their too-close ties to Iran).
But why Allawi? Well, as a secular Shia ex-Baathist, he's well-positioned to figurehead such a coalition - any of the Sunni leaders, or Sadr, would probably be too much for the Americans to swallow. At the same time, in his 'memoir' published in al-Sharq al-Awsat, and in numerous interviews since, he has tried to burnish his nationalist credentials against the United States, blaming Bremer for all that went wrong and distancing himself from the most controversial decisions made under his watch. Sure, his administration was spectacularly corrupt, but those memories might pale in comparison to the bloodbath on the streets of Baghdad. He seems to want the job - he's back in the region, and showing up on Arab TV more and more often. I recently saw him do a long interview on al-Arabiya (in a segment which ran under the title of 'national reconciliation'), suggesting that he is as acceptable to the Saudis now as he was back when he was in power, and he's always had good relations with Jordan. He's happy to be tough on Iran, unlike any of the Shia parties. And his line of a tough military approach combined with anti-sectarianism might play better now than before. Not through elections, of course - he isn't going to become Prime Minister by winning new elections. But does the United States really care about democracy in Iraq anymore? A governmental crisis leading to Maliki's ouster, followed by intense negotiations among the Parliamentary blocs would do the trick.
How would the US feel about 'national reconciliation' coming on an anti-occupation platform? Well, I guess that depends on how badly the US wants to achieve that reconciliation... and get out. US Ambassador Khalilzad has been working hard for months trying to
find ways to split the Sunni insurgency and bring parts of it into the
political system, and Baker-Hamilton was full of Sunni-friendly suggestions to achieve national reconciliation. Such a government would likely satisfy the Arab governments on which the US seems to most depend these days, the 'axis of pro-American dictators' (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) which has expressed increasing concern for the Iraqi Sunnis and hostility towards Iran and the alleged 'Shia crescent'.
It's interesting to note here two things. First, a leader of the Baathist part of the insurgency, "Abu Mohammed", said in an interview the other day denounced the current government and the American presence, while suggesting that a "legitimate" Iraqi government would have no problems talking with the US in the future. (He also "described what he called 'a big difference' between Saddam loyalists and the insurgency's al-Qaida-linked elements: 'Our program is to liberate Iraq ... We are fighting the Americans because they have occupied Iraq, while al-Qaida has a different program. They want to kill the Americans in Washington and anywhere in the world.'") Second, yesterday the Iraqi Islamist State released an internet declaration denouncing Association of Muslim Scholars head Harith al-Dhari for his contacts with 'agents of Satan' like King Abdullah of Jordan and Hosni Mubarak and appealed for Dhari to come back to his senses. Both of those snippets suggest at least some element of concern (or hope) that this might work. Should such a nationalist anti-US and anti-Iran front incorporating the Sadrists emerge, would the US want to be siding primarily with the Iranian backed parties (SCIRI and Dawa)?
I've never been an advocate of Allawi's, I doubt he could really deliver on what I just outlined above, and I'm certainly not advocating his return. His performance when in office doesn't exactly inspire confidence. And the prospects of such a cross-sectarian coalition emerging and holding together in the face of a spiraling civil war seem dim. But in comparison to most of the other scenarios on offer, this one seems plausible enough to at least merit some discussion. So, discuss!
UPDATE: judging by comments, I seem to have framed this poorly, or at least misleadingly. As I say in the comment thread, I don't think that Allawi would actually solve any problems. He'd likely be unpopular, fail to bridge the gaps, etc... My point was just that at a time when everything else is failing, an idea like this is likely to emerge whether it's a good one or a bad one,. I *have* heard some people floating the idea, and Allawi himself seems to be angling for it and peddling the "it's the right time for a strong national leader" line. Better to get it discussed now rather than let it percolate, if it's as bad an ideas readers think...
LAST UPDATE before I leave town: by consensus of my readers, Allawi isn't coming back. Someone better give him a call in Amman and let him know... and I'll pass on this report, about how the not-coming-back and not-relevant Allawi was playing a central role in mediating US talks with the Sunni insurgency. From today's Times (London):
Brushing aside the results of Iraq’s democratic elections, the insurgents proposed that an emergency government be formed under Allawi’s leadership. Non-sectarian politicians should be appointed to the crucial ministries of defence and the interior, they urged, because they would be responsible for rebuilding a strong national army and security service. Under this proposal, the newly elected Iraqi government would, in effect, have been sidelined.
Who knew? (Yup, indeed, who?).