Last December, long before it was fashionable, I noticed that former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi appeared to be attempting a comeback. Over the last couple of weeks, he's taken the campaign to a new level - threatening to pull out of Maliki's government, chatting it up with Kurdish leaders with US Ambassador Zal Khalilzad ostentatiously by his side, wooing the Fadhila Party as it split from the UIA, and - today - traveling off to Riyadh with Masoud Barzani (on what I'm sure was a purely social visit). So today I wrote a piece for the Guardian's Comment is Free site on why exactly an Allawi return is plausible and why it's such a bad idea. Excerpts:
Will Iyad Allawi, the rotund one-time Iraqi Prime Minister and current London resident, be the next Prime Minister of Iraq? He certainly seems to want the job, and he suits the Bush administration's agenda suspiciously well. But his return to power would not only fail to end the civil war - it would also signal a decisive end to democratic aspirations in Iraq and the Arab world, increase America's role at a time when most Americans would prefer to leave, and pave the way to a confrontation with Iran.
Allawi's return reflects more than his own considerable appetite for power: the fact is that his political profile fits American objectives in the region far better than Nuri al-Maliki, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, or any of the other major Shia candidates. Allawi is Shia, but, unlike his long-time rival Ahmed Chalabi, does not even pretend to have rediscovered his religious roots. Allawi presents himself as an Iraqi nationalist, able to appeal across sectarian lines and - most importantly - eager to pursue a hard line against Iran. The anti-American edge which he cultivated last December, when he reached out to the insurgency and flirted with Sadr, seems to have faded as American interest in him has grown. And he is much-admired in Amman and Riyadh, key players in the Bush administration's shiny new coalition of "Sunni moderate states" (pro-American dictators on board with the anti-Iranian campaign).
The main objection to Allawi - that he lost democratic elections, winning only 25 seats in the current Parliament - carries less weight these days in a Washington which has lost interest in promoting Arab democracy. At this point, the argument goes, Iraqis care more about restoring security than they do about democracy. Enough time for elections later: Americans may gamble that Allawi would gain popularity by delivering on security and by mobilizing anti-Iranian nationalism. And if he doesn't, well, who in Washington really cares about democracy anymore, compared to containing Iraq's descent into civil war and ramping up pressure against Iran?
An Allawi return would signal a return to more overt American custodianship of Iraq at a time when most Americans would prefer to get out. Iraqis would know and deeply resent that America was the only reason for Allawi's return. The UIA's removal from power would infuriate many Shia, while any Sunni relief would likely be quickly dispelled. And the need to keep him in power without any natural constituency would naturally prevent any thought of an American military withdrawal. An Allawi return would only postpone facing the realities of Iraq's problems. Too many Americans blame Iraq's problems on the absence of will on the part of its leaders - as if only the fecklessness of Ibrahim Jaafari or Nuri al-Maliki is to blame for the descent into civil war. The fantasy that Allawi would solve the problems (without more fundamental policy shifts) will only forestall an honest reckoning.
An Allawi return would mean a decisive break with even the pretence of caring about a democratic Iraq. He would return as a nationalist strongman, putting security (and American priorities) first, while always keeping in mind that elections are not his friend. The legendary corruption of his first government offers a preview of what to expect. So do his easy use of violence against both Sunni and Shia groups, his harsh repression of the media, and his generally anti-democratic instincts. From the vantage point of the emerging "new Middle East", sadly, this anti-democratic profile is an asset rather than a curse. This "Not-Dam Hussein" would be far more amenable to America's friendly Arab tyrants than is any elected, Shia, pro-Iranian alternative.
This may all come to nothing. Perhaps Allawi's return is being orchestrated simply to put pressure on the Maliki government. But when the current "surge" inevitably fails, and Washington's (and Riyadh's) itch to combat Iran grows, keep an eye out for the rotund one. He offers the fantasy of an easy solution to an intractable problem - a "magic bullet" which will only lead us deeper into fiasco.
Read the rest at the Guardian's Comment is Free.