Continuing the roster of pinch-hitters for the first week of the semester, I'm happy to post an argument made by Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont which has generated a great deal of discussion on at least two different Iraq focused list-serves and deserves a wider airing. Here it is. I hope to resume my own posting soon, perhaps even with some thoughts on this piece.
Guest Post: Maliki's Bid to be the Strong Man of Iraq
Gregory Gause, University of Vermont
The recent moves by Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki on a number of fronts seem to me to add up to a very ambitious push on Maliki's part to become the strong man of Iraqi politics.
1. He is making himself the symbol of Iraqi nationalism by insisting on a date certain for withdrawal of US forces. Of course, this is more symbolic than real. Any deal will have plenty of loopholes in it. If Maliki wants to keep US forces around after 2011, and McCain is in the White House, he can do so. (Maybe not if Obama wins.) But the appearances are important here. He can go to the provincial elections (if they happen) and the national elections (if they happen) in 2009 saying that he is the man who got a timetable for American withdrawal. Moreover, he just replaced the Foreign Ministry team negotiating with the US side with his own team, headed by his national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Ruba'i and made up of experts not from the FM but from the prime minister's office. This is his negotiation now in a very personal way. Just today the first major oil deal of the post-Saddam era was announced, and it was with a Chinese company. Another bit of symbolism.
2. He has conducted a fairly successful campaign against the Sadrists, or at least it seems so far. He has skillfully used the new Iraqi forces and the US to cut at the power of the Mahdi Army and go after Sadrist leaders and officials. In doing so, he has also portrayed himself (with some accuracy) as the man who cleaned up militia misbehavior in Basra. Whether this means that he can dominate the Sadrists in elections in the south and center and Baghdad remains to be seen. But he seems to have successfully worked himself into a position where the Mahdi Army cannot act as a counter-weight to the forces of the government. This means that he can exercise more control over elections in the south and the center than would have been possible before.
3. He is now openly taking on the Sahwa (Awakening Councils) forces, demonstrating that he will not compromise on Shia Arab control of the Arab parts of Iraq. He is reneging on his earlier promises to integrate tens of thousands of Sahwa guys into the regular security forces. He has brought the Tawaffuq front back into the government on his own terms to act as his Sunni frontmen (and to show them that he is dictating the terms, he had Adnan al-Dulaimi's son arrested just after the deal). The Iraqi Army (his army, as far as we know) is now in charge of security in Anbar. He has run many of the Awakening leaders out of Baghdad. He has said repeatedly that there will be no militia power in (Arab) Iraq -- no Mahdi, no Sahwa. That means no check on his power (as long as he can control the army and security services).
4. He is pushing a bit against his own allies in his coalition itself.
There was a very interesting incident in Diyala province two weeks ago,
covered by al-Hayat. (Here is the URL to one of the stories in the
paper about what happened: (http://www.daralhayat.com/
So we have what looks like a coherent strategy to go after opponents,
weaken allies and portray oneself as the symbol of Iraqi nationalism in
dealing with the U.S. Is Maliki overreaching? Despite the Mahdi Army
setbacks, Sadrists could still do better at the polls (if they happen)
than Maliki's candidates. The Sahwa people could return to insurgency,
destroying the security advances of the last year. The Kurds could
undercut Maliki's government in parliament. An ambitious army general
could push him aside, if his control of the army is less than total.
But so far, Maliki seems to be on a winning streak.
From the point of view of the U.S., this move by Maliki presents problems and opportunities. The Bush Administration has always said that it wants a functioning and able Iraqi central government. Maybe it is getting that (in the Arab areas). Washington certainly seems to be backing Maliki's strategy, if only because he is the PM and it seems to be working. But both the Bush Administration and whoever succeeds it wants the security situation in Iraq to remain relatively calm -- for McCain, so Iraq stays off the front page and there is less domestic pressure for withdrawal; for Obama, so he can get out cleanly.
The Maliki strategy runs the risks of upsetting that calm, in terms of increasing the risks of a return of the Sunni insurgency and in terms of possible clashes with the Kurds over Kirkuk. If Maliki seeks to consolidate his hold by running managed elections at the provincial and national levels next year, the "democratic mission" of the American operation in Iraq takes yet another hit. At a minimum, Maliki's push for power exposes the long-standing tensions in U.S. policy -- support for central authority in Iraq but also support for regional authority (the Kurds) and for local Sunni power brokers (Awakenings).
About a year ago I wrote something in which I said that Maliki was an ineffectual loser. I was wrong. The issue now is whether his political reach exceeds his grasp. I used to think that, eventually, an ambitious army general would emerge from the Iraqi mess and take control in Baghdad, making himself the new strongman of Iraqi politics. Now I think it might not take a military coup to produce Iraq's new strongman.