Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A war cabinet with no leaders...

Anyone casting doubts on Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s efforts to run Iraq will be labeled as “embittered”, “unfair” or “hasty”; for the man rightly deserves a grace period. But I am increasingly troubled by what I hear and see.

Maliki drafted his first cabinet through a process of choosing ministers on the basis of—as one observer put it—“the lowest, lowest, lowest, and then lowest common denominator.”

He was aided in this effort by American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

As a result, Iraq can boast a colorless and characterless government to guide it through these difficult times. Not very inspirational, is it?

Maliki is still tasked with picking a Defense Minister and someone else for the absolutely crucial position of Interior Minister. He will likely settle on another “politically brokered caretaker”—a term borrowed from a lead editorial on the subject in today’s New York Times.

Maliki will steer away from controversy to pick an unknown quantity (obscure names like Nassir Al-‘Ameri have been floated…) or else a “fluffy” character (such as Tawfiq Al-Yassiri, whose nickname is “Toohi”) for the job of reining in all the rogue militias, Mafiosi, vigilantes, and petty crooks who serve under the Interior Minister.

The job will require political stamina, as well as advanced managerial skills. The only persons who boast such qualities would be too “problematic” to appease the Sunnis, the Shia Islamists, the Kurds and the Americans, since each side has a conflicting agenda when it comes to providing security for the average Iraqi. In the end, they will agree on a person who can’t and won’t get much done. This spells disaster.

By way of example, Ahmad Chalabi was vetoed within the seven member UIA council by SCIRI’s Abdel-Aziz Al-Hakim, and he was rejected by both the Sunni Vice-President Tariq Al-Hashemi and the Kurdish Regional Government President Masood Barzani. Former PM Ja’afari has been recently suggesting to his visitors that Khalilzad is also against Chalabi’s nomination.

Maliki’s ministers and the staff running his office are already exhibiting tell-tale signs of ineptitude and illicit designs. Some may think it is too early to make such judgment calls, but then again, Iraq is the Land of the Bizarre, these days.

I will share some examples when the time is right. But here is some humor: the new Minister of Transportation, a Sadrist, was denied entry to the Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone yesterday because the Iraqi guards outside thought he looked too scruffy to be a government employee, according to an eye witness.

The battering being endured by Iraq’s middle class is beyond unbearable. At last, the foreign media has caught up with the ever-increasing stories of “disappearances” and the mass exodus of anyone who can afford it to anywhere outside of Iraq.

One friend put it thus: “Staying a step ahead of Saddam’s goons for a decade while using forged papers gave me some immunity to fear. But today I am afraid. I do not know who will kill me when I walk in the street. Badr kills, Mahdi Army kills, Zarqawi kills, the Police kill, the Army kill, and the criminals kill. I am very afraid.”

Meanwhile, President George Bush keeps seeing “milestones” and “turning points” in Iraq—probably because he is being led around in circles. He is not alone in his delusion; it begins right up at the gates of the Green Zone. I am amazed at the constant “happy happy talk” coming from American officials. Here is a reality check: Central Baghdad’s Dawoodi neighborhood is now part of an Islamist “regime” that issues fatwas banning salads, fatwas that frightened people are following to the letter. See, apparently cucumbers are males while tomatoes are females, and mixing them up leads to the Devil. Dawoodi is the doorstep to Mansour, and Mansour is the doorstep to Harithiya, which in turn is the doorstep to the Green Zone.

Furthermore, it is being suggested by some that the “insurgents” have found their way into the GZ by getting hired as guards for the various Sunni politicians who are now members of parliament. It is even said that a few dozen of these guards are actually wanted by the authorities.

So go figure.

And throughout all of this, some sincere—and others not so sincere—acquaintances amble up to me and ask “Was it worth it?” or “Do you regret working to bring this about?”

“Yes” and “No.” That is a “yes” to the first question, and a definite “no” to the second. No fiddling here. Read Richard Cohen’s Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post today for more:

For many who supported going to war in Iraq, the nature of the regime was important, even paramount. It is disappointing that this no longer gets mentioned. I suppose the handwriting was on the wall when Michael Moore failed to mention Hussein's crimes at all in his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11." Years from now, someone coming across the film could conclude that the United States picked on the Middle Eastern version of Switzerland. Now, all the weight is on one side of the moral scale.

But what would have happened if the war had actually ended back when George Bush stood under that "Mission Accomplished" banner? The U.S. combat death toll then was 139. (It's now approaching 2,500.) Would it have been worth 139 American lives to put an end to a regime that had murdered many thousands of its own people and had been responsible for two major wars? After all, aren't some of the people who want Washington to do something in Darfur the same people who so rigorously opposed the Iraq war on moral grounds? What if we could pacify Darfur -- immense, arid and without population centers -- at the cost of 139 American lives? What is the morality of that? Two hundred thousand have already died there. Should we intervene?

Pardon me for raising the question without answering it. I do so only to discomfort, if I can, some of the people who are so certain of their moral righteousness when it comes to the Iraq war. I want to know why the crimes of Saddam Hussein never figure into their thinking and why it was morally wrong -- not merely unwise -- to topple him. Raising this question in no way excuses the Bush administration's incompetence, fibbing and exaggerations, and the way it has abused American democracy. All that remains -- but so does the lingering question about morality.
This is why the trial of Saddam Hussein is such a calamity. The only redeeming element of this wretched war is its moral component -- the desire of some people to do good by ridding the world of a thug and his regime -- and that story, once so simple, has been obfuscated by delays and antics. We have somehow turned a criminal into a clown. It's a metaphor, it's a commentary, but mostly, like everything else about this war, it's just a damn shame.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The electricity is less than this same time last year and last year it was less than the year before it. WOW. Is anyone going to be responsible for it?

6:22 PM, May 23, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

More amusing tales of incompetence: British journalists report that during the press conference of Maliki and Tony Blair the translation headsets did not work and the Iraqi government translator was shouting while Blair was talking. Blair got annoyed and told him to stop so there was no further translation.

8:16 AM, May 24, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check the WSJ editorial today. They take the same position on Maliki.

6:07 AM, May 25, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wall Street Journal


Iraq's War Cabinet
May 25, 2006

Iraq passed another important milestone last weekend when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki won parliamentary approval for the bulk of his cabinet. But with the critical posts of Defense and Interior minister unfilled, the new body is a reminder of how much very hard work lies ahead.

Perhaps the most arresting fact about the new war cabinet is its lack of notable leaders. A few competent and well-known figures from Iraq's interim governments have returned. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari stand out. But by and large sectarian political tokenism has been the order of the day, with the victorious parties in the December election filling posts with undistinguished loyalists.

Most troubling is the lack of accountability for past performance. Take Bayan Jabr, who presided for the past year over an Interior Ministry infiltrated by "death squads" that undermined Iraqi trust in the police. Mr. Jabr is at least out of that job, but he's nonetheless gotten the plum and important Finance Ministry instead.

Meanwhile, Ahmed Chalabi, who showed his competence with several portfolios during the transition government, was vetoed for the Interior post by Mr. Jabr's Sciri party. Sciri's Badr militia appears to be a big source of the problem at Interior, and Mr. Chalabi is the kind of non-sectarian leader who could have tame the militias and build a more credible force. Instead Mr. Maliki is going to run Interior himself, though a Prime Minister has many other duties and Interior needs hands-on management.

A weak cabinet is not itself an insurmountable problem, especially since many of the posts are essentially patronage jobs. But it puts all the more burden on Prime Minister Maliki, who is new to the job and has no proven leadership record. Early reports suggest he is staffing his office with party loyalists of no great experience either. His predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, only realized the importance of a strong Prime Minister's office when it was too late. Iraq may not be able to afford another year for Mr. Maliki to learn that same lesson.

The most urgent need is for leaders in both Iraq and Washington to do more to improve security in Baghdad. The White House has been right to point out that the media have missed many good news stories in Iraq, but current coverage probably understates the trauma of daily life in the capital. Iraq can survive the car bombs we hear about on the news. The real problem is more generalized lawlessness and a lack of basic services like electricity that have made normal life nasty, brutish and too often short.

Educated Iraqis are fleeing Baghdad in increasing numbers, a terrible sign for the country's democratic future if the exodus is not stopped. The new government and coalition commanders may have to think in terms of a major redeployment of U.S. and Iraqi forces, with the aim of securing Baghdad at all costs. A 30-day plan for a more visible street presence and with frequent security checkpoints would be one place to start.

All of which points out again the troubles that have arisen from the terribly slow transition to Iraqi sovereignty. The momentum of Saddam Hussein's swift fall from power was squandered as Iraqis were forced to wait more than a year and a half to vote in their first free election. Then that election was held under a system of "proportional representation" that exacerbated the very sectarian trends that are plaguing the country now.

Victory for the U.S. mission is still possible, though it is going to require a continued American political and military commitment. Thus we are glad to see that the Bush Administration is not using the timing of this new government in Iraq as an excuse to signal major troop withdrawals. If anything, the new government will need a renewed U.S. willingness to help as it tries to subdue the insurgency and restore some civil order -- on which everything else hangs.

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8:49 AM, May 25, 2006

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