Monday, February 13, 2006

What's Old Is New Again

I know I've been pretty hard on Robert Blackwill lately (here, here and here), but he deserves it. If you're going to make a statement such as this, well then you better be prepared to back it up:

...the critics have been pessimistic and wrong for well over a year with regard to the evolution of the Iraqi political process. And they've been wrong on every single important pivotal event. They were wrong on the elections. And they will probably go on being pessimistic and go on being wrong.
Especially when those same critics have actually been right about almost "every single important pivotal event since the invasion." Often, these critics, myself included, have been labeled pessimists - with a frequent insinuation that such pessimism is actually contributing to undermine the mission. As one such pessimistic critic (noted for his uncanny accuracy in the art of prognostication) observed: "optimistic interpretations don't have a very good track record in Iraq."

For some staunch Bush supporters, however, to reach any conclusion based on empirical evidence and analysis that is not wildly optimistic is tantamount to treason, backstabbing and aiding and abetting the enemy. But this misses the point big time: if you're trying to craft effective policy going forward in Iraq, it's better to have a dispassionate, honest and accurate assessment - not some PR driven spin that plays well in Peoria. I think we learned that lesson the hard way by reaping the returns of the enormously bungled pre-war planning which itself showed a rigid preference for ideological purity, message discipline and best-case scenario planning over expertise, dialectical debate and thoroughness. At least we should have learned that lesson.

So Blackwill's spurious claims, and the arguments of those that adhere to the "cheering louder is the key to success" argument need to be discredited and exposed. Repeatedly. The stakes are simply too high. The better we understand the nature of the problems in Iraq, the better we can prepare strategically. The better informed the American people are about the contours of the struggle going forward, the less apt they will be to become disillusioned by all the "hard work." And at the end of the day, this is a democracy and it functions better with a well informed citizenry. In that pursuit, let's return to the "almost always right" Blackwill and see how he, once again, outdueled those nattering nabobs of negativism in the liberal commentariat. This time regarding the prime minister selection process:

If you were Ladbrookes [sic] and you were touting it today, you’d tout it that the next prime minister of Iraq...would be Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is the current vice president of Iraq, the Shi’a vice president, a former finance minister, member of the Governing Council and so forth. [...]

...the last year has been very, very negative. And I think you’ve described it fairly with respect to the leadership during that period and the ministers and so forth. why shouldn’t it continue? Well, first of all, we’re going to have a new leadership in the Iraqi government. We’re going to have a new prime minister. I would suspect we’re going to have a very substantial change in the ministers of the Iraqi government. I think the Interior minister is unlikely to continue in his position, but others as well. And I would suspect that you’ll find more competent people appointed to these positions, so that’s good, too. [emphasis added]
Hope Mr. Blackwill didn't wager too much with Ladbrokes huh? As praktike points out, that "new prime minister" Blackwill was touting in December turns out to be a familiar face after all:

... and al-Jafaari it is yet again, only this time he's heavily supported by the Sadrists. That should make for interesting relations with the US. [emphasis added]
Funny thing too, that in Blackwill's entire interview he didn't even countenance the possibility of Jafaari retaining the leadership. But he did waste space with the proposition that the largely unpopular Iyad Allawi could emerge as the dark horse.

When I was there with Ambassador Bremer and U.N. Representative Brahimi working on the interim government, we found a way to ask Sistani which of the Shi’a candidates or members, potential prime ministers, he might support, and he came back with three names. Two of them were Abdul Mahdi and Iyad Allawi. So I don’t have any reason to believe that’s changed.
Something has changed between now and then apparently. Either Sistani has grown fond of Jafaari, Blackwill lacked an accurate read of Sistani's actual intentions or - as prak alluded to - Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged as the real kingmaker, pushing Sistani to the sidelines to some extent. A prospect that is probably causing some nervous jitters in Zal Khalilzad's camp. And with good reason. Jafaari is far from being a consensus candidate and his attitudes toward inclusion and his track record of governance leave much to be desired. Sadr, for his part, has been outspoken in his hostility to the US presence in theater and about his willingness to defend Syria and Iran with his Mahdi Army should the US strike either of those nations militarily. A recent article by Nancy Youssef of Knight Ridder discusses some of the reaction in Iraq:

Shiite lawmakers Sunday named interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a devout Iranian-backed politician, to be their new prime minister.

Al-Jaafari may have caused some trouble in his acceptance statement, however. He vowed in it to uphold the country's constitution, a non-controversial position normally, but some Sunni leaders are insisting on changes in the constitution because it was written largely without their input.

"The main basis for dialogue will primarily be the constitution, respect for the constitution and its contents," said al-Jaafari, noting that Iraqis had ratified the document in a referendum in October. [...]

Among Iraq's Sunni populace, disappointment was clear.

"We said to ourselves, 'Let's give Adil Abdel Mahdi a try,' because al-Jaafari did not accomplish the needs of the Iraqi people," said Mohammed Ayad, 48, a Sunni and former Army officer. "We have tried Jaafari already and the security situation got worse, the economy is weaker and there are more random raids."

Some Kurdish leaders also expressed dismay, largely over al-Jaafari's failure to deal with issues key to them. The biggest of these are the autonomy of their region and the normalization of the northern, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, to which many Kurds, ousted by Saddam, want to return, recover property and rebuild lives. [...]

U.S. officials hope that al-Jaafari can assemble a coalition government that draws in enough Sunni support to drain backing for the Sunni-led insurgency that threatens to ignite a civil war. Were the insurgency to fade, American and allied troops could leave.

That hope seemed distant Sunday as leaders of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party said they did not rule out walking away from an al-Jaafari-led government.
The two over-arching goals of the recent round of elections were to: (i) create a government of inclusion that would draw Sunnis into the political process and away from the insurgencies; and (ii) create positive momentum for the passage of amendments to the constitution that would allay Sunni fears about disempowerment and create the framework for a unified and peaceful Iraq and similarly sap the insurgencies. Jafaari's emergence as the prime minister doesn't appear to be advancing either of those goals. So far.

Meanwhile, the US is leaning on its Kurdish allies to try to shoe-horn Allawi into the government regardless. But as I pointed out above, Sadr (whose support swung the internal UIA vote to Jafaari) has made the exclusion of Allawi a bright line test. Can Jafaari really afford to cross Sadr so soon? Or at all? Mr. Never Right-adamus suggests that the Kurds might soften their demands for Allawi's inclusion if the right concessions on Kirkuk are offered - as they have in the past. But what does he know.

I wonder what the odds are at Ladbrokes that this current dynamic will change to our liking in the near future. Mr. Blackwill, care to wager with an "almost always wrong" pessimist? Just name the stakes.

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