Monday, August 27, 2007

Robert Blackwill Hearts Ayad Allawi

David Ignatius offers up this head scratcher:

In "back to the future" mode, the name being mentioned these days is Ayad Allawi, a former Baathist who was interim prime minister and has strong support among Sunnis, even though he's a secular Shiite. Allawi has bundles of money to help buy political support, but it comes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, rather than the United States.

Strong support among the Sunnis? Really? I wonder where Ignatius is getting that information. Actually, I know of one potential source. As Spencer Ackerman reported about the public relations/lobbying firm recently retained by Allawi for the tidy sum of $600,000 $300,000:

But [Barbour Griffith & Rogers'] ties with Allawi perhaps shouldn't be so surprising. Among BGR's executives is Ambassador Bob Blackwill, who in 2004 served as the White House's Iraq coordinator. In that role, Blackwill was an enthusiastic booster of Allawi, helping manage the process that led to Allawi's selection by the U.S. and the U.N. as interim prime minister in advance of the dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority. After the 2005 elections in Iraq, Blackwill wrote a laudatory op-ed in The Wall Street Journal praising Allawi's strategy for crushing the insurgency: "Mr. Allawi's message is simple: Join us in building the new Iraq and accept its benefits or, if you support the insurgency, get ready to die."

Robert Blackwill, who famously offered up this up-is-down critique of Bush administration critics, has long been a supporter of Ayad Allawi (as Spencer noted):

....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.

Hyping up the actual levels of indigenous support for Allawi has been a tendency for Blackwill. Back in December of 2005, in an interview at the Council on Foreign Relations conducted by none other than David Ignatius himself, Blackwill made the following prediction about the number of seats Allawi would win in the then-upcoming elections:

The—Allawi is coming on fast, apparently, in Baghdad, especially. So I don’t know whether it’ll be 40-ish. Could be lower. Could be somewhat higher.

Allawi eventually won 25 seats, about 40% fewer than predicted by Blackwill. Interestingly, in that same interview, Blackwill acknowledged that the participation of Sunnis in the December 2005 election would shift the number of seats held by each group (since the prior Sunni boycott artificially boosted the numbers of the non-Sunni parties that did participate, and a correction would now occur).

Just to remind you, there are 275 seats in the Iraqi parliament. In the last election, January election, the Shi’a Alliance got 140 seats, so an absolute majority in that election. The Kurds were at 75 seats, and Allawi’s party was at 40. And the Sunnis had, if I remember correctly, 16, because, of course, they didn’t participate. And it was a national election, one constituency, so it favored turnout.

If support for Allawi was really strong amongst Sunni groups, however, one would have expected Allawi to benefit (or at least avoid harm) from the inclusion of Sunnis. Instead, his list went from 40 seats to 25 - a steeper percentage drop than either the Shiites or Kurds. The influx of Sunni support (or lack thereof) wasn't even enough for him to tread water - or lose seats at the same pace of the other groups that have almost zero Sunni support (ed note: the Kurds are mostly Sunni, but vote for strictly Kurdish parties, and Sunni Arabs don't vote for Kurdish parties as a general rule).

In Blackwill's defense, his assessment was sober compared so some of the fantastic thinking engaged in by pundits like Michael Rubin and the Wall St Journal editorial board:

On the other hand, the American favorite and secular Shiite, Ayad Allawi, may do better than he did in January. But he also may have trouble forming a government because he is mistrusted by many religious Shiites and some of his associates were tainted by corruption when he was interim prime minister. This could open the way for Ahmed Chalabi--who ran his own candidate list and has demonstrated his competence as energy minister--to form a government. The Kurds, who may carry 25% of the seats, will play a key brokering role.

Chalabi, of course, did much worse than Allawi garnering less than 1% of the vote. Unsurprisingly, he never did quite make it to the prime minister's office.

Back to exaggerated Allawi-boosterism, though. Perhaps the situation has changed since that election, and there is now "strong support" for Allawi in the Sunni community (with Allawi being a tolerable option when faced with the alternative of a Shiite controlled government continuing in power). It is hard to know without seeing actual poll numbers conducted by reputable, non-partisan firms that are not on the payroll of, or influenced by, the many media-manipulating allies that Allawi has, literally, employed. Suffice it to say, there is ample reason to strongly doubt that Allawi has strong support in the Sunni community, and such support - to the extent it exists- would be entirely contingent on Allawi's ability to counter Shiite power (and his usefulness, as such, would expire when the Sunnis believe they can achieve this goal without him).

Which brings me to another item that stuck out from Blackwill's interview with Ignatius - this bit of (mis-?)information:

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. [emphasis mine throughout]

Again, it seems quite implausible that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani would have ever offered such explicit support for Allawi (or even implicit). Regardless, one thing is certain beyond a doubt: Sistani would never support Allawi now, especially an Allawi that had significant support in the Sunni community for the above stated reasons. If the Bush administration thinks that Iraq will be any more manageable with Allawi installed as the strong-man leader of a non-democratic state, one opposed by Sistani and the Shiite majority (a theory that is rather en vogue these days), then I would offer this corrected, accurate version of Robert Blackwill's infamous quote:

...the [Bush administration and its supporters] have been [pollyannaish] 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 [pollyannaish] and go on being wrong.

(hat tip Matt Y)

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