Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Fistful of Dinar

Publius raised an interesting issue in the comments to a recent piece cross-posted on AmFoot, and the topic is worth the space of a full post in response. Said Publius:

It's difficult when I watch Duke-North Carolina games because I want both teams to lose [ed note: he's an unapologetic Kentucky fan for the record]. I feel something similar when I watch the intra-Shiite civil war. Thus my question -- who should I be rooting for? I'm assuming a SIIC-run nation would be the most likely to impose order (not least b/c they would gets lots of assistance/resources/etc. from a nation with a desire to avoid a messy vortex-causing civil war). It also seems the most fertile ground for agreements with Iran ("help us and we'll help SIIC set up shop"). The Sunnis of course, no idea there, but I still feel like Iran-based parties have the most capability of controlling genocide, even if they have no inclination to do so.

This is a very good question, and one that we should be grappling with given the fact that withdrawal will occur one way or the other over the next few years and we might want to position ourselves with respect to the post-occupation period. I've been so busy trying to parse the intricacies of the ever-evolving political dynamic that I haven't really given it much thought. That, and there really is no obvious answer. There is no easily identifiable "good guy" that would obviate the need to dedicate the brain power necessary to be able to wade into the murky realm of the multiple cost/benefit analyses and come out feeling confident about a recommendation.

Now Jim Henley would probably chide us for presuming: (a) that the US government should actually get involved with internal Iraqi politics any further such that we would continue to interfere; and (b) that the US government could actually achieve its desired outcomes in these endeavors without pyrrhic levels of blowback/counterproductive unintended consequences. [ed: Jim, if I've misread your inclinations, I apologize, but maybe you would agree to play along ex arguendo]. In relation to (b) above, there's also the "reverse midas" phenomenon to consider, whereby we would actually undermine our favored party by tarnishing their image through association with our support.

Then again, publius' question is actually about "rooting" for one faction or another, which would allow for a purely sentimental position taken in connection with a more passive, hands-off role. Thus, we can table the Henley-themed objections for now.

So back to the opaque and convoluted cost/benefit exercise. The short answer to the question of who to root for is: it depends on what the underlying objectives are. It is quite possible that the ultimate answer is: none of the above. A closer look at the costs/benefits that would be associated with the ascendancy of each of the major players will illustrate my point.

Before that, though, it is worth noting that actual "genocide" is very unlikely. The Sunnis are too potent a military force, and they have too much backing from neighboring regimes/populations to fall victim to mass extinction ala genocide. An elevated level of civil war is certainly possible, and the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad and other mixed regions could get much uglier (or simply continue apace). But the overall situation does not seem particularly conducive (pdf) to genocide. That is why I find Eli Lake's definition of "victory" so interesting. His criteria for victory: "avoiding a competitive, confessional genocide." Under this rubric, I'd say we've won already. Can we go home now?

Back to the actual analysis. Rooting for the Sunnis seems like a waste of effort. First and foremost, they don't have the numerical supremacy necessary to exert control Iraq via anything resembling a democratic process. The only way, then, would be for a despotic rule built around the use of coercive force. In this regard, though, the Shiite cat has slipped out of the bag, and there's no getting it back in. Not without military assets, and a system wide security apparatus, that would be potent enough to defeat the well armed Shiite militias and "official" Iraqi government forces (something comparable to Saddam's, say). Even if the Sunnis managed to pull it off (they've done it before), the former Baathists wouldn't re-enter their erstwhile positions of power with a newly minted liberalism. They would rule Iraq the only way they could given the precariousness of their minority position - like Saddam. Almost impossible to root for that.

To the Shiites then. The most intriguing option, I would say, is rooting for Sadr. The upside: he is firmly rooted (ideologically speaking) in concepts of nationalism, Sunni-Shiite unity and opposition to the interference of foreign powers. He is the most independent from Iranian influence of all the major Shiite factions. The Sadrist leaders and organization stayed in Iraq during the 1980s and 1990s when the SCIRI (aka SIIC, now ISCI) and Dawa factions fled to Iran and Syria. As a result, ties to Iran are far less potent. This refusal to flee also feeds Sadr's nationalist cred vis-a-vis his Shiite rivals. If our goal is to cut Iran out of the deal as much as possible, we should be pulling for him.

This is not to say that Sadr refuses all aid and support from Iran - or that he would be overly hostile to Tehran as the leader of Iraq. He would be foolish to assume such a posture. It's just that Sadr and his current are not beholden to Iran the same way the others are. That, and his nationalistic cred and Sunni outreach might make him at least a tolerable Shiite leader for many Sunnis (perhaps after an exhausting war, or simply a few years more of the current levels of bloodshed). In addition, Sadr remains intent on maintaining the terrotorial integrity of Iraq. If holding Iraq together is a goal then, again, Sadr is the one to root for.

In addition, Sadr's Hezbollah-esque system of delivering services to the community seems to produce more results than the more cronyistic/personally enriching tendencies of the Dawa/ISCI leadership. This might improve the lot of the Iraqis in the ensuing years.

The problem with Sadr is that his ideological dedication to nationalism and Shiite/Sunni unity has been more consistent than the actual actions of his cadres (ethnic cleansing, vigilante reprisal killings, preemptive killings of former Baathists, etc). In rebuttal, some observers have argued that these violent acts are not sanctioned by Sadr, and that he does not control his footsoldiers to the extent that he can prevent these serial transgressions. But that's not exactly an endorsement of his abilities as an effective leader. There are also concerns about the depth of expertise within his organization. Does the Sadrist current have the technocrats necessary to run a country like Iraq? I can't say.

On to Dawa/ISCI. I'll treat these two as one unit because of their similar political lineage/recent experiences, common outlook and the close cooperative relationship they've forged during their joint tenure as stewards of the UIA. The leaders and followers are also closer in class and socioeconomic status to each other, than the more populist and less affluent Sadrists (actually a source of tension).

As publius mentioned, Dawa/ISCI have the "institutional" support of Iran, as well as the Bush administration, ironically enough. Dawa/ISCI have been able to pull off this patronage two-step with a Yojimbo-like dexterity - with the caveat being that, unlike the narrative in Yojimbo (and A Fistfull of Dollars for Sergio Leone fans), Dawa/ISCI actually have a preference for one of their benefactors [hint: it ain't us]. This would position them well to reap foreign aid and assistance going forward.

The problem with this is that even with this influx of foreign assistance, Dawa/ISCI's leadership, as mentioned above, is rife with graft and corruption and short on concern for the plight of the Iraqi people - a lack of concern that is perhaps fueled by the lack of connection to Iraq and the daily lives of Iraqis born out of their prolonged exile. This also limits their nationalistic cred, and certainly cuts short any cross-sectarian appeal (they are viewed as synomymous with Iran in many Sunni communities - and even by many Shiites).

Also as publius pointed out, the Dawa/ISCI option would provide the optimal vehicle for reaching an Iranian/American accord on the future governance of Iraq. This, however, would entail leaving Iraq under leadership that is rather inclined toward Tehran.

Like the Sadrists, Dawa/ISCI's hands are dirty when it comes to ethnic cleansing and the targeted killings of former Baathists and other Sunni elements (see, ie, Bayan Jabr, the Badr Corp and the Interior Ministry generally speaking). It is unclear if one faction would be better in terms of tamping sectarian violence, but at least Sadr has a stronger rhetorical inclination for Shiite/Sunni unity. In addition, while there is a track record of sectarian violence under Dawa/ISCI's leadership, a Sadr-dominated regime is still a relative unknown (to the extent that maturation/enlightened tendencies/more comprehensive control over armed factions would grow out of national leadership, Sadr could improve on Dawa/ISCI's record).

Finally, Dawa/ISCI are more likely to push for the separation of Iraq. If partition - or even soft partition - is the goal, then these are our guys.

The smaller parties like Fadhila are too numerically insignificant to warrant consideration as a potential ruling faction. Ditto the "secular" politicians whose most visible leaders, Ayad Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi, are so tainted by ties to the Bush administration (and the Baath Party and CIA in the case of Allawi), and lacking in popular support as to render them non-entities for these purposes. Any attempt to implant either as a strongman would be rejected by virtually every other faction in Iraq. It would be a rare occasion of cross-sectarian unity. The Kurds, for their part, want no part in ruling Arab Iraq, and are content to back whichever faction is most inclined to allow them to continue their march toward de facto, if not de jure, independence.

In conclusion, the Sunnis, smaller Shiite parties and "secular" leaders lack the popular support necessary to govern democratically, and the military means/internal security apparatus to exert effective control over all of Iraq via a more dictatorial regime type. In terms of the major Shiite factions, it comes down to a choice between two less-than-inspiring options - both of which would likely fail to stave off continued conflict and ethnic cleansing, and each has unique drawbacks as set forth above.

The preference should be informed by the underlying objectives: The Sadrits offer a regime that would be more independent from Iran, would push to keep Iraq's territorty intact, could utilize its social service network model to relieve some of the hardships currently faced by Iraqis and might be able to appeal to a certain segment of the Sunni population, eventually. Dawa/ISCI would provide us with an ideal means to reach an accord with Iran (and Iran would have less inclination to destabilize Iraq going forward with their proxies in control), would enjoy the largesse of multiple foreign benefactors and would be more amenable to some form of soft partition.

Not a lot of good here. Mostly bad and ugly.

[POSTSCRIPT: While this post was based on the assumption that we would (or should) be withdrawing from Iraq in the near future, it is worth pointing out that the extent to which maintaining a permanent presence in Iraq is indeed an objective, there are key differences in terms of selecting which faction to "root" for. ISCI/Dawa are amenable to our presence (assuming we don't tilt too far toward the Sunnis - which is no guarantee), while the Sadrists are far more hostile to such an arrangement.

The similar position shared by ISCI/Dawa vis-a-vis the occupation is one more reason that I lumped ISCI and Dawa together for purposes of this post. Along those lines, Justin Delabar raises some valid objections to this unnuanced approach that are worth considering. My response to Justin is here.

Finally, while I was looking back through the archives for something unrelated today, I came across this admonition from Zeyad which came in the context of US military involvement in an intra-Shiite power struggle around Najaf in January of this year (the so-called "doomsday" cult massacre):

Hint for the U.S.: There are no "bad guys" and "good guys" in Iraq. Everyone has dirty hands. It makes no sense for you, nor is it going to improve anything in Iraq, to side with one bad guy against another, just because you're so confused that you can't differentiate between friend and foe. Just please remember that.
Probably the best advice on the topic.]

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