Thursday, September 20, 2007

Hooper Drives the Boat, Chiefy

Deborah Avant has some informed speculation on the behind the scenes motives underlying the recent Blackwater controversy:

Is it accidental that the Iraqi government's reaction to the latest Blackwater incident comes on the heels of U.S. criticism of Iraqi progress?

The United States sent in an army of private-security contractors (PSCs) with only a whiff of controversy as the insurgency mounted in Iraq - contrasting sharply with the hoopla over the so-called surge. But this week's media frenzy demonstrates the political pitfalls of a reliance on companies like Blackwater. The Iraqi government is certainly justified in raising questions about how these companies operate, especially regarding the still unclear legal status of PSC personnel. But the Iraqi government has reacted mildly to the dozen or so previous incidents that have reached the Western press, making Maliki's outraged calls for the expulsion of Blackwater and a review of all PSCs working in Iraq seem puzzling at first. One wonders, though, if Maliki’s reaction to this incident is driven by a desire to take the spotlight off the Iraqi government's failures and buy it some bargaining room, both in domestic circles and with the Americans. Practically, the United States cannot operate in Iraq without PSCs—and Maliki knows this. The chance to point a finger at one of the more controversial elements of U.S. strategy and put the United States on the hot seat even while sticking up for Iraqi sovereignty in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad is probably too good for him to pass up. [emphasis added]

Avant is most likely correct that this sudden outrage - at least on the part of Maliki - is an opportunistic ploy. That is not to say that Maliki or any other Iraqi should be silent about the abuses of Blackwater, it's just that the relative inattention shown to numerous past examples of Blackwater's misconduct suggests that there are likely ulterior motives for the recent protestations.

Maliki is no chump after all. He knows how the game is played, and he knows enough about the precariousness of the US position in Iraq to remind the Bush team that ultimately, the "sovereign" Iraqis still have a lot of say about tolerating the US presence. There are more ways than one to cripple the efforts of the US in Iraq. With all this talk about "coups" and "replacing Maliki," the prime minister would be foolish to let slip this opportunity to remind Bush of his indispensability, and potency.

The domestic political boon for Maliki is also something to consider, but that one could get a little thorny. Sticking up for the Sunni neighborhood in question - and taking a vocal stance against an unpopular aspect of the occupation - will redound to his benefit; temporarily at least. But if he eventually capitulates to the US and allows Blackwater to continue its activities unscathed, his domestic gains will become losses, especially with Sadr around to drive the point home (this domestic hit would occur even if Maliki's leverage vis-a-vis the Americans improves in the process).

Thus, I think the primary audience was likely the Bush administration and its allies. Après moi, le déluge, with a little, "That's a nice mercenary force you got there, be a shame if something happened to it" thrown in for good measure. With the stakes thus clarified for all parties involved, I would expect the pressure to ease on Maliki and Blackwater concomitantly.

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