Monday, January 14, 2008

What Have You Spun for Me Lately?, Part II

In Part I of this series, I focused on the lessons not-quite-learned by the media/punditocracy, despite their earnest apologies for the shoddy reporting in the months leading up to the Iraq war. Far too many of the same entities/individuals that helped to sell the invasion are failing to abide by the terms of their mea culpas by uncritically repeating the dubious "Surge is a success" narrative - a story-line that could very well lead to the prolongment of our debilitating involvement in Iraq. In this Part II, I want to take a closer look at the recent political "breakthrough" that will be used, tendentiously, to bolster the claim that The Surge has, in fact, delivered "victory."

As if right on cue, Secretary of State Rice took to the press to tout the fact that national reconciliation was now moving ahead "quite remarkably" - now that the Iraqi parliament has passed a law that, ostensibly, eases de-Baathification. The problems with this new law are manifold in both its substance and legislative history/process. First, while the law has passed parliament, it has not been approved by the Maliki cabinet (although I don't foresee this being a major obstacle).

More problematic is the fact that a law that is supposed to signify a major step toward national reconciliation was only passed by approximately one-fourth of the parliament (a bare majority of the 50% of parliament then in session). Further, the law was criticized most vociferously by the Sunni ex-Baathist groups that it was meant to appeal to, and lauded by the Shiite and Kurdish groups that have been most traditionally opposed to easing de-Baathification. In other words, the merits of the law in terms of outreach to the Sunni community is in serious question.

Worse still, the new law may require many ex-Baathists currently employed in government roles to retire, and current and prospective employees to register with the central government - a government replete with Shiite militias notorious for sectarian cleansing (such as those run by US-ally ISCI and the Sadrist current). Some Sunnis fear that this law could ultimately serve as a means to compile lists for further targeting ex-Baathists. Swopa highlights the relevant text:

"It's a good step for many reasons," said Falah Hassan Shanshal, who leads the parliamentary committee overseeing the legislation and is a member of the Shiite party loyal to influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "First, it condemns all the crimes carried out by the Baath Party and its bloody regime. And this law will allow us to search for and detect every single person who committed a crime against Iraqis."

Nothing quite says reconciliation like knowing al-Sadr's death squads will be taking a close look at your record, eh? Somehow, I don't think either forgiving or forgetting is on their agenda.

Spencer Ackerman adds the appropriate snark:

Welcome back to the world of fake reconciliation. At long last, the Shiite/Kurdish government finally passes a de-Baathification law, only the law is phony. The Sunnis are outraged: one Sunni parliamentarian calls the law "a sword on the neck of the people." But the Shiites throw their hands up and say What do you want from us? It took us over a year of arduous compromise to get to this point. That's as far as we can go!

It's that last, italicized part that I want to focus on, because it neatly encapsulates the overriding agenda of the Maliki government and the ruling Shiite/Kurdish coalition more generally speaking. Far too often, pundits, policymakers and observers are left wondering if Maliki has the "power" to usher in the legislative raft associated with national reconciliation. The better question has always been whether Maliki (or his predecessor Jaafari, or any viable replacement) had the will. In reality, Maliki has always been more inclined to make a show of pushing for reconciliation more than actually setting about to enact such a platform. As Henley put it so colorfully last June:

Look, weak leaders have been fending off strong foreign suzerains for a long time. Very few of them are stupid enough to take the “Why don’t you shove that oil law up your ass?” approach. Instead they declare their pious wish to comply, shrug their shoulders and gesture helplessly in that “You see vhat I have to verk with, Mr. Napier” way of the quack who operates on the Joker in the first Tim Burton Batman movie.

And so we get fake, half-hearted reconciliation from a ruling regime that only recently declared national reconciliation to be mission accomplished already! No more work needed!

In this, Maliki seems to be paying much more attention to the exigencies of America's domestic political scene than we are to Iraq's. He has the situation pretty well calibrated: do enough to provide the Bush team and its allies with a PR coup, while not actually ceding any of the money, power and control thought necessary to actually make progress toward reconciliation.

Everybody wins! (and loses)

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