Saturday, December 2, 2006

Saudis Threaten to Back the Baathists (Again) in a New Iraq Proxy War

Never mind the report of James Baker’s Iraq Study Group, whose primary purpose appears to be achieving national unity in Washington, and whose broad recommendations for a slow drawdown of American troops and a new focus on regional diplomacy may already have been eclipsed by events, and will almost certainly be mangled by an Administration still wedded to too many of its most damaging illusions. The most important documents to surface in Washington this week were, instead, the memo by Bush’s national security adviser Stephen Hadley leaked to the New York Times, and an extraordinary op-ed in the Washington Post by a well-known senior adviser to the Saudi regime that threatened, among other things, that the Saudis would provide financial and military support to the Sunni insurgency if the U.S. begins a phased withdrawal from Iraq.

Both documents reflect the extent to which Iraq has been plunged into chaos, although the media may have misjudged the relative significance of each: It was generally reported that it was a fit of pique at the contents of the Hadley memo that prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to snub Wednesday night’s scheduled dinner in Amman with Bush and King Abdulla. But, as my colleague Bobby Ghosh reports from Baghdad, Maliki was snubbing Abdullah rather than Bush:

Analysts say the Iraqi Prime Minister, a Shi’ite, doesn’t trust Jordan’s Sunni monarch and did not want to discuss sensitive issues with Bush in Abdullah’s presence.

Indeed, and that sentiment may have more to do with what is revealed in the Saudi op ed than in Hadley’s memo.

The most remarkable thing about Hadley’s memo is its spectacular naivete. Much of the media has focused on the fact that the document shows the Administration’s real assessment of Maliki is far removed from Bush’s public show of support for him. No question that to anyone who’s read Hadley’s report, or is familiar with the thinking of U.S. officials, Bush’s claim that “Maliki is the right guy for Iraq” sounds almost sarcastic. But even more alarming are the steps Hadley recommends Maliki should be pressed to take — break his alliance with Moqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite sectarian politician on whose support Maliki rode into power, appoint a cabinet of technocrats and abandon his Dawa party circle of advisers in favor of a more “representative” one, make more overtures to the Sunnis and Baathists, etc. Hadley warns

[Maliki] may simply not have the political or security capabilities to take such steps, which risk alienating his narrow Sadrist political base and require a greater number of more reliable forces. Pushing Maliki to take these steps without augmenting his capabilities could force him to failure — if the Parliament removes him from office with a majority vote or if action against the Mahdi militia (JAM) causes elements of the Iraqi Security Forces to fracture and leads to major Shia disturbances in southern Iraq. We must also be mindful of Maliki’s personal history as a figure in the Dawa Party — an underground conspiratorial movement — during Saddam’s rule. Maliki and those around him are naturally inclined to distrust new actors, and it may take strong assurances from the United States ultimately to convince him to expand his circle of advisers or take action against the interests of his own Shia coalition and for the benefit of Iraq as a whole…

…We could help him form a new political base among moderate politicians from Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and other communities. Ideally, this base would constitute a new parliamentary bloc that would free Maliki from his current narrow reliance on Shia actors. (This bloc would not require a new election, but would rather involve a realignment of political actors within the Parliament). In its creation, Maliki would need to be willing to risk alienating some of his Shia political base and may need to get the approval of Ayatollah Sistani for actions that could split the Shia politically.

You have to wonder, where has Hadley been for the past three years? Maliki is a Shiite politician elected in a democratic process in which most Iraqis voted on the basis of sect or ethnicity. His political and quite possibly his physical survival depend on his place at the center of the ruling Shiite coalition, of which he is a partisan. He’s a longtime Dawa activist with historic ties to Iran and Syria. And he is obviously mindful of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s injunction that, above all, Shiite politicians are obliged to maintain their united front. And Hadley imagines that at the behest of a hapless Bush Administration, Maliki’s going to give up on everything that he is and instead, be remade as a political creature of the U.S. [EM] a second Iyad Allawi, if you like. (Allawi, the last U.S.-appointed prime minister who pursued a similar strategy to the one outlined by Hadley lost heavily in the last election, and today lives primarily in London.) Hadley appears to be still laboring under the illusions of 2003, in which the U.S. can seek out actors and mould the Iraqi political landscape to its satisfaction. Let’s just say that the week started for Maliki with the U.S. warning him to drop Moqtada Sadr or else, and Sadr telling him to drop the U.S. or else. And it ended with Moqtada saying maybe he wouldn’t quit the government after all. And I’d say it’s a safe bet that Maliki will welcome his renewed support, regardless of Hadley’s coalition plans.

The Saudis, on the other hand, have never shared the illusions that guided Team Bush’s invasion of Iraq. For Nawaf Obaid, known as a top adviser to the ruling royal family who would be unlikely to weigh in unless his views were approved by Riyadh, the current malaise in Iraq is simply vindication of King Abdullah’s warning that invading to topple Saddam would cause more problems than it would solve.

Obaid was blunt: If the U.S. starts scaling down its involvement, the Saudis would be obliged to rally to the defense of the Sunnis, primarily by supporting the Sunni insurgency against what he sees as the Iranian-led Shiites. Indeed, he warns, it would do so on behalf of Jordan and Egypt as well:

Over the past year, a chorus of voices has called for Saudi Arabia to protect the Sunni community in Iraq and thwart Iranian influence there. Senior Iraqi tribal and religious figures, along with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Muslim countries, have petitioned the Saudi leadership to provide Iraqi Sunnis with weapons and financial support. Moreover, domestic pressure to intervene is intense. Major Saudi tribal confederations, which have extremely close historical and communal ties with their counterparts in Iraq, are demanding action.

Obaid says the Saudis have until now rebuffed those calls having promised Bush they would stay out, and that they couldn’t be sure that Sunni insurgent groups they backed wouldn’t attack U.S. forces. “They will, however, be heeded if American troops begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq,” he warns. Not only would the Saudis start funding and arming the insurgency (as they say Iran is doing to the Shiite militias), they would also — and here it gets plain nutty — consider pumping more oil (!!) to bring down the price and make it harder for Iran to sustain its support of its Iraqi allies. (Imagine if the Iranians took that seriously and decided to respond by stopping Saudi oil shipments through the Hormuz Straits…)

Obaid says the Saudis know they could set off a war, but they also believe that they have no option becuase the U.S. drawing down troops would leave the Sunnis vulnerable to massacre.

This extraordinary intervention not only reveals the extent of panic among Washington’s key regional allies; its willingness to countenance a return to the tradition of funding holy wars abroad in defense of Sunnis under attack — one way to get rid of the challenge of the radicals at home, of course (it was a similar impulse in the Afghan jihad that gave us Osama bin Laden, after all) is pretty bizarre. It also underscores the talk of a Sunni strategy, with Obaid stressing that talks with Cheney had been positive. What’s interesting here, though, is that the “Sunni Front” that the U.S. has hoped to build against Iran may be taking shape, but one of its prime objectives may be rolling back the Shiite-led government that Iraqi democracy produced. (There was a reason, after all, that the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt had supported Saddam in his war with Iran.)

The strategy is a non-starter, of course, not only because it would set the U.S. against the majority of Iraqis, which is an untenable situation for an occupying army, but because the regional dynamic in the wake of the Iraq war has accelerated the collapse of the old regional order on which it is based. For all Obaid’s tough talk, the Iranians are unlikely to be quivering in their boots at the prospect of a more robust Saudi intervention in the region. The response of the region to last summer’s conflagration in Lebanon, where the Saudis initially blamed Hizballah and were then forced to retract as the Arab street rallied overwhelmingly behind the Shiite guerrilla movement, was a sign that as hostile as they may be to Iranian influence, the old Sunni autocracies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are increasingly marginal players in the region. Bush succeeded in his aim of breaking the old order when he invaded Iraq, but the new Middle East he has created is nothing like what he intended. But it remains highly unlikely that this Administration is ever going to be ready to engage with the realities that it has helped create — a region in which most of the traditional U.S. allies have been repudiated and the representative political forces tend to be Islamist in character and hostile to Washington’s influence.

So, instead, as Antonio Gramsci warned us about situations in which the old order is dying but the new cannot be born, “in this interregnum, morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.” Brace yourselves.

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