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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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February 28, 2005

Radio Commentary: Gleichschaltung and the "War on Terrorism"

My latest commentary for Uprising Radio:

Notwithstanding the increasing rhetoric about the Bush administration’s democratic impulses in the Middle East, new plans are afoot that are anything but democratic.

One is the planned expansion of the so-called “war on terrorism.”

According to anonymous officials quoted in the Washington Post, “The Pentagon is promoting a global counterterrorism plan that would allow Special Operations forces to enter a foreign country to conduct military operations without explicit concurrence from the U.S. ambassador there.” Says the Post, “The plan would weaken the long-standing ‘chief of mission’ authority under which the U.S. ambassador, as the president's top representative in a foreign country, decides whether to grant entry to U.S. government personnel based on political and diplomatic considerations.” One counterterrorism official is even quoted as saying, "This is a military order on a global scale, something that hasn't existed since World War II.”

As I wrote about previously, there is a growing understanding in the administration that both its Iraq and its "war on terrorism" policies have been resounding failures and concomitantly require a change of course. Around November, the Bush administration was on a cusp. Mainstream realists, like those in the Defense Science Board, basically implied that a dramatically more conciliatory course was necessary, in order to begin to address what is for the United States not just a problem of terrorism but of public opinion in the Middle East and indeed globally.

The Bush administration, naturally, picked the opposite course. That course, demonstrated openly in Iraq with the assault on Fallujah, is apparently being implemented covertly in numerous countries, including allied or neutral countries. Presumably, operations like the 2002 assassination of Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harithi in Yemen, would occur more frequently in the new paradigm; undoubtedly, torture and coercive methods will increase in scope.

The other developing phenomenon is Gleichschaltung. The German word for “consolidation,” this term is often used for Hitler's centralization of power in the years after being selected as Chancellor. One need not claim, however, that Bush is exactly the same as Hitler to use the term. This is happening with the administration as a whole and with the Pentagon in particular.

Ambassadors can sometimes be a bureaucratic obstacle to covert military missions, excepting, of course those named Negroponte. Thomas White, for example, caused major headaches for the U.S. government’s counterinsurgency in El Salvador. So why not eliminate them from the chain of command and implementation?

Seymour Hersh’s article on possible plans to attack Iran also had much to say on Pentagon plans to sideline the CIA almost completely. This is not because the CIA is a bunch of bunny-huggers, but because it has become a source of realist discontent with the neocons’ extremist foreign policy and even of attempted checks on said policy. For example, de-classified documents obtained by the site reveal an interesting story. The CIA was well aware of plans afoot for a coup in Venezuela but had determined they would likely fail because of Chavez’s base of support. It considered support for a coup to be criminally adventurist because it wouldn’t work and the administration would end up with a black eye. At the same time, Otto Reich, who nominally reported to the Secretary of State but has a history of slipping the chain of command and going straight to the plotters at the top, was actually helping to organize and foment the coup.

The CIA turned out to be right and it was a black eye for the administration, but the coup imperiled the lives of many Venezuelans and surely anything that deters such adventures by the United States is all to the good.

This consolidation is not a trivial matter. Although the spectrum of political positions on foreign policy within the government is narrow, the spectrum of policy recommendations is wider. And, with an administration bent on proving it has to answer to no one, internally or externally and a relatively supine Congress, paradoxically, the government bureaucracy is one of the few sources of even the slightest democratic input into foreign policy decision-making.

Gleichschaltung is a much wider phenomenon, with even more visible developments on the domestic side. Whatever the issues of the day – Social Security, gay marriage, Iran – it is the deeper and continuing story of Bush’s second term.

Posted at 10:38 am
February 24, 2005


Ann Tyson and Dana Priest have an article in the Post today, Pentagon Seeking Leeway Overseas. The relevant paragraphs:

The Pentagon is promoting a global counterterrorism plan that would allow Special Operations forces to enter a foreign country to conduct military operations without explicit concurrence from the U.S. ambassador there, administration officials familiar with the plan said.

The plan would weaken the long-standing "chief of mission" authority under which the U.S. ambassador, as the president's top representative in a foreign country, decides whether to grant entry to U.S. government personnel based on political and diplomatic considerations.

The Special Operations missions envisioned in the plan would largely be secret, known to only a handful of officials from the foreign country, if any.

The change is included in a highly classified "execute order" -- part of a broad strategy developed since Sept. 11, 2001, to give the U.S. Special Operations Command new flexibility to track down and destroy terrorist networks worldwide, the officials said.

"This is a military order on a global scale, something that hasn't existed since World War II," said a counterterrorism official with lengthy experience in special operations. He and other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the proposal is classified.

There are two things going on here. First is the fact that, as I wrote about a few weeks after the Fallujah assault, there is a growing understanding in the administration that both its Iraq and its "war on terrorism" policies have been resounding failures and concomitantly a change of course. A propos of the Defense Science Board's report about said failures, I pointed out that things could go in one of two directions: either, as the grownups are suggesting, a more conciliatory one, or, as the Bush administration first showed with the Fallujah assault, a more violent one. The point is that, although we know that's the case with Iraq, there are also classified plans afoot to up the level of violence in numerous other countries, including especially allied or somewhat friendly countries (something along the lines of the assassination of Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harithi in Yemen).

The other thing is Gleichschaltung, the German word for "consolidation." This term is often used for Hitler's centralization of power and establishment of totalitarian rule in the years after being selected as Chancellor, but I think one need not claim that Bush is exactly the same as Hitler to use the term. This is happening with the administration as a whole and with the Pentagon in particular (see for example Seymour Hersh on plans to sideline the CIA almost completely because it might be a source of dissenting opinion). Ambassadors can sometimes be a bureaucratic obstacle to covert military missions (excepting always those named Negroponte) and so why not eliminate them from the chain of command and implementation?

Another way in which the Gleichschaltung has proceeded post-election is, of course, in Bush's replacement of numerous cabinet secretaries (excepting, of course, Donald Rumsfeld) with people who are distinguished, not necessarily for more conservative politics, but for personal connection and loyalty to him (and with a willingness to serve a right-wing agenda no matter what they actually think). The examples have been mounting so fast it's hard to keep track of all of them. Don't expect this process to end any time soon.

Posted at 8:11 pm
February 21, 2005

More on Iraq Elections

I've been at the Second National Assembly of United for Peace and Justice and unfortunately been too busy to blog. Here's an analysis of Iraq elections/strategy piece that I presented to the assembly:

On the same day as the Iraqi election, some wag unearthed a New York Times article from 1967, “U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote: Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror.” The similarity of the phraseology in that piece to that in the media coverage of the Iraq elections was eerie, and the article quickly sailed around the world.

The analysis suggested by that analogy has many strong points, if only because of the similarities involved in two elections under occupation. The election was not free and fair. The assault on Fallujah was the last straw in ensuring Sunni Arab non-participation in the election. Parties and organizations that opposed the occupation never had access to the resources necessary in building a base of support – thus, the most that could happen in the election was a re-shuffling of the already U.S.-approved Governing Council/Interim Government parties. The infrastructure and level of monitoring were so poor – plastic tubs with twist-ties for the votes and a total lack of independent observers -- that had any other country presided over these elections they would have been an international joke.

This analysis, however, completely misses the larger and more important points. First, in 1967, Thieu and Ky, the U.S.-backed military dictators, were returned to office. In the Iraq elections, the United States’s hand-picked dictator, Ayad Allawi, not only didn’t win but even did worse than some preliminary projections. This is so even though Allawi spent a lot of money, most likely misappropriated from the government, on advertising for himself. If there were voting and counting irregularities, they may well have affected the votes of minor parties, but the major groups – Sistani’s United Iraqi Alliance, the Kurdish slate, and Allawi’s slate – certainly did get their votes counted.

Although not perfectly democratic, these elections were a vast improvement not only on the naked U.S. military occupation but on the Allawi dictatorship. However, these elections were not a product of George Bush’s nonexistent strategy of democracy-promotion. Rather, they were forced on the Bush administration, against its will, by Ayatollah Sistani’s maneuvering.

Although U.S. military power in Iraq has always been overwhelming, extending in November even to the leveling and depopulation of a city with minimal losses, its political power from the beginning has been weak to nonexistent. This owes partly to the negligence and brutality of the occupation, partly to a few early bad decisions, partly to the lack of any ability to identify a stratum of Iraqi society that could become a base of support for the occupation. Because of its position of political weakness, it was highly vulnerable to Sistani’s pressure.

First, Sistani decided that any constitution could not be approved by U.S.-appointed delegates but only by a general plebiscite. Next, Sistani scotched Bremer’s plans to remain in charge indefinitely. After that, Bremer’s plan to forgo elections in favor of a U.S.-dominated caucus system had to be abandoned after Sistani called for mass demonstrations about a year ago. 100,000 people demonstrated in Baghdad and 30,000 in Basra.

U.S. forces had no productive way to deal with these mass nonviolent actions. U.S. troops were actually dispatched to accost the marchers in Baghdad, then halted and withdrawn midway when offcials realized they had no coherent plan for action. This backing down was then seized on by Sistani, who kept the United States reeling from February through June.

Sistani’s key accomplishments were to force the United States into some clear legal commitments. First, the Transitional Administrative Law, or interim constitution, passed in March 2004 set down very clearly the powers of the transitional government to be created by the elections. Second was U.N. Security Council resolution 1546, which set a firm deadline for the elections and clearly gave the transitional government the power, among other things, to have the occupying forces leave. In the case of 1546, although Sistani forced the turn toward the U.N. in the first place, it was the other countries on the Security Council that forced the United States to clarify these matters; the United States wanted no deadline for elections and wanted the resolution initially to make legal authority for the occupation permanent.

There is a slight problem with this legal regime, because 1546, by design of the United States, makes no reference to the TAL. Still, the upshot is clear. The Bush administration, which never wants to be tied down by international legal commitments, was forced, against its will, to codify legally a commitment to Iraqi independence.

The government now being put into place has the legal authority to expel coalition troops, to conduct its own foreign policy, and to overturn all existing laws, including Paul Bremer’s decrees.

It over-represents Kurds, doesn’t represent Sunni Arabs much at all, and has only a handful of anti-occupation politicians, even though the vast mass of Sunni and Shi’a Arabs oppose the occupation. By the same token, it includes a mass of figures, from SCIRI, Dawa, and other groups that have serious problems with American rule, with Sistani in the background as a figure who has neither sold out to the occupation nor repudiated it forcefully.

Because of the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, not only are Iraqis unable to defend their borders against the modern military machines of Iran and Turkey, there is no prospect in sight of that fact changing. Thus, even politicians in the new National Assembly who are sharply opposed to the occupation (personally, if not always in public) will be hard-pressed to call for withdrawal of troops. Thus, much of this sovereignty is not going to be exercised directly.

But now that Iraq has a sovereign government with elected representatives of the people, there is a great deal that the people can pressure their government to do short of calling for immediate withdrawal. It can put statutory limits on coalition troop activities, pass laws subjecting American and other soldiers to Iraqi law, repeal the worst of Bremer’s edicts, reject the Allawi government’s illegitimate acceptance of an IMF debt-restructuring package, resist further international commitments being pushed by the United States, and make oil exploration deals based on Iraqi interest and not considerations of U.S. hegemony. It can also take over creation of the new Iraqi military forces. It can also be pressured to repeal Allawi’s illegitimate police-state measures, including its bans on al-Jazeera and pressuring of other media and cracking down on human rights abuses by new security forces.

What the Bush administration wants is that all of the attention on the new government be about the details of the constitution to be voted upon in the fall, not on current policy and legislation. They would just as soon not have people realize that this government now has full sovereign power. One of our jobs is to make this clear; another is to investigate ways to help a nascent, almost nonexistent, Iraqi civil society to constitute itself and put pressure on its new government, which is supposed to be accountable to the Iraqi public.

Some on the left have seemed to take the elections as a defeat and to think that the phase ahead for the U.S. antiwar movement is going to be much more difficult than it was before. The opposite should be true. The situation right now is this: legally, de jure, the Iraqi government is sovereign and responsive to its people. Practically, de facto, the U.S. military is sovereign and is virtually unresponsive and unaccountable. It is precisely in this disjunction between the de jure and the de facto that some of our most fruitful activism in this country has come. Most importantly, unlike armed resistance, it’s something we do, that we want to do, and that we know how to do. The challenges are many, but they start with us overturning the dominant media framework, that classifies all anti-occupation forces as anti-democracy. That is not true. We want the Iraqis’ de jure sovereignty and democracy to become de facto as well.

Posted at 9:46 am
February 14, 2005

A Sunni Valentine

Juan Cole has posted an excerpt of a translated article from al-Hayat reporting some statements from Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, one of the senior members of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, a group that acted as an intermediary between U.S. forces and the Fallujah resistance in April and May of last year. Quoting from the article:
He said it was very unlikely that the members of the Shia-majority “Coalition” [i.e. the "Unified Iraqi Coalition," the most popular Shia slate in the elections and the likely winner of a majority of seats] exert power in a sectarian manner "if they secure an overwhelming majority in the elected National Assembly." He also said: "At least, the Al-Dawa party rejects any exercise of power on a sectarian basis and is committed to the patriotic basics."
I am unaware of what might lead Kubaisi to those conclusions. It seems more likely that it was an expression of hope or a warning (or, most likely, some combination of the two) than that it was an evaluation of the actual situation.

Here's a warning:
He added: “If the Shias secure a majority of seats in the Parliament, they must consider the sacrifices of Arab Sunnis against the Americans,” pointing to the fact that “the resistance was behind the pressure on the Americans to create a Governing Council, then an Iraqi Government, and finally to organize the elections.” Kubaisi asserted that if it were not for the Sunni resistance, US position would have been different in dealing with all issues and forces.
It's also a truly bizarre statement. If the decision to create the Governing Council, announced by Paul Bremer in early June of 2003 (and then finally implemented on July 13) had anything to do with the resistance, it was that the emergence of the resistance was a factor in making the United States backtrack from its plan of creating an official Iraqi government through a consultative process and instead implement a top-down fiat. How the creation of the Governing Council could be presented as a positive step toward Iraqi independence, I don't know.

Also, of course, the reason for the elections is solely and completely Sistani's intervention. This is not to say that the Sunni resistance is somehow resolutely anti-democratic, as portrayed. Most of it really had no particular opinion on democracy; contrary to the current rewriting of history, the resistance exists on a large scale because of the occupation, not because of elections or even because of sectarian conflict. But certainly the resistance has never taken a pro-election stance, and to suggest that it even indirectly contributed to the holding of elections is absurd. More likely, the resistance made the United States less willing to implement Sistani's desires.

And here's the hope:
He said that Council of Muslim Ulamas was engaged in intensive contacts and meetings with Shia forces opposed to the occupation, first among them Muqtada al-Sadr’s current, Jawad al-Khalisi’s group, and the current of Ahmad al-Baghdadi and Mahmud al-Huseini in Najaf. He said that the aim of those meetings is “to constitute a political camp in favor of a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq in the coming period,” adding: “If the final result of the last elections confirms the victory of the ‘Coalition,’ the Council shares some common views with parts of this slate.”
So, finally, the Association of Muslim Scholars (Council of Muslim Ulamas), is reciprocating the efforts of Moqtada al-Sadr to reach out. And they're working with independent and more inclusive formations like Jawad al-Khalissi's Iraq National Foundation Conference. And, presumably, the point of the remarks quoted above is that Kubaisi is trying to reach out even further from that base to at least some parliamentary members of the United Iraqi Alliance.

So far, Sunni groups had been lagging on solidarity efforts. Sadrists have actively declared solidarity, even directing their followers to aid the people of Fallujah "by any means necessary." Sistani, while not going nearly so far, played a major role in curbing Shi'a desires to execute revenge attacks after the Ashura bombings of last year. There's been little reciprocation from Sunni clerics, even though all the attacks have been by Sunni on Shi'a.

Perhaps that's finally changing. It's unfortunate that the reaching out is accompanied by such delusional claims, but it still looks to me like a step forward.

Posted at 7:09 pm
February 12, 2005

'Chere Condi' and the Iranian Revolution

Check out Elaine Sciolino's article in yesterday's Times, "The French Are Charmed and Jarred by 'Chère Condi'." Although Sciolino says, "Ms. Rice was applauded and criticized, flattered and cross-examined during her maiden voyage to Paris as secretary of state," it sounds as if she was basically criticized and cross-examined, with a little back-handed flattery thrown in sarcastically.

Libération made fun of her:
The left-leaning daily Libération ran a headline that read, "Condi's Great Game: To Seduce Paris." The article noted that in her "pumps and navy blue suit accessorized with a belt and large strand of pearls, she gave a speech in her own image: impeccable and soignée, seductive but without overdoing it."
Le Monde ran a cartoon that really made fun of her:
On Wednesday, Le Monde ran a cartoon of Ms. Rice perusing a menu in a restaurant as the waiter asks, "We can also heat up some French fries for you." It was a not so subtle reminder of moves in the United States to rename the fried potatoes "freedom fries" to protest France's opposition to the war in Iraq.
It was probably even more an allusion to the old Ugly American who goes around the world but can only appreciate Coke, hamburgers, and French fries. And, in fact, Condi served them up the diplomatic and intellectual equivalent of hamburgers and fries.

One of the high points:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood before the audience at the Institute of Political Studies on Tuesday afternoon and rewrote cold war history, to the consternation of many in the highly sophisticated audience.

In an answer to a question from the floor, she told her audience that in 1947 Greece and Turkey had suffered through civil wars. Greece, yes, but Turkey?

"It was a glaring mistake," said Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States, an independent research organization at the French Institute of International Relations. "She's smart, yes, but I don't think she is as knowledgeable as one would expect with a career like hers."
Of course, Greece was a civil war in the technical sense of the term, like Vietnam: a civil war in which one side wouldn't even exist, let alone be able to fight, without being propped up, shaped, and supported by the United States and/or Britain. But such locutions are common. The thing about Turkey, though, is quite appalling for someone who's supposed to be a foreign policy expert.

But here's the real problem:
Indeed, at a private breakfast on Wednesday with six French intellectuals at the American ambassador's residence, Ms. Rice revealed her steely, deeply ideological side.

She shocked at least some of her guests by branding Iran a "totalitarian state," said four of those who took part. She added that the free world was wrong to accept the Soviet Union on its terms during the cold war and must not make the same mistake now with Iran, they added.

A number of guests challenged her assertion, but Ms. Rice is not the type to back down. She called her characterization of Iran deliberate. A year ago, she said, she would have called Iran's Islamic Republic authoritarian. But after flawed parliamentary elections last spring that produced a conservative majority, she said, it moved toward totalitarian, a term that historians tend to use restrictively to define violently absolutist regimes that govern through terror.

"I tried to explain that Iran was not like the Soviet Union, that the mullahs were deeply unpopular but unlike their predecessors over the last 150 years they were not in the hands of the British or the Russians or the Americans," said François Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "She gave no proof that Iran was totalitarian, because she didn't have any. It was scary. Unless there is some give on the American side we are heading for a real crisis."
It is true that the recent crackdown was a heavily authoritarian turn. It's also true that it was marked by the resignation of one-third of the Majlis (parliament) and a major political upheaval, the kind of thing never seen in totalitarian societies. Totalitarian societies also don't have genuine ideological diversity among political candidates, independent media outlets, massive numbers of blogs, and they don't have forums in which students grill the president repeatedly and in no uncertain terms:
Iranian students have interrupted a speech by President Mohammad Khatami to mark Student Day at Tehran university.

Students chanted "Shame on you" and "Where are your promised freedoms?" to express their frustration with the failure of Iran's reform movement.

A visibly-shaken Khatami defended his record and criticised the powerful hardliners who have closed newspapers and jailed dissidents.

He asked students to stop heckling and accused his critics of intolerance.


"My period is going to be over soon but I do not owe anyone," Mr Khatami told the meeting of about 1,500 students in remarks quoted by Reuters news agency.

"Those power-seeking fanatics who ignored the people's demands and resisted reforms... the ones who destroyed Iran's image in the world, they owe me."

And he defended the record of free speech in Iran, despite the closure of dozens of pro-reform publications in the last four years.

"There is no Third World country where the students can talk to their president and criticise the government as you do now.

"I really believe in this system and the revolution and that this system can be developed from within," he is quoted as saying.

But student leader Abdollah Momeni complained that there was no difference between the president and the authoritarians who thwarted his reform programme.

"Students are very disappointed because they paid a heavy price for supporting Khatami, but in return they got nothing," he is quoted as saying by Reuters.

A statement distributed by one pro-reform student group at the meeting said: "Unfortunately what Khatami sees as his tolerance was his extreme weakness towards the opponents of democracy".
Indeed, such a scene is unimaginable here in the great bastion of democracy, not only now under Bush the tinpot tyrant but with any president I can think of. Notice also Khatami's remarks about Khamenei and the other "hard-liners."

I used to think of the gross misrepresentation and ideological caricaturing of the right wing and the Bush administration as straightforward and extreme dishonesty, because I couldn't imagine that they could be ignorant of certain basic facts. I now believe that deep ignorance, part of it accidental but part of very much by design, is an essential complement to their gross dishonesty.

All was not lost in Condi's visit, however: Jacques Chirac kissed her hand twice. Perhaps this is what Sciolino was referring to.

Posted at 7:54 am
February 11, 2005

Burning Hell

Yesterday, on the 26th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, Iran declared, "The whole Iranian nation is united against any threat or attack. If the invaders reach Iran, the country will turn into a burning hell for them" to a crowd of tens of thousands in Teheran.

The interesting thing is that the statement came from Mohammed Khatami, the country's liberal-minded slightly pro-Western president, not from Ali Khamenei, the Islamist "hard-liner." Juan Cole suggests that this "burning hell" type rhetoric is dismaying coming from Khatami, suggesting that the more liberal and the more Islamist types are being driven into each other's arms.

I see it slightly differently. I think Khatami was deliberately chosen to make the statement to send a message to the neoconservatives that the very pro-democracy movement they are thinking will rise up if Iran is attacked will actually fight along with the clerics against any foreign threat. Not only do they read Seymour Hersh along with the rest of us, they can't have been happy about Condoleezza Rice saying, "I believe that everyone is telling the Iranians that they're going to have to live up to their international obligations, or next steps are in the offing. And I think everyone understands what the 'next steps' mean."

It's true she followed that up by mumbling something about the U.N. Security Council, but in the historical context that's hardly reassuring.

Posted at 8:35 pm
February 7, 2005

Iraqis Are Not Mascots; the Iraq Elections in Context

Here's my commentary for Uprising Radio:

Many thought the manufactured moment in the State of the Union address when an Iraqi human rights activist embraced the mother of a U.S. soldier who died in Iraq was deeply moving. It was anything but. The Iraqi woman was brought in as a mascot for Team America, in its new mission to conquer the world and call it democracy.

For most commentators, the Iraq elections have played roughly the same role as Safia Taleb al-Suhail. A stunning triumph for Bush’s policy of democracy promotion. A wake-up call to the corrupt, autocratic Arab elites, including the ones heavily supported by the Bush administration. A step toward success in the war on terrorism. A stunning reaffirmation of America’s greatness.

The only way actual Iraqis figure in all this talk is condescending praise for their courage and their eagerness to vote.

The left has made some of the same mistake, in reverse. Most of its points are true: the election was not free and fair. The assault on Fallujah, sold as enabling the people there to vote, actually made it certain that Sunni Arabs not only in Fallujah but in parts of Baghdad were unable to vote. Parties and organizations that opposed the occupation never had access to the resources necessary in building a base of support. The infrastructure and level of monitoring were so poor that had any other country presided over these elections they would have been an international joke. Above all else, the occupiers have no intention of leaving.

Though true, this misses the fundamental point. Having elections in this way at this time were not the choice of the United States – and, in fact, the winners are not whom the United States would have chosen.

These elections are a vindication, not of George Bush’s nonexistent strategy of democracy-promotion, but of Ayatollah Sistani’s maneuvering. It started with his decision that the United States could not simply appoint the people who would write the constitution. Hamstrung by early bad decisions, negligence, brutality, and lack of any Iraqi base of support, the occupiers had to give in. Next, Sistani scotched Bremer’s plans to remain in charge indefinitely.

After that, Bremer’s plan to forgo elections in favor of a U.S.-dominated caucus system had to be abandoned after Sistani called for mass demonstrations about a year ago. 100,000 people demonstrated in Baghdad, demonstrations that U.S. forces were unable to deal with.

Then, Sistani forced the United States into some clear legal commitments. First, the Transitional Administrative Law, or interim constitution, passed in March set down very clearly the powers of the transitional government to be created by the elections. Second was U.N. Security Council resolution 1546, which set a firm deadline for the elections and clearly gave the transitional government the power, among other things, to have the occupying forces leave. In the case of 1546, although Sistani forced the turn toward the U.N. in the first place, it was the other countries on the Security Council that forced the United States to clarify these matters; the United States wanted no deadline for elections and wanted the resolution initially to make legal authority for the occupation permanent.

The TAL and 1546, taken together, give the transitional government the power to pass its own laws. The United States has been boxed into a situation where it won’t have a leg to stand on if the Iraqi government rebels. The elections, as manipulated as they were, were essential in pushing the United States into this corner.

Unfortunately, although the new Iraqi government has the legal power to call on U.S. forces to leave, it won’t do that. Since Iraq has been deliberately left unable to defend its borders, none of the prominent politicians who have emerged are likely to call for this. But it’s time for Iraqis and antiwar activists here to start, as Naomi Klein once said, holding Bush to his lie: the least a new Iraqi government should do is to start putting severe restrictions on the actions of U.S. forces, to start overturning Bremer’s illegal edicts, and to eliminate the police state policies of the Allawi government.

The overwhelming majority of Shi’a oppose the occupation. If their representatives don’t start doing something about it, there should be some accountability.

Posted at 11:03 am
February 5, 2005

Confidence-Building Measures

Condoleezza Rice, in Europe to pretend that the Bush administration is now interested in diplomacy, told reporters at a news conference in London that invading Iran is "simply not on the agenda at this point in time."

These are the scariest words I've heard since, ok, since the State of the Union address. Scary words abound these days. In all the parsing of the denial versus the "non-denial" denial, sometimes people forget the favorite Bush administration tactic of confirmation by denial. Remember Donald Rumsfeld telling us, back in April 2003, after the New York Times had reported U.S. plans for long-term military bases in Iraq, that there were no such plans?

More substance about the Iran situation to come.

Posted at 10:35 pm
February 4, 2005

Early Election Returns

Since the massive wealth and high-tech expertise of the United States was able to come up with nothing better than paper ballots for the Iraqi election (unlike, say, India and Botswana), it will be another week before we know the results.

For some reason, however, some partial results were released. With 3.3 million ballots counted, mostly from Baghdad and the south, the United Iraqi Alliance had about 67% of the vote, with Ayad Allawi's Iraqi List having about 18%. Since the north isn't included, the Kurdish parties will end up with a far higher percentage than they have now, and the UIA certainly won't get the two-thirds it would need to form a government on its own, but the proportion between the UIA and Allawi is less likely to change dramatically.

Overseas results, numerically unimportant, have been tabulated: 36% for the UIA, 30% for the Kurdish slate, and only 9% for Allawi.

Almost the only question in the election itself was how well Allawi would do vis-a-vis the UIA (how the Communists would do might have been of interest to some, but it was always going to involve small numbers). It seems to me the numbers we're seeing are about in the middle of the range one would have guessed -- no real surprises. The chance that Allawi would pull a surprise of some kind was pretty effectively squelched by Sistani's threat of damnation for anyone who didn't vote UIA.

The upcoming maneuverings will involve the following four considerations primarily:
  • Will the UIA be able to form a government with all of the minor parties? This seems unlikely and certainly impossible if preliminary Kurdish claims about their representation are true.

  • The Transitional Administrative Law not only allows the three provinces of the Kurdish north to scupper any proposed constitution it also allows the Kurdish National Assembly some ability to reconfigure or amend laws passed the National Assembly. This would give any party forming the government considerable incentive to work with the Kurds rather than to try to run roughshod over them. Counterbalance this with the fact that the question of Kurdish autonomy in general and the provisions of the TAL in particular set Sistani's teeth on edge -- in fact, they're the only issue on which his pronouncements have not been moderate and reasonable.

  • Ayad Allawi has had control of the government's security apparatus for six months and has been refashioning a new Iraqi National Guard that's a little like the Saddam-era security forces (and incidentally using a lot of Saddam-era security figures). He's been a very good ally of the Americans, who need to create an Iraqi police state to deal with the growing discontent in the country. Many manifestations of discontent cannot be dealt with productively by American forces (remember Sistani's demonstrations last year in favor of elections -- for the one in Baghdad, the United States sent out a detachment of soldiers, then, midway to the demonstration, pulled them back and decided not to engage). This gives Allawi a potent base from which to try to persuade the UIA to bring him on board. The fact that he was the American choice over the very politicians who now preside over the UIA for the post of interim prime minister may indicate that the Americans still want him; the Americans will have, to say the least, a lot of leverage over these negotiations.

  • What's the consolation post to be given to a Sunni Arab?
Posted at 7:55 pm
February 3, 2005

Iraqi Refugees

An important article in the Post today, Iraqi Refugees Overwhelm Syria (you can tell it's important because it's on page A18). Here's the kernel of the story:
Although regional and global concerns about Syria's 450-mile border with Iraq have focused mostly on foreign Arabs slipping across to join the insurgency, a growing number of Iraqis like the Zakers are moving in the opposite direction. U.N. officials say they are witnessing the exodus they had expected 22 months ago, when the United States and its allies invaded, and the Syrian government and international aid agencies say they are seeing the first worrisome social effects of the migration.

Syrian officials say 700,000 Iraqis from various ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds have arrived since the U.S.-led invasion, far more than in any other country in the region. The flow has spiked in the past four months.
700,000! Using the standard multiplication by 11 or 12 to dramatize, that's proportionally as if 8 million Americans had become refugees.

The story nicely implies, without quite saying it, that Iraqi sectarian violence and the acts of the resistance are responsible for the majority of refugees:
The first trickle of wealthy Iraqis, who U.S. officials say may now be helping finance the insurgency, has been followed by a larger wave of mostly Shiite Muslims and Christians -- groups targeted by the daily violence.
But read carefully and it becomes clear that much of this (my guess is the lion's share) is because of U.S. military operations. In particular, the primary example of a Shi'a family that fled is one that left Najaf in September -- just weeks after the murderous U.S. assault that according to Donald Rumsfeld may have killed up to 2500 people. Since Najaf is very Shi'a-dominated and there is virtually no violence from the resistance there, they presumably had to flee because of the devastation caused by the assault or because of fear of further bombing.

The property-buying of (presumably) the initial wealthy Iraqis has caused Damascus property values to shoot up and is leading the Syrian government to consider forbidding Iraqis from buying any more land.

This is all, of course, in addition to the "internally displaced persons" (IDPs) created by the assault on Fallujah. The most recent assessment I could find, published on January 18 by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, estimated over 200,000 remaining IDPs from that operation, although the number may be even higher, because, according to the UNHCR, many of those who returned did so to inspect the damage without any intention of staying for the long term. Indeed, many of those who could afford it have already bought property elsewhere.

Posted at 8:59 am
February 1, 2005

Iraq's First Real Election in Over Half a Century

If you have been reading newspaper stories about the Iraqi elections, you may have come across this phrase or permutations of it several dozen times. This sort of superficiality, of course, is what passes for historical context in American newspapers.

But perhaps you'd like to know what all of these identical accounts refer to. Useful sources include Hanna Batatu's The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, Marion Farouk Sluglett and Peter Sluglett's Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship, and Charles Tripp's A History of Iraq.

First, a little background. In 1941, the British military intervened to remove an anti-British government and replace it with a pro-British one (this was 11 years after the British mandate formally ended). In 1958, there was a revolution led by Abdel Karim Qassim that ended the Hashemite monarchy and also British hegemony over Iraq. In the period 1941-58, Nuri as-Said was the foremost and most powerful political figure, and one who generally aligned closely with the British. According to Batatu, in that same period, the country was under martial law for a total of a phenomenal 2483 days (6.8 years). There were frequent elections, combined with extensive press censorship and severe repression of numerous political parties (the Communists, probably the party with the largest popular base after 1948, remained illegal during most of this period, and more moderate leftist parties were also often banned). Basically, martial law would be imposed as a response to significant popular uprisings, then when they were sufficiently repressed it would be lifted for a time. Starting from 1949, Nuri had been pushing the notion of dissolving all the parties into a single-party state, an idea resisted by others in the government who saw Nuri as dictatorial.

In that context, the elections of 1954 were expected to be yet another rubber-stamp for the small number of parties associated with elite political figures all of whom were loyal to the monarchy and cooperated with the British. They ended up being a little more than that, and were the freest elections to date. An alliance of the Communists with liberal parties (the Istiklal, or Independence, Party, and the National Democratic Party) ended up getting about 10% of the seats in Parliament.

In response, in August 1954, Nuri as-Said was called in from abroad by the regent to form a government. He dissolved Parliament, disbanded his own political party, and called for others to disband (those that didn't were shut down). He instituted extreme press censorship, cracked down on public assembly, and severely repressed the Communist Party and affiliated organizations. In 1956, he had rubber-stamp elections in which roughly 85% of delegates ran unopposed. 1956 was also when Nuri joined in the creation of the Baghdad Pact, an attempt by the United States to create a network of military allies integrated into its larger imperial control, much like SEATO or NATO.

Of course, we don't expect the government created from the current elections to formally disband political parties and there's no need for them to kill members of dissenting parties (except the armed resistance), because those parties have not had the chance to build a mass base -- and because parties genuinely dissenting from the opposition have largely been kept from participating in the political process. But, if they continue in the course set by Allawi, they will use a similar combination of de facto and de jure repressive methods to invalidate any expression of the popular will just as Nuri did in 1954.

In conclusion, it's worth noting that this phrase, "first election in over 50 years," serves two purposes. One, of course, is to emphasize what America has done for Iraq (and simultaneously to rebut the ridiculous "naysayers" who say Arabs don't understand democracy). The second, much subtler and for a smaller audience, is to suggest that Iraq has only had free, democratic elections when it was under some degree of colonial subjugation. It is, of course, true that Iraq had no meaningful elections from 1958-2003, but those it has had under colonial domination, whether in 1954 or 2005, have been scarcely more meaningful -- and it was the unelected Qassim who pulled Iraq out of the Baghdad Pact and started Iraq down the road to nationalizing its oil so that the profits thereof could be enjoyed by the Iraqi people rather than by British Petroleum, Shell, Total, Exxon, and Mobil.

Posted at 6:39 pm
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