BEIRUT — I’d like to pick a wee bone with Tom Friedman. Well, actually not him specifically, but really the American tendency to emphasize the actions of individuals over larger, countervailing forces in politics. Exhibit A: Friedman’s opinion that the action of a brave Iraqi in Parliament is a good reason to keep at it in Iraq (Times’ Select, sorry):
I am often asked why I don’t just give up on Iraq and pronounce it a lost cause. It would certainly make my job (and marriage) easier.
What holds me back are scenes like the one related in last Sunday’s Times story from Baghdad about the Iraqi Parliament’s vote to approve the country’s new cabinet. Our story noted that during the Iraqi parliamentary session, the Sunni party leader Saleh Mutlaq, a former Baathist, stood up and started denouncing the decision by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to have Parliament vote on the new cabinet even though he hadn’t yet filled the key security posts.
At that point, another Sunni politician, Mithal al-Alousi, told Mr. Mutlaq to sit down. “Iraqi blood is being spilled every day,” Mr. Alousi said. It was time to move forward. When Mr. Mutlaq pressed on with his denunciations, Mr. Alousi “pulled him down into his chair,” The Times reported. That was a gutsy move â€” live on Iraqi TV. Many Sunni insurgents may not like what Mr. Alousi did, but he did it anyway.
As long as I see Iraqis ready to take a stand like that, I think we have to stand with them. When we don’t see Iraqis taking the risk to build a progressive Iraq, then it is indeed time to pack and go. That moment may come soon. It’s hard to tell. I won’t hesitate to say so â€” but not yet.
If only it were _Iraqis_ instead of _an Iraqi_ taking a stand. As the saying goes, one swallow does not a summer make.
I know Mithal al-Alousi and Saleh Mutlaq. I’ve spoken with them both on numerous occasions. I like them both, in their own way, and consider them friends of a sort. But al-Alousi is different. He’s the most — and possibly only — truly honorable Iraqi politician I’ve met. This is a guy, a Sunni, who stands firmly for secularism, who doesn’t believe that the Israeli-Palestinian fight is one that Iraq should be in, and who paid for a trip to Israel in order to foster ties with the strongest economy in the region with the lives of his two sons. He also believes in equality before the law, and — no former Ba’athist he — has been harshly critical of the De-Ba’athification Commission because it was run by political hacks working for their respective parties, so they were able to grind many, many axes against men and women who did nothing wrong but try to feed their families in an unjust system.
Obviously, he’s not a perfect man. He was jailed for a year in Germany for attempting to take over the Iraqi embassy prior to the March 2003 invasion. But even that grew out of his frustration with Saddam’s regime.
(Edit: And his trip to Israel _was_ ill-advised in the political climate of Iraq. But he was following the lead of his old buddy Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, who said to the Council on Foreign Relations that “Iraq should recognize Israel”:http://www.cfr.org/publication/6044/conversation_with_ahmad_chalabi.html. (Way down at the bottom.) When al-Alousi took actual steps to follow that up, the INC hung him out to dry and called for his head. With friends like that…)
Mutlaq, on the other hand, is a former Ba’athist and claims to have some pull with the insurgency. What the two men have in common, other than being co-religionists, is that neither has any real constituency to speak of.
Al-Alousi, bless him, got a single seat in Parliament. Mutlaq has about 11, I believe, but his claim to influence rests in his alleged influence with the Ba’athist elements of the insurgency. Sorry to say, every Ba’athist ever interviewed by TIME viewed Mutlaq as a pretender and paid no attention to him.
So those who have hoped more than planned for this war are betting on what is probably a losing horse, despite al-Alousi’s honesty and earnestness. if only there were more guys like him in power! But there aren’t, because religion and tribal loyalties get the better of Iraqis when they need to stand up for guys like al-Alousi. I know many Iraqis who like and admire al-Alousi, but when it came time to vote in December, they went with the Sistani list (if they were Shi’a) or Adnan al-Dulaimi’s list (if they were Sunni), even though they said beforehand how much they disliked clerics running the show. Al-Alousi’s vision of secularism and liberalism just can’t compete with the forces rending Iraq these days. And hoping people like Mutlaq and Dulaimi will be able to curb the insurgency — or even want to, since that’s all that gives the Sunnis a seat at the table — is a real gamble. Based on what I know, I don’t think the newly-elected Sunni parliamentarians will be able to deliver jack.
Friedman’s desire to look at al-Alousi as a sign that all is not lost in Iraq is natural. Americans are predisposed towards celebrating the actions and intentions of individuals in politics. We vote for candidates rather than lists, which points up the incompatibilities of American expectations and hopes, and the forces of group-think, sectarianism and tribalism at work in Iraq. Unless you’re Saddam, one person is just not going to make a huge difference in Iraq. Case in point: When the Americans ran the show, the appointed a secular Shi’ite, Ayad Allawi, as prime minister, who turned around and waged war on Fallujah and Moqtada al-Sadr. Now, after two elections and one referendum, the Iraqi people have elected a government that has become more sectarian, not less; more divided and divisive. Today, al-Sadr’s a kingmaker within the government and the insurgency is as virulent as ever. That’s democracy in Iraq. Modernity lost.
Look, I’ll be honest: I don’t know what the American course of action should be exactly. Stay? Leave? It’s a bit of a trick question because the military component of the American presence has been, well, almost the entirety of the American presence, and this has long not been a military problem. Of course U.S. troops should go as soon as possible. But what’s really needed is an army of police trainers, technicians and people who can get the economy back on its feet and power flowing again, from America and from around the region. You want to see the forces of secularism advance in Iraq? Put al-Alousi in charge of the electricity ministry and then spare no expense to get the lights back on for more than four hours a day in Baghdad — and then let him take the credit. Put secularists in charge of the anti-corruption watchdog Committee for Public Integrity and give it some real bite. Rid plum posts like the Finance Ministry of discredited retreads like Bayan Jabr and put real economists in place so they can boost employment in the south. That would be a good start.
If the Iraqis are unwilling to take steps that de-emphasize local, tribal and sectarian loyalties in their politics — and fast — well, maybe the U.S. should just pack up and leave. These days, al-Alousi is a lonely swallow indeed.