January 5, 2013

U.S. Response Flailing Amid Iraq's Protests

In the absence of any sincere goodwill from Nouri al-Maliki's government to resolve Iraq's political gridlock, demonstrations in Sunni territory are predictably escalating to alarming levels. Al-Maliki has strut a fine line since the new protests gained momentum two weeks ago, softening his language at points while demeaning Sunnis as Baathists, Saddamist and other derogatory labels. Insulted by the flying of Iraq's old flag and Syria's colors, which inevitably led to al-Qaeda and "foreign elements," al-Maliki has become trapped in circular rhetoric and another standoff with a diverse opposition.

He's smart enough to realize that a massive crackdown on demonstrators - Shia, Sunni and Kurds have all joined the protests in Anbar - would only bring him down quicker, but not smart enough to share power equitably.

For their part two Iraqi officials, including State of Law MP Khalid al-Asadi, denied an Al-Arabya report that parliament will be dissolved within 48 hours, "leaving Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to govern as a caretaker." However he added that al-Maliki's party "will not stand against" any party's request to dissolve the government and call for early elections, a prospect that al-Maliki's opponents weighed throughout 2012. Al-Maliki has reflected the specter of another election, and along with the uncertainty that comes with it, onto his opponents in his effort to back them down from their no-confidence vote. Without a solid majority to guarantee future power, they have been left with few alternatives except to apply pressure in the streets.

Alaa Makki, Iraqiya's senior representative in parliament, warned al-Maliki through Al Jazeera, "This is the last chance for correction of all the [political] environment in Iraq, the political system and the judiciary system. They [the protesters] are waiting for the government to send somebody there, representing the governmental concerns."

Having falsely declared an end to Iraq's ongoing long-war throughout his reelection campaign, the Obama administration naturally seeks to keep its public distance from Iraq's unrest as it attempts to manage the situation from the background. On Wednesday the State Department was quizzed for the first of three straight days, with its response progressively degenerating over the heat of skeptical reporters. Questioned on the protesters' actions and their grievances with al-Maliki ("sectarian practices, arresting women and torturing them"), spokeswoman Victoria Nuland used most of her time to clarify Washington's support for peaceful expression and caution "any party" against subverting the rule of law or provoking ethnic tensions.

Nuland concludes, "So we want to see these difficult issues settled through consultation among Iraqi leaders, and we want to see them reach an agreement on the path forward for Iraq."

Her answer studiously avoids responding to the protesters' actual grievances against a fair-weather U.S. ally.

Visibly unsatisfied with Nuland's evasion, several journalists fired again on Thursday only to meet a heightened state of resistance. Told that "your reaction is like that of Switzerland," Nuland rejected the characterization that Washington has acted too passively towards Iraq's crisis. She instead claims that the Obama administration has been "extraordinarily active for many, many months now with Iraqis of all stripes and all groups," going so far as to describe the White House's policy as "enormously vigilant." These types of hyperbolic phrases are employed by those in the business of overselling.

As new waves of protesters descended on Sunni cities following Friday prayers, Nuland came particularly armed to impress the depth of U.S. mediation upon her audience. Focus is increasingly kept on the peacefulness of demonstrations, a legitimate factor of concern that happens to divert attention from the political issues at stake. While Washington publicly opposes disobedience in foreign countries as a general rule to maintain impartiality, urging peaceful protests is more subjective than it may appear. Civil disobedience is often warranted by the suppressive environment created by an unrepresentative government, and applied when peaceful options have failed to effect a positive change.

Civil disobedience and outright violence also compels a government to react disproportionately, further eroding its national and international credibility, and the Obama administration doesn't want Iraqis to provoke a hardline response from al-Maliki. This scenario would push him deeper into Baghdad's sand and force a more vocal response from Washington - a possibility that the White House hopes to avoid. Pressed on the estimated 50,000 Sunnis suspected of being imprisoned for political reasons, Nuland refuses to answer beyond the need "for the justice system to be transparent, for there to be fairness and a level playing field."

And when finally asked about Iraqiya chairman Ayad Allawi's latest call for al-Maliki to resign, Nuland does everything possible to steer the conversation in the opposite direction.

"You know that on a weekly basis, sometimes on a daily basis, our Ambassador in Iraq has meetings with all of the key leaders, encouraging them to work with each other to settle issues that they have through dialogue, to protect and preserve the basic tenets of the Iraqi constitution. He regularly sees the Prime Minister, the deputy prime ministers, the Vice President, cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, parliamentarians. So we try to use our good offices with all of the groups to encourage them to participate actively in dialogue with each other."

The dilemma of U.S. policy isn't simply what hasn't been accomplished since U.S. combat forces redeployed in December 2011, but how the Obama administration is laboring under the belief that its policy is "extraordinarily active": regular meetings with Iraqi officials, anonymous statements, and Turkish diplomacy. These measures combined have proven insufficient for correcting al-Maliki's authoritarian tendencies, while U.S. pressure for dialogue was applied all year with no results - Baghdad remains stalemated as it did in January 2012. Furthermore, the terms “negotiate” and "dialogue” imply a give and take of power, when al-Maliki is constitutionally obligated to give up the power that he's illegally holding in the Defense and Interior Ministries.

Some issues such as regional autonomy must be debated in a national forum, but government actions targeting al-Maliki's various opponents leave nothing to be negotiated. Iraq's situation wouldn't be what it is if the country's was continuing "on a stable, peaceful, democratic trajectory."

President Barack Obama's administration clearly has no intention of admitting its part in the confrontation: negotiating al-Maliki back into power through 2010's Irbil Agreement, failing to hold him accountable for violating the agreement, and personally enflaming the situation with political theater. Many of the power brokers that U.S. officials meet with "on a daily and weekly basis," from Allawi and Vice Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, have called the White House out directly for its weak response. This is no coincidence or perception, but the reality of U.S. policy in Iraq.

“When I last met Obama, I said I hoped withdrawals of American forces, which was natural, would not mean the withdrawal of American interest and American commitment to Iraq,” Barzani said in April 2012. “That question is still on the table. In fact, the American position has to be very public and very clear, so that the Iraqi people can see that the United States will not allow and will not support another dictatorship in Iraq.”

Ill-advised political moves aren't solved by denying them, and U.S. policy will continue to drown until the Obama administration stops denying its bias for al-Maliki's rule.

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