Regional Experts Vs. Military Experts
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg
I’ve written before about the divide in expert circles between regional Middle East experts and military experts. Middle East scholars such as Marc Lynch, Brian Katulis, Steven Simon, Jon Alterman, Juan Cole advocate for a quicker withdrawal because they are much more skeptical about America’s ability to have any influence over the political situation on the ground. This comes from a greater appreciation for the political complexities in Iraq that can come only from reading first hand the Arab and Iraqi press every day and realizing how little control the United States has over anything that is going on politically inside Iraq.
It’s further reinforced by a better understanding of the history of the region. Western powers have for so long been perceived as occupiers and imperialists. Whether it is the British in Egypt or Iraq, the French in Algeria or American meddling in Iran, Western powers have created a lens of absolute distrust through which the people of the Middle East perceive them. The founding myths of all of the nations of the Middle East are based on throwing off Western imperialism, just as much as ours are based on George Washington crossing the Delaware. The regional experts get this in a way that I don’t think military experts do.
We have a perfect example of this problem from the recent Kahl / Katulis / Lynch exchange. And let me be clear. I don’t mean to pick on Colin Kahl. He does good work and I’m sure he’d wipe the floor with Lynch on the question of how to actually physically get troops out of Iraq or how to conquer Iraq in the first place. But the problem with the whole “bottom up” strategy argument is that military experts are trying to impose a political solution without really understanding the political realities on the ground.
My post begins by arguing that any viable decentralized outcome in Iraq hinges crucially on two political compromises at the center: an oil deal and provincial powers/elections. These agreements are essential to make localities and provinces economically and politically viable, while tying them sufficiently to the center so the country doesn’t fly apart. I then say: “In conjunction with bottom-up security mobilization and efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army, this could potentially lead to a stable equilibrium.” In other words, the specific details I describe (mostly military) are meant to support the political strategy, not represent the whole approach.
Kahl spends most of his time focused on the military strategy, but acknowledges that without the political accommodation his entire plan falls apart. As is common with most experts and most human beings, they focus most on what they understand best.
Lynch responds by completely ripping apart the entire basis for any political settlement and in the process points out exactly how much Kahl is missing on the complexity of the political end of things, especially in regards to the provincial elections.
As for provincial elections, they matter more to bottom-up reconciliators than they do to most Sunnis. I haven't seen any major demand for them, at any rate, compared to the headline issues like prisoners and amnesty and oil and the rampant sectarianism in state agencies. On the contrary, Sunnis seem deeply opposed to anything resembling a move towards federalism or partition, and would probably feel more threatened than reassured by heavily-promoted provincial elections. There seems to be more interest in change at the national level, actually. Tareq al-Hashemi and other national leaders have called for Maliki to be replaced by a technocratic government, and there seems to be renewed interest in new national (not provincial) elections - both of which, by the way, are also demands made by leading Sadrist figures, by the Allawi list, and by others. It isn't clear that new national elections under the same electoral law would solve any problems (and it's clear that Maliki has no interest in such a move), but that's more on the agenda right now than provincial elections.
The focus on the provincial elections really seems to be driven by the hope of creating what Kahl calls “better local representation (via new provincial elections) and enhanced powers for provincial councils." But I think it's worth calling this what it is: an attempt to empower an alternative, more compliant local-level leadership in the place of the factions which have claimed to represent the Sunnis by virtue of their armed struggle. Certainly, that's how Maliki is treating it (I'm thinking here of the frequent reports that he is trying to get tribal shaykhs from the Awakenings to take the place of elected Sunni politicians in his government). This is not a technocratic question of improving services, it's about power.
The promotion of alternative elites is always a risky business, one which sets up all kinds of problems down the road - think back to various Israeli efforts over the years to promote local leadership in the West Bank and Gaza (or Mohammed Dahlan for that matter), or South African efforts to promote alternatives to the ANC back in the Apartheid era. The current leadership of the various US-aligned councils isn't democratically elected, nor does it particularly want to be. Abundant evidence suggests that the power of these new elites derives largely from American cash. That's not a stable basis for political order. The Salvation Council spokesmen have recently suggested that Anbar deserves and needs billions of dollars in compensation for damage done during the war and reconstruction assistance. In today’s political climate, massive new reconstruction funds for Iraq are unlikely to materialize – which means that in the not-distant future, these leaders are going to face a serious challenge due to their likely failure to deliver a better life.
These US-backed tribal entities challenge the authority of the insurgency factions, who feel that they've earned the right to lead the Sunni community through their armed resistance resistance, and the elected Iraqi politicians. The insurgency factions may be battling al-Qaeda and at times tactically cooperating with the US, but that doesn't mean that they have foregone an interest in power. Quite the contrary, at least judging by their own political statements and rhetoric. They believe that they are the authentic, legitimate representatives of the Sunni community – earned by force of arms and by their roots in that community. Relations with the United States remain deeply controversial, which makes the standing of alternative elites whose claim to power rests on their ties to the US somewhat tenuous. The steady campaign of assassinations of Salvation Council members, of which Abu Risha was only the most prominent, can’t be definitively attributed to al-Qaeda (even if they are happy to take credit, as always): there are many Sunnis able and keen to resist the attempt to establish a new elite which is not them.
Bottom line: I have yet to find an expert on Middle East politics who thinks that the “bottom up” strategy has any real chance of success. The only people who think this might make sense are the military experts and the grand strategists. Since the strategy is ultimately based on political reconciliation, I find it disturbing that none of the experts on the politics think that it could work.