The Kingmaker

by John Quiggin on February 21, 2006

Juan Cole translates an Al-Jazeera interview with the new kingmaker of Iraqi politics. In many ways, he’s just what the Bush Administration has been hoping for. He’s a Shi’ite but favors a broad government of national unity, reaching out to Sunni nationalists. He has an impeccable record of opposition to Saddam and isn’t compromised by any links to the occupation or to the interim Allawi regime. And while he’s previously called for an immediate pullout of US forces, he’s now prepared to accept a timetable for withdrawal.

He is, of course …

Moqtada al Sadr, the theocratic demagogue whom the US forces twice tried to arrest or kill (dozens of US soldiers and hundreds of Iraqis, including many innocent bystanders were in fact killed in these campaigns, but al Sadr was only wounded). He now controls the largest bloc in the UIA government and effectively nominated Jaafari to continue as Prime Minister. So the Bushies will have to learn to love him, or at least get on with him.

Among other things, Sadr makes it clear that an attack on Iran would have dire consequences for US forces in Iraq. This ought to have been obvious in any case, but Sadr’s remarks, now issued from a position of power, drive home the point. Far from providing a base from which the US can exert power in the Middle East, the occupation of Iraq has strengthened the position of every anti-American government in the region. And in chasing Saddam’s fictional WMDs, the US has deprived itself of any practical option of using military force to stop Iran developing real nuclear weapons.

The kind of dance where enemies become allies, or at least bargaining partners, while former friends become enemies is a standard feature of power politics. But when tens of thousands of people are killed in the process, as has been the case in Iraq, all those involved in such manoeuvres are guilty of grave crimes against humanity.

{ 30 comments }

1

nick s 02.21.06 at 6:50 am

Sadr’s political role wasn’t obvious unless one was paying attention to the backstory in Iraq. I wonder if the Bush administration had a sense of it? Somehow, I suspect not, given its record.

2

Brendan 02.21.06 at 6:52 am

Al-Sadr may be the kingmaker, but he doesn’t pay the bills. With the country bankrupt, US bribes aid keeps the place going. And if things aren’t going your way, you can, of course, always threaten to withhold that aid.

In terms of an attack on Iran of course, unless the Bushies have completely and utterly lost their minds (always possible) it’s much more likely that any attack will be carried out by some ‘friend’ of the US (perhaps even Israel) in order to stop Iraq simply exploding in a wave of anti-US sentiment. It’s also more likely (at least at this stage) that what we will see is limited strikes on the alleged nuclear processing plants, rather than an outright invasion. Israel’s bombing of the Osiraq reactor would of course be the analogy.

3

abb1 02.21.06 at 8:16 am

It’s not obvious to me that an attack carried out by Israel would necessarily stop Iraq from exploding in a wave of anti-US sentiment. Who knows what the reaction and immediate consequences might be.

4

jet 02.21.06 at 8:55 am

I also thought it would be England that carried out the attack. Out of countries with ready capability, the UK woudl receive the least amount of backlash.

5

Ray 02.21.06 at 9:04 am

This would be the England where most people opposed the decision to invade Iraq? You think Blair is going to decide that they won’t just support a US attack, they’ll carry out the attack themselves?
I think you need to define ‘backlash’?

6

John Emerson 02.21.06 at 9:06 am

The frightening thing for me is that the Bush administration is imploding right now because of a series of scandals and policy failures — Iraq, Katrina, drug benefit, Cheney, Abramoff, Plame, and more. There’s really not much of anything he can do to change things, but a nice international emergency or terrorism attack would probably save him.

Rove has already said that the Republicans will run on security. He’s been known to float deceptive trial balloons, but I don’t see what choice they have by now. But in order to juice up their story on domestic security, the Republicans need a dramatic event of some kind. The Commander in Chief has a lot of options for hotting up the situation.

All of the Democratic leaders should be thinking about how they will respond to whichever dramatic event it ends up being, and they should be publicly stancing themselves right now in such a way as to make their later response effective. Going along with Bush once he has the initiative again cannot possibly be successful, but neither can futile hand-waving opposition.

As far as I know, none of the leading Democrats is thinking this way, and none of them are prepared.

Why is it that they are the wise experts, and I’m the marginal wacko? What I just said is all true and it all makes sense. But I expect the well-paid Democratic Party professionals to be blindsides one more time in the next few months. There are a lot of trial balloons up already, and I expect something real in July or August.

7

Barry 02.21.06 at 9:08 am

This is jet, remember. He’s obviously already bought into the idea that attacks on Iran wouldn’t be linked to the US by every single person in the world. After that, the idea of Great Britain doing it is pretty easy to swallow. Blair wh*ring himself to Bush is so reasonable that I’m surprised that jet hasn’t rejected it as being too truthful for him.

8

jet 02.21.06 at 9:12 am

Ray,
I’m not sure how important the political backlash against the US invasion of Iraq is concerning a limited strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. In terms of debate, I don’t see how the opposition can come up with even near as convincing arguments as they did with Iraq. It is really hard to get past these two points: A. Iran openly supports terrorists which operate internationally, B. the Russian nuclear reactors are “experiemental” or “weapons producing”, which makes them incredibly inefficient for producing electricity, but highly efficient for producing nuclear weapons.

9

jet 02.21.06 at 9:14 am

Barry,
Oh right, because Blair and every other Western leader is just soooo excited about a nuclear armed Iran. It would have to be Bush’s malicious string pulling, if Blair acted.

10

etat 02.21.06 at 9:18 am

It woudn’t be England that carried out such an attack – it would only be the Home Counties, except of course, for Tower Hamlets, Hackney, and a few other boroughs.

Israel is hardly in a position to do any proxy work, given the ragged state of its own internal politics. There’s also a possibility that Israel wouuld take a harder line against further military adventures in the region. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus that the invasion of Iraq has done Israel any good. So why would they want to complicate things even further?

So the US will have to find some other proxy. You can forget about any EU involvement. Russia seems interested in peaceful means. So who’s left? Who has a military sufficient to do the task? Saudi Arabia perhaps? How likely is that?

All of this points to the absence of a coherent means of coercion, and that Sadr is correct.

11

John Emerson 02.21.06 at 9:19 am

Fool me once — shame on you. Fool me twice — I must be Jet.

12

soru 02.21.06 at 9:40 am

I also thought it would be England that carried out the attack. Out of countries with ready capability, the UK woudl receive the least amount of backlash.

If the internet is, as I sometimes suspect, one big competition to see who can be most wrong, then that’s quite an impressive effort.

soru

13

Ray 02.21.06 at 9:42 am

Jet, the political backlash would probably come down to a few reasons
1. The last time ‘we’ went to war in the area, it was a mess.
2. See reason 1
3. see reason 1
4. see reason 1…
…12. Iran presents no real threat to the UK, whether or not it has nuclear weapons. We know, and they know, that even if they could launch a nuclear attack on the UK, it would be suicidal.
13. For all the talk of ‘mad mullahs’ from pro-war types, few people really believe that Iranians are suicidal.
14. Just like the Iranians could see that North Korea was safe from invasion as long as it had nukes, the rest of the world can see that Iranians want nukes to protect themselves from invasion.
15. There is no enthusiasm for an invasion of Iran (see point 1) and so nobody cares if they make an invasion more difficult.
16. The idea of nuclear non-proliferation is a joke, and the idea that Iran should be bombed for developing nukes, but Pakistan, India, and Israel can have them suggests to most people that the problem is not that Iran wants nukes, but that some people really really want to invade Iran.
17. See point 1

14

des von bladet 02.21.06 at 9:43 am

How about the Switzyland? They could be prompted to come out of neutral retirement by the hideous threat of Islamofascist Theocronukes and they are only recent and fairly reluctant members of the UN so they probably wouldn’t mind being kicked out all that much.

They are, in any case, more likely candidates than Tony “Baloney” Blair’s alleged “England”. The UK’s foreign policy is to support the USA through thick and thin, hélas, but taking the fall for them and declaring themselves international pariahs is above and beyond and then some.

15

John Emerson 02.21.06 at 9:47 am

A stealth attack from Luxemborg might be even more effective than a Swiss attack. They could just pretend to be laundering money as per usual, and then, BOOOM!! the reactors are gone.

16

Ray 02.21.06 at 9:48 am

By the way, jet, what Iran is trying to do at the moment is enrich uranium. Enriched uranium is a dual-use product – you either put it in a bomb or you put it in a reactor. It’s good for both.

17

DC 02.21.06 at 9:53 am

JQ,

“the occupation of Iraq has strengthened the position of every anti-American government in the region”

Like who? Iran, yes. Syria? Doesn’t seem like it. What other “anti-American governments” are there?

“the US has deprived itself of any practical option of using military force to stop Iran developing real nuclear weapons”

Do you say this is a bad thing?

18

John Emerson 02.21.06 at 10:00 am

“The US has deprived itself of any practical option of using military force to stop Iran developing real nuclear weapons”.

Bush doesn’t know that, though.

19

chris y 02.21.06 at 10:13 am

It’s quite possible to imagine a government in either Britain or Israel in the near future which is cynical and amoral. It’s much harder to imagine one that is entirely made up of suicidal lunatics and commands a majority of suicidal lunatics in Parliament/Knesset. So I think we can safely rule out either of those countries unilaterally attacking Iran for the benefit of the US State Department.

20

John Emerson 02.21.06 at 10:21 am

Yes, only the US is ruled by suicidal lunatics.

Not really, but the Christian Armageddonists come pretty close. They really are hoping for the world to come to an end.

Is Bush one of them? I don’t know, and neither does he. I doubt that he thinks of them as suicidal lunatics, though; he seems quite respectful of them.

21

Brendan 02.21.06 at 10:56 am

Just to keep you all informed: the Iraqi PM seems strangely unimpressed by the US government’s decision that it ought to decide who is in the Iraqi cabinet. What’s wrong with him? Doesn’t he understand democracy? The Iraqis do get to vote in US elections, right?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,1714607,00.html

22

Erstwhile 02.21.06 at 11:59 am

How is it obvious that the US right, the Israeli right and the Iranian right would not all plausibly derive at least a near-term benefit from ‘a wave of anti-US sentiment?’

23

roger 02.21.06 at 12:37 pm

Actually, it is a myth that the U.S. is generously aiding the Iraqi economy. On the contrary, Iraq would be a good bet for loans on a large scale by emerging markets investors. which would be more efficiently spent and contain inducements that would lead to more productive economic activity, instead of the rentseeking the U.S. is presently encouraging — plus, there is a huge surplus of money held by the Gulf States at the moment which is just aching to find an investment outlet. A U.S. withdrawal would radically change Kuwait’s compass points — once again, Kuwait would have to consider making the kind of loans to Iraq that it made in the 80s, when Kuwait feared Iran. After all, Sadr has made noises himself about Kuwait’s rightful place as part of Eretz Iraq. A theme in Iraqi politics going back to the 50s. I imagine Kuwait would shrewdly view it as in its self interest not to allow Iraq to get desperate …

The U.S. occupation has stunted Iraq economically — as imperialists normally do stunt the colonial peripheries they deign to occupy. Surely among the great benefits that will accrue to Iraq when the U.S. leaves will be resuming its old economic policies, which were, pre-80s, extremely successful. Who knows, someday the Iraqis might even get back the petty cash — the 8 billion or so – the Americans stole from them.

24

roger 02.21.06 at 12:48 pm

ps — OOPS. Forgot to put in: replying to #2.

25

W. Kiernan 02.21.06 at 6:16 pm

brendan: …it’s much more likely that any attack will be carried out by some ‘friend’ of the US (perhaps even Israel) in order to stop Iraq simply exploding in a wave of anti-US sentiment.

Right! The Islamic masses are currently blaming the government of the U.S.A. for a private newspaper in Denmark having printed cartoons which offended their princess-and-the-pea-sensitive sensibilities. But here you imagine they aren’t going to blame the U.S.A. when Israel, recipient of several billion dollars every year in U.S. military subsidies, launches a massive bombing campaign in Iran, incidentally wiping out thousands of Iranian civilians – no, certainly the sensible, level-headed Moslems will say, “Hey, now, let’s not get irrational; those were Israeli F-16s that blew up and/or irradiated my co-religionists; why in Heaven should we be upset with those nice Americans?”

26

John Quiggin 02.21.06 at 11:13 pm

“Like who? Iran, yes. Syria? Doesn’t seem like it.”

I think that Assad is better off thanks to the invasion. He clearly has something to bargain with now (making life easy/hard for Baathist exiles/foreign jihadis). And foreign threats of invasion always shore up an incumbent government even if (as Assad has surely realised by now) there’s very little chance that they will be followed up.

27

Peter 02.22.06 at 8:50 am


Not really, but the Christian Armageddonists come pretty close. They really are hoping for the world to come to an end.

Is Bush one of them? I don’t know, and neither does he. I doubt that he thinks of them as suicidal lunatics, though; he seems quite respectful of them.


Before the folks whitewashed whitehouse.gov, I used to have a link to a speech bush gave in his first term to some fundies where he bragged that when the rapture comes, the whitehouse will be “unmanned.”

I suspect that the real reason that North Korea is allowed to have nukes isn’t that they lack oil, it is more that there is exactly no mention of NK in the bible. But Babylon (in what is now called Iraq) gets lots of mention in the bible.

The rapturists reject that dirty resurrection bit from the bible: they want to be whisked up to heaven straight away. Avoiding the messy bit of dieing. That’s why left behind is such a popular series of books among the rapturists. Mr Clark, over at Slacktivist, does a good job of deconstructing just what nonsense is going on in left behind.

28

DC 02.22.06 at 9:38 am

I agree there was a period when Assad appeared strengthened for the reasons you suggest, JQ, but the Lebenese situation seems (to this casual observer) to have reversed that.

29

J Thomas 02.22.06 at 9:55 am

How is it obvious that the US right, the Israeli right and the Iranian right would not all plausibly derive at least a near-term benefit from ‘a wave of anti-US sentiment?’

Erstwhile has a very good point here. Get a government that’s surviving on short-term benefits, and it might very well attack iran.

Now consider the intelligence people are saying iran is 10 years from a bomb. If we stage a little attack and hit a few sites that don’t actually do that much damage, Bush can claim that we set back iran’s nuclear ambitions by 10 years.

A whole lot of uproar, not much actual attack. Then we quit. Would iran keep responding? Stir up trouble that we’d respond to, start a real war? I dunno. If they don’t, it’s a great photo-op of a war for Bush. A clean easy propaganda victory.

A few months ago I was seeing various estimates that the attack was scheduled for late March. Now John Emerson suggests something vaguer that might imply an attack in July/August. When would be the best time for US domestic purposes, like the elections? What international considerations would require it come sooner or later?

Has anybody heard recent rumors about when it’s actually scheduled?

30

derrida derider 02.22.06 at 7:06 pm

I reckon john emerson is right about the Bushies gearing up for another fight with swarthy furriners before the elections, though I think a terrorism scare might be easier for them than repeating their foreign aggression. But I think the obvious way for the Dems to counter this is to lay down a marker or two now that publicly warns of this. Hillary should give a low-key speech saying, in effect, “I predict that there will be a manufactured scare before the elections”.

This gives you options when the threat comes to pass. If it looks a really convincing threat, you can say that you didn’t of course mean this particular threat, which is a real one which could not be foreseen and (grave and statesmanlike look on face) you support the President 100% in this hour of peril. If, as is much more likely, it *looks* fake and exaggerated to anyone with clear vision it will be much easier to make the punters see what’s in front of their eyes by referring back to this obscure speech.

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