Ayad Allawi: The Broder candidate of Iraq

Last week, while discussing the foolishness of criticizing Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki for the structural (i.e., not personal) problems in Iraqi politics, I briefly mentioned the fact that former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is not the answer. In the wake of continued speculation about Allawi and his prospects, especially in US press and political circles, it’s worth explaining further exactly why that’s so.

Most importantly, and quite simply, Allawi has virtually no support in Iraq. In the last elections, in December 2005, his party won a piddling 8 percent of the vote, earning just 25 seats in the 275-seat parliament. Further, his support is hardly rising: in the previous election, in January 2005, his party won 14 percent, capturing 40 seats. So his support is low, and it got lower in between elections. Iraqis largely view him as an American puppet, which isn’t unreasonable considering his oft-reported ties to the CIA. But just in case that wasn’t enough to torpedo his popularity in Shia-dominated Iraq, he’s also a former Baathist — to be fair, he split from the party nearly 30 years ago, but Iraqis have long memories and he’s still tainted by the association.

Then there’s the fact that Allawi already had a shot at the position — and he was terrible. He was appointed interim prime minister in May 2004, keeping the position until he was replaced in April 2005 by Ibrahim Jaafari (following the January ’05 elections). If that sounds like the time when the insurgency really started to heat up, well . . . it was. Allawi’s tenure was marked by corruption, a feckless approach to basic services, and a widespread perception of thuggishness. In one particularly intense episode, he’s said to have personally (and summarily) executed six suspected insurgents at a Baghdad police station. Perhaps most importantly, his support for the devastating military incursions into Fallujah and Najaf in 2004 earned him the hatred of both Shia and Sunni Iraqis. As a postscript to this illustrious record, after the latest elections, he basically disappeared to London and Jordan — when Ambassador Crocker was asked about Allawi recently, according to NYTimes, he “said he only spoke to people who actually came to Iraq.”

Despite all this, we’re subjected to relentless speculation about an Allawi reemergence. Whether through military coup (ridiculous; he doesn’t even have a militia like Sadr, the Kurds, and SIIC), election (ridiculous; as noted, he has no real base of support), or US move (horrifyingly possible), it’s supposedly time to reconsider Allawi.

One might understandably wonder why, and the answer is, Allawi is precisely the kind of leader the uninformed pundit class loves. Just as David Broder can wax pathetic about Michael Bloomberg for his “leadership” and “post-partisan” positioning, other observers label Allawi “tough” and “non-sectarian.” These kind of vague labels are music to the ears of pundits, neocons, and deluded war supporters alike, and Allawi gets disproportionate attention because he is essentially a Westerner. He speaks English well, is comfortable among elites from London to Amman to Washington, and knows that the surest route to political acceptance in the US is a massively expensive lobbying campaign by former Bush administration officials. But when it comes down to it, Allawi has about as much support for Iraqi PM as Bloomberg does for US president . . . and from the same types of people.

Like Americans, Iraqis have preferences about issues. If they wanted “non-sectarian” leaders, they would have elected them in January ’05. Or December ’05. Or the parliament would pass a vote of no-confidence — remember, Iraq isn’t like the American system; there the parliament can topple the PM anytime with a majority vote. The fact that they haven’t jettisoned Maliki should be a big glowing sign that there’s no consensus alternative. The country is majority religious Shia, and that fact is reflected in the government. It’s true that even the religious Shia parties aren’t getting along, but the idea that Allawi would improve things is ludicrous. Anyone who claims otherwise doesn’t understand Iraq.

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