A coup in Baghad?

Yesterday, I said that the only way to make sense of the Bush escalation plan is to imagine a change of government in Iraq. Today, John Burns of the New York Times reports that getting rid of al-Maliki may well be on the agenda. But it’s hard to see how this doesn’t end in tears.

Yesterday, trying to figure out why Mr. Bush and his crew think the escalation in Iraq might have a chance to work, I speculated that replacing Nouri al-Maliki might be part of the plan. Today, that doesn’t seem so speculative.

Here’s John Burns on CNN (emphases added):

JOHN BURNS, “NEW YORK TIMES”: Well, it’s pretty clear that there are contending American and Iraqi agendas here. The United States is looking for a road home which, requires at least a minimal fulfillment of American objectives here. To accomplish that, they’ve got to have some kind of healing process amongst Iraqi politicians of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Mr. Maliki, on the other hand, is a tribune of a Shiite religious interest and, as he would see it, of the 60 percent of the population that are Shiites who have waited a thousand years for this opportunity to rule here. And they do not intend to be reflected or, if you will, constrained by the United States.

So I think what we’re going to see here is a growing contest of wills. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the loser in that is Mr. Maliki. There is much talk across the river in the Green Zone about easing him out over the next few weeks or months.

BLITZER: So in other words, Nouri al-Maliki could be in trouble unless he delivers.

Bottom line, do you think he has the guts to go stand up against Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, this Shiite militia in Sadr City?

BURNS: You know, I don’t think it’s a question of guts. I think all these people who went through the fire with Saddam, they are all former exiles, as you know. All of them, Mr. Maliki included, lost large proportions of their family to Mr. Saddam Hussein’s gulag.

I think it’s a question of will and whether or not Maliki, Nouri al-Maliki, can break with 30 or 40 years of commitment in the Shiite religious cause. There is no sign to date that he has been prepared to do that.

He makes the right speeches. He sat across the table from President Bush and said all the right things, he did right from the start when he took office eight months ago. He just hasn’t done it. He continues to look for ways around it. Indeed, at the extreme, he has intervened to persuade the Americans to release captured Iraqis who the American military command has designated as death squad leaders in the Shiite interest.

So the signs are not good. And I think one interpretation you can make of the Bush plan is that they’ve built this assumption in, that Maliki will not fulfill those pledges, he won’t meet the benchmarks and the Americans have been working desperately behind the scenes to create a kind of parallel political movement, a moderate political movement based on factions within the existing Iraqi parliament that could be used as a vehicle for a parliamentary coup against Mr. Maliki.

Hat tip: PBD

I won’t pretend to be shocked that the United States government is grossly interfering in the politics of what’s supposed to be the sovereign and democratic nation of Iraq. As far as I can tell, Iraq isn’t sovereign, isn’t especially democratic, and isn’t a nation. If Iraq’s biggest problem is sectarian warfare, and its current government is encouraging sectarian warfare by allowing sectarian militias to take over pieces of its army and police force, then a new government sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

But if al-Maliki falls, with us pushing him, that’s not going to do much for our credibility as a promoter of democracy. And do we really have any good reason to believe that his successor would be able to do better? Iraq had elections, and the secularists got a thumpin’. Finding a parliamentary majority for a government that will actually go after the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades seems impossible. So what’s left? An unparliamentary strongman regime? Last time I checked, all the actual strong men were on the wrong side.

Anyway, can you say, “Ngo Dinh Diem”? I was sure you could.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com