Sinking feeling

Is the Bush Administration really thinking about trying to replace the Iraqi ruling coalition?

On Sunday, the Washington Post gave op-ed space to former Iraqi PM Ayad Allawi for an essay proposing the replacement of the Nouri al-Maliki government by a new coalition that Allawi would head. Allawi had already withdrawn his (tiny) secularist party from the ruling coalition, which has also kicked out the Sadrists, leaving it with a narrow parliamentary basis.

Allawi, who displaced pre-war favorite Ahmed Chalabi as the Bush Administration’s favorite Iraqi politician, lost the PM job when his party did badly in the elections. There’s absolutely no reason to think that Allawi would do better if new elections were held today, and it seems grossly improbable that secularist Sunni could assemble a coalition that would command a majority without heavy-duty help from the U.S.

So it wasn’t clear what Allawi was really up to. But now the Bush Administration seems to be backing away from al-Maliki

“The fundamental question is: Will the government respond to the demands of the people?” Bush said. Stopping short of directly endorsing Maliki, as he has on several previous occasions, Bush continued, “If the government doesn’t respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government.”

Huh? “Replace the government”? How? The Bush Administration hasn’t responded to the demands of the American people, and we’re still stuck with them for another seventeen months. Iraq has a constitution, and there’s no reason to think that al-Maliki can be toppled by constitutional means. (Carl Levin had previously made the same suggestion; it will be interesting to see whether the Red bloggers who denounced him will have the same reaction when the suggestion comes from Bush.)

I can understand where Levin and Bush are coming from. Heck, If I were an Iraqi voter, I probably would have voted for Allawi. But my demographic does not constitute a large chunk of the Iraqi electorate. Secularists in Iraq have lots of support &#8212 in Washington. Back home, they’re running fourth in a three-horse race.

The combination of the Allawi op-ed and the Bush speech may merely represent a maneuver to put pressure on al-Maliki to do something or other. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what he could do, or how much it would matter when the PM doesn’t actually control the ministries, the civilians don’t really control the security forces, and the center doesn’t really control the provinces. Or maybe Bush has finally seen reality, knows that Iraq is going down the tubes, and has decided to blame the Iraqis as a way of diverting criticism from himself. (Note the headline on Allawi’s op-ed: The U.S. Hasn’t Failed – The Iraqi Government Has. No doubt he will be well rewarded for saying so.)

But maybe, just maybe, Allawi has talked people in Washington into backing a serious play to topple al-Maliki. This seems to me completely crazy. As far as I can tell, neither the parliamentary arithmetic nor the electoral arithmetic works, and in the absence of a unified military it’s not clear how a coup could be brought off.

If we did somehow manage to install Allawi as PM, he would look like a mere U.S. puppet, with no legitimacy within Iraq and damned little in the rest of the world. Our claim to be defending the legitimate government of sovereign Iraq would be in tatters.

Even more than the surge, this looks like a “Hail Mary” pass. Al-Maliki, on a visit to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, hinted that he had other options than U.S. support:

Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria. We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere.

“Elsewhere,” in this context, presumably meaning not only Syria but also Iran, both of which might be happy to help the Iraqi Shi’a slaughter the Iraqi Sunnis. Looks to me like this will end in tears.

Update The International Herald Tribune has a hilarious put-down of Allawi by Amb. Crocker, but it also suggests that Iraqi politicians are ready to topple the al-Maliki coalition as soon as the U.S. anoints a favored candidate; nobody wants to back a loser.

Second update Apparently that wasn’t the message the Bush spin machine wanted out there; the flap managed to step on what Bush hoped would be strong PR for his VFW speech, in which he’d going to blame Vietnam doves for the genocide in Cambodia. (No, really.) Apparently that speech will now include a statement of support for al-Maliki.

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: