Thursday, June 22, 2006

P.S. on Riverbend and "the Iraqi puppet government"

This follows up my recent post: Newsflash - Zarqawi was a US "asset" (Riverbend & Al-Ahram). In it, I quoted some remarks on Zarqawi's death by "Riverbend," a secularized Sunni Arab woman who blogs from Baghdad (Baghdad Burning) and who tends to be the favorite English-language Iraqi blogger for westerners who have opposed the Iraq war and the current US presence in Iraq.

Most English-language Iraqi bloggers, along with most other Iraqis, greeted Zarqawi's death with unequivocal delight. Riverbend, like many other members of the Sunni Arab minority as well as many non-Iraqi Arabs, was more ambiguous. Unlike some of them, she had nothing good to say about Zarqawi. But she speculated about whether Zarqawi really existed, whether he was just a mythical creation of the Americans, whether his death was timed (or fabricated) for propaganda purposes, and so on. "He was an American creation- he came along with them- they don't need him anymore, apparently." Nobody she knew cared much about his (real or fictitious) death one way or another. Only "the Iraqi puppet government and the Americans," as she scornfully put it, tried to pretend otherwise.

At that point I couldn't resist a brief comment:
[This "puppet government," by the way, was elected by Iraqis in a national election in which a solid majority of eligible voters participated, despite disorder, ongoing crisis, and genuine risks of getting killed for voting. At the time, however, "Riverbend" reported that none of her friends and neighbors took the election very seriously. This perception says more about ethnic & sectarian divisions in Iraq than about anything else, I think. --JW]
=> One reader of my post e-mailed me some questions about this comment:
I'm no fan of Riverbend's politics, but how is "puppet government" the wrong term for an outfit that protested apparently unjustified killings of its own citizens by U.S. forces but then promptly shut up when the White House press spokesman said they'd been misquoted? If al-Maliki announced that he wanted us out, would we leave?
I responded as follows.
Clearly, this is not a completely independent, fully "sovereign" government. But to conclude that they must therefore be a "puppet government" involves a false dichotomy. Let's consider this seriously. Are these a bunch of people with no genuine support within Iraq, who have been put in place simply to serve the interests of the US? That's what it usually means to call a government a "puppet government." The answer is no. This is a coalition of parties whose supporters add up to a clear majority of Iraqis, as they've demonstrated in several national elections. Both the Shiite Arabs and the Kurds (who between them add up to at least 80% of the population, maybe 85%) have independent leaderships that were not created in any way by the US. And they're mostly interested in serving the agendas of the communities they represent (and their own agendas, of course--that's politics).

On the other hand, yes, they do depend on the US. The reason is that their opponents, who have much less popular support than they do, may well have a military edge if the US abandons Iraq and it comes to all-out civil war (especially since they would also have the support of neighboring regional powers, who are appalled at the idea of Iraq being run by a bunch of Shiites and Kurds). But people like Riverbend simply refuse to recognize that Iraqi Shiite Arabs and their leadership have legitimate interests and agendas of their own. She always describes them as puppets of non-Iraqi outsiders--if not the Americans, then the Iranians (for example, she--rather ludicrously--tends to describe Sistani as an Iranian puppet). What this really means is that the Sunni Arab minority, for understandable reasons, continue to identify themselves and their interests with "Iraq," and continue to identify the other 80-85% as illegitimate "special interests" who are merely the pawns of outsiders.

In the case of Iraqi Kurds, of course, it's true that if they could have what they really want, they would prefer not to be part of Iraq at all. Who can blame them? But this is not because they are "puppets" of the Americans. And the reason that the Kurdish leadership--which is quite independent of the Americans--has so far committed itself to trying to make a unified Iraq work has mostly to do with their recognition of what eastern Europeans used to call "geopolitical realities." That is, they realize that if they tried to declare independence, that could well trigger a Turkish invasion (and a lot of unpleasantness from Arab countries & Iran, too).

For all these reasons, yes, the Iraqi political forces that make up the new government are highly dependent on US military, political, and diplomatic support. They are in the middle of a civil war, and they would prefer not to get slaughtered by a bunch of fascists & jihadis supported by the Formerly Dominant Minority. And that certainly limits their freedom of action and makes them highly susceptible to US pressure. (Though in fact the US quite often has not gotten what it wanted out of Iraqi politics. There were a lot of things about the Iraqi constitutional compromise that were quite different from what the US government wanted, and if it had been up to the US government, Allawi would be Prime Minister, not Maliki.) Is this, by itself, enough to make it legitimate to call this a "puppet government"? Not in any serious sense of that term.
If al-Maliki announced that he wanted us out, would we leave?
Let's put it this way. Iraqi Kurds are about 20% of the Iraqi population, and they are enthusiastically pro-American. Shiite Arabs are 60-65% of the population, and decidedly more ambivalent about the Americans, to say the least. But all the available evidence indicates that the ones they fear most are the coalition of fascists, jihadis, and Sunni Arab revanchists who make up the so-called "insurgency"--not to mention the prospect of all-out sectarian civil war. If the mainstream leadership of the Iraqi Shiite community did not, on balance, want the Americans to be there, the US would leave. It would have to. The US is barely able to fight an "insurgency" whose absolute maximum support is limited to 15-20% of Iraqis, plus a few thousand foreign jihadi terrorists. Would the US try to fight an insurgency actively supported by 80% of Iraqis, if they agreed that they wanted the Americans to leave? Forget it.

There are a lot of bad names that one can legitimately call the current Iraqi government. But for a member of the Formerly Dominant Minority like Riverbend to call it a "puppet government" is not legitimate. It falls somewhere between ideological mystification and delusional wishful thinking.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub