Thursday, February 14, 2008

Moderation in All Things (Rhetorically Speaking)

In a bit of relatively good news from Iraq, three potentially beneficial political measures have been passed (even if the unorthodox bundling of three separate laws into one measure for an up or down vote, and questions surrounding the voting method itself, raises constitutional and procedural concerns). The package includes a budget, the granting of amnesty to large swathes of prisoners (or, in some cases, switching custody of detainees from coalition prisons to prisons run by the Iraqi government) and the passage of rules regarding various Iraqi governates - with a proviso setting a date for regional elections tacked on (governates should not be confused with federal regions - see Reidar Visser for a detailed clarification).

Like Marc Lynch, I'll take a wait-and-see approach to these new provisions, as the last time we witnessed a legislative "breakthrough" (the de-de-Baathification law), when the dust settled, it wasn't clear what was really achieved. To repeat my admonition: amateurs talk big picture, professionals talk implementation. Speaking of implementation, the Times notes:
[T]he parliamentary success was clouded because many of the most contentious details were simply postponed, raising the possibility that the accord could again break into rancorous factional disputes in future debates on the same issues.
I tend toward the view that regional elections are a good thing due to the lack of legitimacy that many of the local governments enjoy as a result of prior Sunni boycotts (though Ilan Goldenberg raises several valid concerns about the potential for elections to heighten conflict). Leaving that discussion aside for a moment, there was an interesting backstory to the inclusion of the regional elections provisions - namely, that our primary allies in Iraq, the Kurds and ISCI, tried to scuttle the plan, while some of our ostensible "enemies" (the Sadrists) pushed the democratic ball forward.

This exposes some of the silliness behind the compulsion to describe our allies as "moderates" and our adversaries as "extremists" regardless of the actual qualities/platforms of the entities involved. This is true in cases when our "moderate" allies in Iraq include a Shiite fundamentalist party (like ISCI whose head Bush feted at the White House) which even a Fox News columnist suggests is Iran's primary ally in Iraq. It is equally true when we call Musharraf a committed democrat or when we label brutal, non-democratic Middle Eastern depsots "moderate" because they back our particular agenda. Reidar Visser gets to the heart of the matter:
Again, it is the alliance of Kurds and ISCI that is making itself felt, but this time in a manner that seems less ideological: they flatly reject the idea of any timeline for provincial elections being inserted in the law...Significantly, the challenge to the ISCI–Kurdish axis on this issue comes from the cross-sectarian alliance in parliament that the United States routinely overlooks in favour of its own “moderate” government partners, and includes parties like the (Shiite Islamist) Sadrists and Fadila, the (Sunni Islamist) Tawafuq and the (secular) Wifaq and Hiwar. Today, their “dangerous radicalism” is being expressed in a unified demand for a guarantee for local elections to be inserted in the governorates law...whereas Washington’s “moderate” partners (who greatly benefited from Sunni and Sadrist non-participation back in the 2005 elections) seem to be deliberately slow-moving over the elections issue.
The last parenthetical gets at the true motivation for ISCI - and it has nothing to do with their "moderation" or respect for democratic process. ISCI fears a massive victory for the Sadrist current in local elections throughout the Shiite south, and so prefers to postpone elections indefinitely. ISCI's fears are well-founded. The Sadrists have cleverly distanced themselves from the unpopular central government - while ISCI has been unable to do so despite the repeated song and dance. In terms of earning support, the Sadrists have also been able to do what the central government has not: deliver vital social services to the people.

Juan Cole and Kevin Drum are concerned that ISCI might try to either fix the elections or simply refuse to concede defeat (how moderate!), setting the stage for a bitter battle with an angry and, ipso facto, disenfranchised Sadrist current. This type of election-related conflict could bubble over, bringing intra-Shiite violence to a peak (think Kenya, but with more guns). Which gets back to some of those concerns Ilan Goldenberg expressed.

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