June 21, 2014

Iraq Is Staring Into The Abyss; Maliki Is An Iraqi Redneck; Maliki's Nixonian Paranoia (And Other Insights From Dexter Filkins's New Yorker Piece On Iraq)

"Richard Nixon: That's our tragedy, you and I Mr. Frost. No matter how high we get, they still look down at us. 
David Frost: I really don't know what you're talking about. 
Richard Nixon: Yes you do. Now come on. No matter how many awards or column inches are written about you, or how high the elected office is, it's still not enough. We still feel like the little man. The loser. They told us we were a hundred times, the smart asses in college, the high ups. The well-born. The people who's respect we really wanted. Really craved. And isn't that why we work so hard now, why we fight for every inch? Scrambling our way up in undignified fashion. If we're honest for a minute, if we reflect privately, just for a moment, if we allow ourselves a glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul, isn't that why we're here? Now? The two of us. Looking for a way back into the sun. Into the limelight. Back onto the winner's podium. Because we can feel it slipping away. We were headed, both of us, for the dirt. The place the snobs always told us that we'd end up. Face in the dust, humiliated all the more for having tried. So pitifully hard. Well, to *hell with that*! We're not going to let that happen, either of us. We're going to show those bums, we're going to make 'em choke on our continued success. Our continued headlines! Our continued awards! And power! And glory! We are gonna make those mother fuckers *choke*!" - From the film 'Frost/Nixon' (2008) directed by Ron Howard and written by Peter Morgan. 

Below are excerpts from, "What We Left Behind" by Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker, April 28, 2014:
This month’s election will be the first without American supervision. The recent violence, along with Maliki’s growing authoritarianism, has prompted many to imagine the future in the darkest terms. Hanaa Edwar, who runs a nonprofit called Al-Amal (Hope), told me over tea at her home that she had opposed the American invasion, even though she loathed Saddam Hussein. “I thought it was an Iraqi issue, not an American one,” she said. Still, the Americans could not have dreamed of a better friend. Threatened by insurgents and harassed by the government, Edwar built an organization that, among other things, trains women to campaign for elected office. She is proud of her work but ashamed of the Iraq that Maliki and his American sponsors have made. She recited a list of woes: “Divisions among people. The failure of public services. The corruption. The human-rights abuses. The judicial system? There is no judicial system, really. We are losing everything.”

Three years ago, four pro-democracy demonstrators were arrested in Baghdad, and Maliki publicly described them as “criminals and killers.” Edwar strode up to him at a conference and unfurled a large photograph of the group. “Criminals and killers?” she said. “We have sacrificed thousands of people.”

Wakhrooha,” Maliki barked to his aides: Take her away.

I asked Edwar about the elections, whether change might save the country. She looked at me with tired eyes. “We are going into—how do you say it?” she said.

“The abyss?” a colleague offered.

“Yes—the abyss,” Edwar said. “Yes, yes, yes.”
But Maliki had never known any Americans. His time in Iran and the Middle East set him apart from other exiles—people like Ahmed Chalabi and Ayad Allawi, members of the Iraqi aristocracy who fled to London or New York or Chicago, where they became fluent in English and conversant in Western culture. Some of those exiles, still vying with Maliki for power, refer to him disparagingly as a ma’adan: a kind of Iraqi redneck. “Saddam was a Sunni ma’adan—low class,” the associate told me. “Maliki is the ma’adan of the Shiites.” Maliki, who has a master’s degree in Arab literature from Baghdad University, is acutely sensitive to the slights, his friends say. “He has a big chip on his shoulder,” a senior Iraqi lawmaker told me.

Beals met Maliki in 2004, when Maliki was the deputy speaker of the interim council that the U.S. had set up before the first elections. Beals recalled Maliki as intensely serious and committed, even though he knew that the Americans had given the council little real power. More than a year into the American occupation, Maliki still went by his nom de guerre, Jawad. Operating out of a shabby office, with worn-out carpet and doors that were missing hinges, he worked constantly, rarely indulging in pleasantries. “Watching him at work across the parliament hall, I remember thinking how he was the only person whose attitude and work habits were, in a way, American,” Beals said. At one point, Beals asked Maliki to tell a little about his past. “His eyes welled up with tears—he became emotional and distraught,” Beals said. “I think he saw the gulf between my life and the life of constant terror and intrigue he was living.”

The fall of Saddam marked a shift in Maliki’s struggle, but not the end of it. “There was no detachment, no attitude of triumph,” Beals said. “It was clear in his opinion that the war was not over at all. At any moment, whatever had been built could be gone, and the Baath could be back. There were explosions outside then, as there still are now. The lights were flickering on and off then, as they still are now. It was hard to disagree with him.”
Crocker had been a young political officer in the American Embassy in Baghdad in 1980, when Dawa’s leader, Mohammed Bakir al-Sadr, was executed. That night, Dawa activists slipped into the streets and tacked up posters of Sadr across Baghdad. Crocker had ventured out and grabbed one; he mentioned it to Maliki. “I thought it would give me street cred,” Crocker told me. As the two men talked, Maliki reflected on his thousands of dead colleagues, and told Crocker that under different circumstances he would have preferred a life outside politics—as a professor of Arabic literature. “He can quote the classical Arabic poets, the pre-Islamic poets, at great length,” Crocker said.

As Maliki spoke of the difficulty of navigating Iraqi politics, he mentioned Abd al-Karim Qasim, the Iraqi general who, in 1958, helped overthrow the British-backed monarchy of Faisal II and execute the members of the royal family. After seizing power, Qasim implemented progressive land reforms and an expansion of women’s rights. Maliki admired Qasim’s programs, and especially the skills he deployed to stay in power. “Qasim was masterful at the double and triple cross,” Crocker said, recalling his conversation with Maliki. “He’d back one faction against another, and when the dirty work was done he’d turn on the faction he had backed so they didn’t get too powerful. Intimidate, pressure, bribe, cajole, and then reverse course.” But Qasim’s example went only so far; in 1963, he was overthrown and executed by the Baathists. To avoid the same fate, Maliki told Crocker, “I have to keep dancing all the time.”

From the beginning, Maliki was fixated on conspiracies being hatched against him—by his Iraqi rivals, by the Baathists he imagined were still in the Iraqi Army, even by the Americans. A former American diplomat described it as “Nixonian paranoia,” adding, “We had a hundred and fifty thousand troops in the country, and he was obsessed that a few dozen former Baathists were going to try to overthrow him.” The longtime associate told me that Maliki’s basic assumption was “everyone is plotting against us.” But, he argued, fanatical caution had served him well. “His secret? He is a very intelligent tactician—all politics is short term. He doesn’t have any vision for the state.”

No matter how much Maliki admired political cunning, his first years as Prime Minister were marked by impotence and indecision. Some people who worked closely with him were convinced that he got the job because he was unlikely to demand his own way. Emma Sky, a civilian adviser to the American military, explained the reasoning: “If we put a nobody in power, he’s no threat to anybody.”