One Crude Benchmark

Posted by Cutler on June 13, 2007
Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia

In October 2006, former US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad introduced American “benchmarks” for measuring the success of the Iraqi government.

Some of those benchmarks drew inspiration from the Right Arabist critique of the pro-Shiite tilt in US policy, especially Khalilzad’s demands for “reform” of the de-Baathification process (i.e., re-Baathification) and for new provincial elections to reverse the consequences of the Sunni Arab boycott.

Two benchmarks related directly to oil: passage of the US-backed “hydrocarbons law” and constitutional reform related a promised referendum on Kurdish control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Today, it looks increasingly likely that the Shiite-led government in Iraq will do the Bush administration’s bidding on the oil front, but not those measures designed to reverse Shiite political dominance.

A New York Times article by Damien Cave prepares readers for this outcome:

[M]any Iraqi and American officials now question whether any substantive laws will pass before the end of the year…

[T]he oil law appears the most likely, officials said.

Notwithstanding some grumbling from abroad, I suspect the oil law will, indeed, pass the Iraqi parliament.  This is clearly the one “benchmark” that matters to the entire Bush administration.  It has the strong support of the Sistani-backed Shiite oil minister, Hussein Shahristani.

Indeed, I think the path toward passage of the oil law was likely cleared a bit with the recent removal of the Iraqi parliamentary speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani.

At the same time, re-Baathification looks like a dead letter.

Cave’s New York Times article suggests that Iraqi Shiites have rejected Khalilzad’s re-Baathifying “Reconciliation and Accountability Law.”

[A]n aide to the reclusive cleric [Sistani] confirmed that there was “a general feeling of rejection” about the proposal.

Since then, the original draft has gone nowhere…

Iraqi officials said they were working on a compromise law… primarily a softer alternative…

It remains unclear how much support the proposal could attract. Mr. Falluji, the Sunni lawmaker, said the prime minister did not fully support reconciliation with former Baathists — a suspicion also harbored by some American officials.

In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, Prime Minister Maliki gives only lukewarm lip service in support of re-Baathification:

From the outset, I committed myself to the principle of reconciliation, pledged myself to its success. I was determined to review and amend many provisions and laws passed in the aftermath of the fall of the old regime, among them the law governing de-Baathification. I aimed to find the proper balance between those who opposed the decrees on de-Baathification and others who had been victims of the Baath Party. This has not been easy, but we have stuck to that difficult task.

Provincial elections in places like Babil would undermine Shiite political dominance and look increasingly unlikely.

There is no constitutional change required for a Kirkuk referendum and the US has refused to say much about whether or not it is willing to buck a broad range of Turks, Sunni Arabs, and Sadrist Shiite Arabs in order to go ahead with the referendum.  I tend to think the US will pressure the Kurds to drop the idea of a referendum.

According to Cave’s report, the Iraqi Shiite government is far from committed to swift constitutional reform.

“We have not committed to doing it by September,” [Sheik Humam Hamoudi, one of three committee chairmen and a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council] said. “Maybe the American Congress has made such a commitment, but we have not.”

The real question, at this point, is not where the Iraqi Shiite government stands, but where the Bush administration stands in relation to Khalilzad’s original benchmarks.

Most Western political officials in Iraq and Washington publicly refuse to discuss a Plan B… Many have turned their attention toward risky local alliances with insurgents or former insurgents who say they will fight Al Qaeda.

Is the Bush administration still playing from the Right Arabist playbook, hoping for restoration of Sunni Arab political power?  Or has the administration “signed on” with the Right Zionist “Shiite Option” in Iraq?

It is interesting to note that Prime Minister Maliki seems to think he has some significant enemies, but they are “mediated” through regional tensions.  His Op-Ed makes clear that Maliki thinks himself pulled between Iran and the Arab League, even as he tries to appear neutral:

Our conflict, it should be emphasized time and again, has been fueled by regional powers that have reached into our affairs…

We have reached out to those among our neighbors who are worried about the success and example of our democratic experiment, and to others who seem interested in enhancing their regional influence…

Our message has been the same to one and all: We will not permit Iraq to be a battleground for other powers. In the contests and ambitions swirling around Iraq, we are neutral and dedicated to our country’s right to prosperity and a new life…

Maliki’s reference to those “worried about… our democratic experiment” is clearly to the Arab regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan.  His reference to those “interested in enhancing their regional influence” is clearly about Iran.

In Washington, Right Arabists remain resistant to the “democratic experiment” in Iraq; Right Zionists are ultimately committed toward the enhanced “regional influence” of [a reconstructed] Iran.

The question, now as always, is the battle between Right Arabists and Right Zionists in Washington.

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