Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Maliki is the New Diem

Some people are talking coup d'etat in Iraq.

David Ignatius writes that "President Obama sensibly appears to be leaning toward an alternative policy that would replace Maliki with a less sectarian and polarizing prime minister."

The impulse to replace Maliki is understandable. Most observers of Iraq argue that he has played a large role in the growing sectarian divide between the majority Shi'ites and the minority Sunnis, and thus bears responsibility for the growth of ISIS in the north.

The unstated assumption, of course, is that another popularly elected, plausible leader could have governed differently and guided Iraq into a functioning democracy, and that now, the fact that elections produced Maliki should not stop the United States from maneuvering behind the scenes to get a more able (read "pliable") leader in his place. Then the United States can go about fixing Iraq.

President George W. Bush shakes hands with Iraqi Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki, July 25, 2006. Photo by
Kimberlee Hewitt, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps. More likely is that the internal conditions in Iraq produced the kind of leader Maliki became. If that's the case, then a coup to oust Maliki will do no good at all. Instead, it is likely to make things worse.

There is certainly precedent for that. In the mid-1950s in South Vietnam, the Eisenhower administration sought a non-communist popular leader who would not be tarnished by associations with the departing French colonizers. It settled on Ngo Dinh Diem.

For about six years, Diem seemed the answer to American prayers. He created a separate South Vietnamese government as a counter to Ho Chi Minh's communist North. He led a fairly stable regime that served American interests in the region.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower shakes hands with South
Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, May 8 , 1957
U.S. National Archives and Records Administation
But then in 1960, the National Liberation Front began its offensive against Diem's government. As pressure grew, Diem grew more oppressive, in particularly cracking down on the majority Buddhists. By the fall of 1963, the American embassy and elements of the Kennedy administration decided that Diem was the problem and needed to go. American officials sent signals to South Vietnamese generals who then ousted and murdered Diem and his brother.

Ignatius effectively proposes that the United States do the same thing in Iraq today:
The people who will pull the plug on Maliki are Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and other Iraqi kingmakers. The United States should push them to signal unmistakably that Maliki is finished…. Saudi Arabia wants Obama to announce that he opposes Maliki. It would be better just to move him out, rather than hold a news conference.
One can only hope that Obama resists such pressure. Things with Diem didn't work out well.

In a February 1, 1966 conversation with Sen. Eugene McCarthy, LBJ put it bluntly. Kennedy was told, he said, that Diem
was corrupt and he ought to be killed. So we killed him. We all got together and got a goddamn bunch of thugs and we went in and assassinated him. Now, we've really had no political stability since then.
The political instability that followed the Diem coup was a major contributing factor in LBJ's disastrous decision to Americanize the war in Vietnam.

The desire to replace Maliki is another example of the imperial attitude toward Iraq: America gets to decide when it is time for the leader to go. I have little doubt that if the United States determined to do so, it could mount a coup against Maliki.  But as always, the question is: what then?

As with the initial invasion, it is relatively easy to destroy. It is much harder to build. The United States can probably destroy Maliki if it so chooses. But can it build anything to replace him?

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