Bremer's last trick

Juan Cole is spot-on, as usual

The Guardian reports that US civil administrator Paul Bremer signed an order Monday banning Muqtada al-Sadr and his lieutenants from running for elective office for 3 years because of their membership in an illegal militia. Muqtada and his lieutenants rejected this decree and said that the CPA and the caretaker government had no right to make such decisions.

Bremer’s action in excluding the Sadrists from parliament is one final piece of stupidity to cap all the other moronic things he has done in Iraq . The whole beauty of parliamentary governance is that it can hope to draw off the energies of groups like the Sadrists. Look at how parliamentary bargaining moderated the Shiite AMAL party in Lebanon, which had a phase as a terrorist group in the 1980s but gradually outgrew it. AMAL is now a pillar of the Lebanese establishment and a big supporter of a separation of religion and state. The only hope for dealing with the Sadrists nonviolently was to entice them into civil politics, as well. Now that they have been excluded from the political process and made outlaws in the near to medium term, we may expect them to act like outlaws and to be spoilers in the new Iraq. (emphasis added)

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7 thoughts on “Bremer's last trick

  1. Spelt out like that, these guys look just too stupid for words. I mean, this looks like an outright failure in politics 101. What happens to imperial powers? Once you get into that position, do the rulers just take it as a license to put their brains in cold storage?

  2. The sad thing about this is that the UN resolution gives the appearance of some hope for an end to violence in Iraq. But Bremer’s action should remind us that the good news will not keep coming and that we should perhaps brace ourselves for more bad news – whether it’s from Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Palestine/Israel.

    While some UN resolutions are effective at resolving conflicts the majority often seem like expressions of helplessness and goodwill by bystanders to a traffic accident.

  3. I walked past your office yesterday in BEL. It took me a couple of seconds to remember where I heard of the “John Quiggin” which I read on the door as I passed by. Pretty neato.

  4. I’ve been thinking more deeply about Bremer’s mistake here. Actually, the dynamics of getting people and groups onside in parliamentary systems does work like that, only there are rather more subtleties. We have lots of evidence for how this works from British constitutional history from about 1660 onward, which left a lot of former poachers not only turned gamekeepers, but entrenched in a system that carefully did not look too closely at the rights and wrongs of things – hence the wry joke that the acts of amnesty and oblivion meant amnesty for the King’s enemies and oblivion for the King’s friends. Individual beneficiaries included Morgan of Jamaica, Argyll, and General Monck, with the “CABAL” a generation later (one of the earliest English acronyms I know).

    Anyhow, the trick did two more things than just get poachers to turn:-

    – It didn’t let all poachers turn, as that would dilute the equity of those who had – there needed to be enough carrot for them, including advantages over their former rivals.

    – It let poachers turn partly on the basis of when they offered to come in (think Glencoe). There was stick as well as carrot, since there was a “Devil take the hindmost” logic to give incentive not to hold out for a better offer (read up the folklore about what happened to the last witch to reach the Brocken on Walpurgisnacht).

    The thing was, the object of the exercise was only to get enough people on side to restore control – you didn’t need all of them. By leaving some off the list you provided extra carrot and stick to get the rest on side quicker and more reliably, and you could use those to mop up the remainder (like Argyll’s Campbells at Glencoe). That made them more complicit as well, which helped lock them in.

    So it is quite possible that Bremer’s actions will come right by mistake, from making the Sadrists the ones left out. Myself, I think he is still making a mistake, since they don’t look like the sort of candidates needed for a useful example, and they would be better handled with carrots while saving the stick for others. And of course it does look as though he is acting out of ignorance.

    Having said that, it was just a comment on the politicised US approach to Iraq, and to its practitioners like Bremer. Recent US intervention in Paraguayan constitutional developments shows that the US does have considerable institutional knowledge of these post-Machiavellian techniques; it’s just that it only comes out when it isn’t important.

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