Across the Bay

Monday, June 14, 2004

The Politics of Compromise

In a great turnaround, it seems that Muqtada as-Sadr is being gradually sucked in to playing the game of compromise politics, which is so essential to Iraq and to pluralist societies (as was the case in Lebanon).

A spokesman for Muqtada said that he was planning on forming a political party that will enter the new political scene and try to get its demands peacefully, like any normal party around the world.

I was surprised to see that Muqtada reached this conclusion this quickly. I thought that he would try to ride the bankrupt horse of "armed resistance" and continue to be Iraq's most famous brat. But the young firebrand might have learned a valuable lesson from the big boys like Sistani and Allawi, which is excellent news for Iraq and Iraqi democracy.

Juan Cole commented on the story reminding readers that he had predicted this turn of events:

"It comes as no surprise to my readers; I have been predicting the morphing of the Sadrists into a political party for some time. I also have compared them to AMAL and Hizbullah, the two Shiite parties in Lebanon. For the moment they are more like Hizbullah, but that could change if the right circumstances arise."

It's true that Cole did say that, and I give him credit for it. He said it first in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (which is perhaps the best thing he's written on post-Saddam Iraq):

"The Sadrists in East Baghdad, Kufa and elsewhere must be convinced that they can best exercise their influence by becoming ward bosses and electing their delegates to parliament. Attempting to exclude the Sadrists will only ensure that they remain violent. They should be encouraged to do what the Shiite Amal Party did in Lebanon, trading in its militias for a prominent role in the Lebanese parliament. The Sunni Arabs of Anbar province must likewise be convinced that they can form alliances in parliament that protect them and achieve their goals.

And he recently wrote the following:

"[I]t is just possible that Allawi's remarks were intended to signal to Muqtada that if he disbands his militia, he can hope to stand for parliament and perhaps even attain high office. If so, Allawi is already distancing himself from Bremer's decree on Monday making Muqtada ineligible to run for office.

A reader challenged me on the comparison to Lebanon and the idea that the Sadrists would trade horses in parliament. I replied:

The Baghdad government will have an oil income. In the past, East Baghdad has been stiffed and not given its fair share. Everything from sewerage to schools are substandard. Sadrist representatives from East Baghdad
will want to prove they can bring home that patronage. To get it, they will have to persuade Kurds and Sunnis to support them.

Hizbullah trades horses with the Phalangists all the time. Lebanon is a fair comparison to Iraq.

I was particularly intrigued by the statements about Hizbullah and here's why. You see Cole didn't just predict that Muqtada would be lured into party politics, he also fantasized about a transcendent and historic Shiite-Sunni union in Iraq, based on Muqtada's actions during the insurgency (not to mention his comments on the millenarian Mahdi Army going underground)! (I refer you to his piece in Le Monde Diplomatique.) Here's where the Hizbullah comment factors in. At the time, when I read the aforementioned piece, I wrote (here and privately to Cole) that he was mistaking the trees for the forest, and I gave Lebanon as an example where ideologically and historically feuding parties would strike temporary deals to reach shared goals. I said that it was an extension of the politics of compromise which is the backbone of Lebanese politics. So to hear Cole now give the analogy to Hizbullah and Lebanon in a calmer and proper context is refreshing. But it's also hypocritical because Cole has accused the US of creating (not inheriting) a "failed state" in Iraq. Well considering that the main source of disturbance in the Shiite community has decided to play politics and join the emerging dynamic scene of post-Saddam Iraq, I would say that's a vital sign of a successful nascent state! The miserable entity under Saddam, which crushed any semblance of party or parliamentary politics, was the failed state.

By calling the new Iraq a "failed state," he not only refused to give the US and the coalition credit (opting instead to indulge fantasies of a historic Shiite-Sunni union focused against the US), he also displayed a condescending attitude towards the ability of the Iraqis to take the space and liberty that's been given to them by the coalition, and make good on it, by playing the politics of compromise. Indeed, Lebanon is a good analogy.