Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ali Allawi on The Daily Show

Jon Stewart's guest on Wednesday's Daily Show was Ali Allawi, a former advisor to the prime minister and himself a former minister in the current Iraqi government. They had a refreshingly substantive and frank discussion of the reality of Iraq since the fall of Saddam. Mr. Allawi's interview followed directly on the heels of a discussion of the Bush Administration's embarrassing search for a war czar execution manager for President Bush's wars.

Here's the transcript of the Allawi interview:

Jon Stewart: Here to shed some light on all of these goings-on is our guest tonight. He's been a senior advisor to the Prime Minister of Iraq as well as Iraq's Minister of Defense and Finance. His new book is called The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace. Please welcome Ali Allawi.

Delighted you could be with us. The book is called The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace. First things first: the big news, Moqtada al-Sadr has withdrawn from the parliament six guys — expected?

Ali Allawi: I think so; it's been going on for the last 2½ months or 3 months. There was talk about him withdrawing from the government, and I think now he decided to make it a reality. It's not something that is really surprising.

Stewart: So, it's not something that — you don't consider this a terrible blow? Is he like the guy that would keep saying, like, "We're leaving. ... Okay, we're going. ... Okay, you can't stop me. ...," and just keep going? Did anyone really want him to stay, or is he too polarizing, even for the Shia blocs?

Allawi: Well, his rôle has been quite contradictory, in the sense that he's needed to be inside the political process, because he does represent a large segment of the Iraqi population, especially the poor Shia, and at the same time he's seen to be a disruptive element, so he's both in and out. By and large, the last year, it has been better for the political process to have him inside, and especially inside the government rather than outside.

Stewart: Is he now on the outs with Maliki? Does this mean now that his government falls to the other, more powerful, Shia bloc?

Allawi: I think you can make a case that that's what's going to happen, in the sense that he backed Maliki's appointment last year, and he does have about 32 members of parliament.

Stewart: You make the interesting point, you said in the book, one of the biggest mistakes we made was we didn't understand where the power lay in Iraq. That we didn't understand that the power is not necessarily within the government, it's with the people.

Allawi: It's true, I mean, the size of the underground Sadrist movement, before the overthrow of the former regime, is much larger than either the U.S. administration expected or the Iraqi opposition, frankly, so when the occupation started, there was a very large mass movement that had been, to some extent, underground, and whose size and scope was not known before the war, and when it came on the scene, quite a significant political factor.

Stewart: You would have thought that, in all our research on Weapons of Mass Destruction, that we might also have heard something about that.

Allawi: Well, I think you're looking for enemies in the wrong place, frankly. I mean, the fact of the matter is that this movement grew throughout the 1990's, and reached very, very large proportions before the end of that decade, but it's off the radar screen completely in terms of the war's planners as well as a large part of the Iraqi opposition.

Stewart: Right. Well, we're going to come back, we're going to take a quick break and come back with more with Ali Allawi, right after this.

Welcome back, with Ali Allawi. The book is The Occupation of Iraq. It is absolutely incredibly informative; I wish you had written it before the war — it really would've helped.

Allawi: It's quite difficult to do that.

Stewart: A lot of it — it's interesting: a lot of it is about the occupation and what you felt like were the missteps, and the corruption of the government now, but a lot of it is a background of the country, that for someone who was, say, picking a place to invade — might have been nice if you had had a Let's Go Iraq. One of the things that was in it that really struck me was King Faisal, who was the head of the country from 1920 to 1932, I guess, said this is a really tough place to run. The country really seems to have no sense of country.

Allawi: It's true, you know, when he first came into the country, it was like that, but over a period of time, a kind of identity was established, especially among Arabs in the country, but Iraq historically was always part of an empire — somebody else's empire — or it was the center of its own empire. It was never ruled or run as a nation-state in the framework you're talking about now.

Stewart: You talk about it as being on a fault line.

Allawi: It is; it's a fault line of different civilizations and cultures. It's a fault line between Arabs and Persians, Arabs and Turks, Arabs and Kurds, and also within the Islamic world, between Sunnis and Shia. So, Iraq has really been a kind of crossroads country, where people passed through, left their traces.

Stewart: Is there — can you create stability on a fault line? Is there some way to do that, or do you just build sturdier houses?

Allawi: Well, you have to have some kind of national identity if you want to work within the framework of the state that you've inherited, but without that I think it's extremely difficult to have a strong, centralized state, where large elements of the country feel alienated from the government. At that point, I think you have very little choice, except for some sort of federal, or even confederal arrangement.

Stewart: As someone who really thought the invasion could really create the democratic civilization in Iraq, and really do some good, and has become somewhat disillusioned over the past years — is there some way out that you now see? If we leave, is it — I guess what I'm saying is, when the Iraqis stand up, will we stand down? No, that's our President; I'm sorry. Which, by the way — does that make any sense to you guys, 'cause it doesn't make any sense to us.

Allawi: We try to make sense of it.

Stewart: Well, it's very nice of you. What do you see as the solution, ultimately?

Allawi: I think that the solution has to be to really face the fact that the invasion and occupation of the country has led to really enormous consequences, not only within Iraq but in the region, and unless you administer and control the effects of the invasion, you're unlikely to have much peace. And to do that, I think you have to take into account that certain irreversible changes have taken place. Especially, for example, the empowerment of the Shia community, the empowerment of the Kurds, and the effects of that on the various countries of the Middle East.

Stewart: So you see sort of a central government, kind of existing to mediate between Kurds and Shia and Sunni, but they also have autonomy of their own?

Allawi: I think so, in the long term. I mean, if you want to have a nation-state, these components have to be brought together again. You have to re-weave the structures of the country and the society, and a central government that is based on a kind of federal arrangement is possibly the best outcome.

Stewart: One more thing, on a more personal note, and I don't even know if it's appropriate to broach it, but we in this country, we've just had a very tragic situation occur at one of our universities, and it really has taken the country aback, and there's a real grieving process that we're going through — and going through it by mourning by learning about the victims and learning about it and showing our support, you know, I hesitate to say, How does your country handle what is that kind of carnage on a daily basis? Is there a way to grieve? Is there a numbness that sets in? How is that?

Allawi: I think the scale of violence in Iraq is really inconceivable in your terms. I mean, we have on a daily basis what you had the other day at Virginia Tech, massacres of that scale, practically on a daily basis, and it's very hard to grieve. Most of the ways that people do treat this is just to leave the country. We now have a very large external refugee problem, nearly 2 million Iraqis have left the country, and an internal refugee problem, also about 2 million people displaced. But the scale of violence and its continuity is such that it really numbs you. In my case, for example, I had six people I had appointed in various positions in the government, including my office manager, we had a suicide bomber walk into my contingent of guards. So, it's really quite a serious psychological problem that is going to be one of the legacies of this terrible crisis.

Stewart: Yeah, and I truly cannot fathom it and I just recall, there's been so much information as I was becoming sort of wrapped up in our grief, and then I saw the headline today of literally 150 people killed, and I think it just sends an awful dagger through your heart. I can't imagine how you feel, but we love the fact that you come here and you write such a powerful story, and good luck — you're heading back to Iraq?

Allawi: I'm heading back to Iraq, I hope, in the next few weeks, but for now I go back to London and then wait and see.

Stewart: Well, good luck to you, sir. A pleasure to meet you. Ali Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq — it's on bookshelves now.
There's something quite telling, really, about the fact that a "government of the people, by the people, for the people" needed reminding that the power in Iraq lies with the Iraqi people, not with the interim government. Although it's interesting to hear that some of the emergent factions in Iraq came as a surprise to some of the other factions, it's disheartening to hear once again how little thought the U.S. planners of the war gave to the question. We really did knock Saddam out of power based on President Bush's belief that the magic pixie dust of freedom would turn everything to sugar candy and roses. We gave no thought whatsoever to how our little régime change project would reshape the Middle East, beyond the belief that introducing (what we could pass off as) democracy would transform everything, putting a chicken in every pot and uniting the Iraqi nation in gratitude for our magnanimous generosity. It isn't a question of what was George W. Bush thinking, but why wasn't he thinking?

But that's all looking backwards, at the myriad mistakes of the invasion and occupation. Where do we go from here? The withdrawal of Moqtada al-Sadr's bloc from the government, specifically over the issue of the prime minister's refusal to set a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, could set in motion a chain of events. First, the stage is set for a vote of no-confidence. In the United States, we don't have such a thing, but in most countries the parliament can take a vote on a special motion that says, "We do not believe that the prime minister should continue in office." If that motion carries, then there are two possibilities. The blocs in the parliament can form a new coalition that will have a majority of votes — as happened in Ireland in 1994, when the Fianna Fáil–Labour coalition was replaced by the Fine Gael–Labour–Democratic Left coalition, without a new election — or you can dissolve parliament and elect a whole new batch. In any case, there is clearly reason to be concerned that a no-confidence motion could carry, since the Maliki government is bucking the will of the clear majority of the Iraqi people, who want the U.S. troops out of Iraq, yesterday if not sooner. While there is obvious danger of chaos and increased factional violence, the situation can only be addressed by an Iraqi government that holds the confidence of the majority of the people and the majority of parliament. If Maliki's government can't pass that test, then it's time for a new government.

Although the U.S. Congress can't remove the President by a simple majority vote, Bush is a fool if he thinks he can press on indefinitely without winning back the confidence of the people — preferably including some of us who have never thought he was doing a good job with the Iraq war. He needs to show that he is facing the realities of the mess he created. If he can't do that — and I very much doubt he is capable — then we will spend the next 21 months not-so-slowly bleeding. Iraq is, in former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley's words, "a figment of Winston Churchill's imagination."

A loose confederation, perhaps more along the lines of the United States' Articles of Confederation rather than our subsequent Constitution, or perhaps something like a somewhat more democratic version of the United Arab Emirates, is far more likely than any strong sense of national unity and Iraqi identity. Perhaps Iraq will divide into three regions, with a federal district around Baghdad. Of course, the mix is complicated by outside pressures. If the Iraqi confederation gives too much autonomy to the Kurds, giving rise to ambitions or especially pretensions of Kurdistani nationhood, Turkey may very well invade. Iran has its interests, as do the Arab states to the south and west. Also, the central government must be strong enough to prevent the development of a safe haven for international terrorism, or else the United States will shock and awe the Iraqis right back into their stone-age quagmire.

Jon Stewart's metaphor of building stronger houses on a fault line is perhaps more telling than he realized. I live in San Francisco, and was here in the Bay Area for the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. I've also seen the devastation from lesser quakes in other parts of the world, and I can tell you that the difference mostly comes down to building codes. In California, you have to build your houses and offices and apartments to remain standing when one of those fault lines flares up. In the same way, the metaphoric fault lines in Iraq are not going to seal themselves, forming one solid, stable foundation. It's not going to happen this century, much less this year. Whatever governmental structures the Iraqis build must be flexible enough to remain standing through the political aftershocks that are certain to reverberate for decades. The United States' approach to Iraq must be flexible enough to work with whatever works for the Iraqis.

It also bears mentioning that the United States must not lose sight of the fact that the most musical words to the ears of a terrorist recruiter are "refugee camp." A collection of angry, displaced, dispossessed, idle people — where better to preach hatred and revenge?

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