The Dangers of Scolding an Embattled Arab Leader

The last few days have brought a flurry of tense words between the Bush administration and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. At a press conference earlier this week, Bush lamented the ongoing violence, strife, and sectarianism and then pointed the finger quite directly at Mr. Maliki suggesting that the real question in all this mess is “will the Iraqi government respond to the demands of the people?” U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was even harsher; phrases like “extremely disappointed” and “our support is not a blank check” tumbled from his mouth with a dire tone not heard from the administration before. Mr. Maliki registered his offense at the words (if politely, given his precarious position), noting he found them “discourteous.”

One could chalk this up to the ongoing drivel of diplomacy and the occasional harsh attacks that are bound to happen when dozens of people continue to be killed everyday. Both Bush and Maliki find themselves losing support, even among their core constituents and it is August, which brings out the crankiness in all those political leaders forced to continue working through the heat and humidity. Or maybe it is just the 2008 election campaign bug that finally pushed Bush over the edge — ready to lash out at Maliki in an attempt to disavow responsibility for a rabid war broken free from its chain long ago. In that case, these words are more a performance for the American voters than anything else. But no matter the reason, make no mistake: these words are dangerous.

Finger-wagging at embattled Arab leaders is something the United States has tried before and contrary to whatever the Bush administration may be hoping for, it doesn’t generally result in a quick turn towards obedience and good governance. Vestiges of Orientalism may encourage the United States to think of Arab leaders like small children who can, when misbehaving or failing to take responsibility, be told to shape up or else. Bush Sr. tried it with Arafat in the late eighties, causing the Palestinian leader to look towards the Gulf states for political friendship (not to mention cash and arms). And President G.W. Bush has tried the same tactic with Ismail Haniya of Hamas, elected in 2006 as the Palestinian Prime Minister. A quick peek on the ground in Gaza and the shambles of the Abbas leadership in the West Bank is all it takes to grasp that Haniya didn’t use his time out and loss of international privileges to think about this behavior and shape up. Instead, he found new relations, more amenable benefactors. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Iranians. And these friends don’t scold or wag their fingers; they send Katyusha rockets, small arms, and suitcases full of money.

Even Egyptian President Husni Mubarak — who thus far has been a darling of the Bush administration despite significant human rights violations and a propensity to bend the democratic process at will — has seen the tip of the wagging finger. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted some “disappointment” at recent crackdowns in Egypt. If this were to go farther (which it probably won’t given the need for Egypt’s stabilizing role), one can imagine Mubarak scoping out the neighborhood for more pleasant relations.

Scolding Maliki, however tempting it is in the dog days of August, when heat, violence, and the 2008 election are all a little too close for comfort, is a dangerous temptation to give in to. Especially when combined with the just released National Intelligence Estimate report that paints a grim picture of Maliki’s ability to lead Iraq towards effective governance. Maliki and his Shiite brothers in Iraq are painted as deeply sectarian, nervous about maintaining Shiite dominance in Iraq, and in general, woefully unable to move Iraq towards political stability. Such an unflattering assessment, in combination with public scolding, may well push Maliki to start thinking about cultivating new power bases.

Right now, Maliki counts on the Kurds and the mainstream Shiite faction, but in a pinch, he could certainly reach out to less moderate Shiites. Or he could broaden his horizons and respond to the overtures of the Iranians. The Iranians would likely be happy to lend a supportive hand to keep Maliki securely in power. Not only is he a fellow Shiite, but doing so would be a not too subtle jab at the Americans as well. If Maliki feels like American support is truly slipping away, he will get nervous. And then he will get busy, finding the support he needs. Because another thing the Bush administration should remember is that even if you scold, criticize, and humiliate an Arab leader for their poor governing abilities they are unlikely to throw in the towel and give in. Arafat hunkered down in a cement bunker with little more than a cell phone for months. Haniya continues to assert his legitimacy as a leader over the Palestinians, even if right now that has resulted in little more than ongoing chaos in Gaza. And Mubarak gently rebuffs probing questions at exquisite diplomatic meals (he is still a darling, only lightly scolded after all).

It is time for the Bush administration to put away their sharp words towards Maliki. The hearty “he’s a great guy” and “he’s the right guy for Iraq!” of the past should probably go away too. Instead, the Bush administration needs to get down to the real diplomatic and military work of figuring out how political reconciliation — not just a smattering of “surge” force-protected neighborhoods — can happen in Iraq.

Whether Maliki stays or goes, this problem isn’t going to go away. Lest we forget, Maliki is Prime Minister number two, replacing Ibrahim Jaffari who was booted out for — you guessed it — being too sectarian and unable to clean up the political mess in Iraq. And if that finger just won’t stop wagging, maybe the Bush administration should simply turn it back on itself for forgetting that neo-imperial dalliances and rapid fire democratization in a powder-keg of a neighborhood are not for the faint of heart.

Erica Bouris, Program Director at San Diego State, University College of Extended Studies and the author of Complex Political Victims, Kumarian Press (2007). She is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.