Iraq's House of Cards

With the country collapsing around him, Nouri al-Maliki's strongman image is a sham. And that's exactly why he's so dangerous.

There is something truly paradoxical about Iraq's April 30 parliamentary elections. Although there is near unanimity among observers that the past four years have been disastrous for the country, many are still willing to defend Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's tenure -- even going so far as to suggest that there is no one else who is capable of governing the country.

However, the sad reality is that -- given all the developments of his eight years in office -- very few Iraqis are less suitable to be prime minister today than Maliki. Indeed, Maliki's third term would likely be even more disastrous than his second, leading to a deterioration in security and causing the country to relapse into a new authoritarian era.

Maliki's defenders usually argue that the prime minister was largely responsible for the improvement in security that took place in 2008, that he is a shrewd political operator who has outmaneuvered all his opponents, and also that he has made himself indispensable to the state's survival. That analysis seemed ludicrously generous as early as 2010, when it was first made, but it now borders somewhere between the comical and the suicidal.

It is true that Maliki has outmaneuvered his opponents -- but he did so at the expense of Iraq's institutions. The prime minister merely seized control over the security forces and threatened all his opponents into submission. He has monopolized all decision-making at the Defense and Interior ministries and has taken to providing direct instructions to individual units -- often with a view to intimidating enemies or suppressing perceived threats, thereby completely undermining the concept of a professional chain of command. Whenever his opponents demanded that he change his ways, share power, or respect the rule of law, he would simply refuse -- safe in the knowledge that his enemies had no leverage to speak of.

Maliki has always been very good at using the security sector to bolster his political power, but has been an utter failure in restoring actual security to Iraq. Although he was quick to take credit for the improvement in security that took place in 2007 and 2008, U.S. military officials who were responsible for overseeing the "surge" have since written detailed memoirs in which Maliki is hardly ever mentioned -- and when he does come up, Maliki is almost never portrayed in a positive light. Even his decision to confront Shiite militias in the city of Basra and the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City -- often cited as evidence of his nonsectarian credentials and his daring on the battlefield -- was a disaster in its early stages, precisely because Maliki was solely in charge. It was only after U.S. forces intervened that the battle was won.

Maliki and his inner circle have also exacerbated security risks through a series of elementary mistakes, including subjecting thousands of innocent young men to unjustified detention and allowing corruption to get so out of hand that it has now seriously impacted the capacity of the security sector. Military units and police throughout the country now either stand aside or actively participate as local mafias force businesses to pay protection money. Security forces in the capital are still forced to use fake bomb detectors simply so that the government (which was responsible for buying the devices) can save face. The result is that the number of security-related deaths has roughly tripled over the past year, as car bombs continue to rip through army units and civilian areas with ruthless efficiency. Meanwhile, armed confrontations between gunmen and government forces have become more frequent.

Security has deteriorated so terribly that Iraq is now once again at risk of splitting apart. Many areas of the country are now out of the government's control: Large swaths of the western province of Anbar are in open rebellion; security forces have essentially given up trying to control parts of the northern province of Nineveh, which has become a major financial hub for terrorist organizations; and the eastern province of Diyala has witnessed another round of brutal bloodletting as militias and government forces shell civilian areas. The state's army and police have revealed themselves to be little more than a paper tiger. They are very willing to arrest and torture the innocent and defenseless, but are essentially powerless to control the actions of powerful militias that are now running riot throughout the country. With security forces incapable of facing the threat, Shiite militias have actually begun providing instructions to the military -- sometimes even replacing them in battle altogether. These developments have exposed Maliki's strongman image as the house of cards it always was.

The prime minister's supporters regularly refer admiringly to his capacity for survival, but it is precisely Maliki's stubborn insistence that he should remain in control of government that has hindered the provision of services. Hospitals are in such a poor state that Iraqi doctors would never imagine turning to one of their colleagues for treatment; they travel to any number of capitals in the region for even minor ailments. Electricity production has improved only slightly, to the extent that summers and winters are still invariably punctuated by daily power cuts, some of which can last for days. Rather than trying to resolve these problems, Maliki has allowed a grotesque form of nepotism to gnaw away at the state's bureaucracy, marginalizing the few competent officials who survived Baath Party rule and Iraq's wars.

These failures also have served to prevent alternatives to the status quo from emerging. Maliki's greatest success may have been creating the impression that he is indispensable -- that the state will collapse if the man in charge is removed. The truth is that what makes Maliki and his clique indispensable is their willingness to burn the whole house down to protect their positions.

In fact, many competent politicians are far better placed than Maliki and his inner circle to guide the country to a better place. Iraq does not lack competent administrators or politicians -- it merely lacks the democratic traditions that would allow them to play a greater role in revitalizing its moribund government. Several names come immediately to mind: Mohammed Allawi, a former communications minister who resigned in protest when Maliki kept appointing incompetent party loyalists to his ministry; Ali Allawi, a former defense and finance minister who left government in 2006 in disgust at the corruption; Adel Abdul Mahdi, a respected politician who could have sufficient backing to form a government; and Ali Dwai, a governor of a southern province who is renowned for his effectiveness in very difficult circumstances.

While Maliki may want observers to fear that his departure would cause a security deterioration, the truth is that life in Iraq is already becoming more desperate by the day -- in large part because of the toxic role that Maliki has been playing. Sectarian relations have worsened considerably, and the general population is terrified of a renewed conflict. A change at the country's helm is needed precisely in order to restore the possibility of an improvement in the country's direction; with Maliki, that possibility does not exist. For Iraqis to place their trust in the possibility that he might change his style of governance after eight years in power would be borderline suicidal.

There is in fact a serious possibility that Maliki will not obtain sufficient popular support to retain his position. His electoral popularity peaked at around 24 percent of the vote in 2010, when many Iraqis still believed in his nonsectarian and strongman credentials. However, Iraq's complex and dysfunctional parliamentary system has allowed him to negotiate his survival. This election season, Maliki's fortunes will necessarily decline from the previous poll -- the only questions are by how much and how his electoral rivals will react. After the votes are counted, Iraq's future will depend on its leaders' ability to form a post-election alliance without the country's most corrosive elements at its helm.

Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah /Getty Images


Is Narendra Modi India's Reagan or Nixon?

Gujarat's shiny free market reformer has a dark side. 

Narendra Modi, of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is heavily favored to emerge as India's next prime minister after the votes from the country's five-week parliamentary election are counted on May 16. Modi's supporters expect him to usher in an era of national optimism. The country's youth, in particular, see him as ideally suited to reviving India's self-confidence after a period of malaise under the current prime minister, technocrat turned politician Manmohan Singh, whose combination of personal integrity and weak leadership have made him the Jimmy Carter of Indian politics.

To an American eye, India's voters seem to be yearning for the inspirational tonic of their very own Ronald Reagan. This is troubling enough for those who recall Reagan's stigmatization of welfare recipients and adventurism in places like Grenada and El Salvador. It would be far more worrying, though, if India actually elected Modi, a leader who in many ways bears a greater resemblance to that other iconic California Republican, Richard Nixon.

Certain Reagan-Modi parallels are easy to spot. Both ran on their records as governors of prosperous, modernizing states on the western coasts of their respective countries. Gujarat, like California, has long been an engine of industrial growth. Modi's business-friendly policies have helped per capita income triple in Gujarat since he took office in 2001 -- though critics attribute these gains to previous reforms and complain that health and other human development indicators have not kept pace with economic growth. Like Reagan, Modi is committed to replicating his regional success on the national stage, while somewhat contradictorily pledging to decentralize power to the states.

Reagan and Modi each promised to unleash the pent-up capitalist energies of an entrepreneurial people. Modi's policy agenda has been described as Thatcherite, a close cousin to Reaganomics. And Modi's brain trust includes free market economists such as Columbia University professors Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya. Slashing dependency-creating welfare programs is a signature trope for Modi, as it was for Reagan. And Reagan's other key campaign promise, to cut red tape in Washington, finds strong echoes in Modi's plans for taming India's bureaucracy.

Modi, like Reagan, is a master of the personal anecdote, effortlessly tying individual stories to larger principles. And both have employed catchphrases to mock adversaries. Reagan frequently replied to Carter in the 1980 presidential debates with a head tilt and a well-rehearsed "there you go again" -- as if Carter kept repeating the same mistake. Modi refers to his main rival, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, as the "prince" -- a barb that stings because it's so true. His father (Rajiv Gandhi), grandmother (Indira Gandhi), and great-grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru) were all prime ministers.

Similarities in style mask substantive differences, however. While associated with the religious right, Reagan was basically a centrist. Modi, by contrast, presents himself as a centrist, despite having spent much of his adult life with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organization whose divisive ideology promotes the idea of India as a Hindu nation. In 1990, Modi helped organize a notorious, religiously themed tour by BJP leaders through India's Hindu-Muslim flash points, which left a shameful trail of intercommunal violence in its wake.

Otherwise, much about Modi's early life remains hazy, partly due to a Nixonian preoccupation with secrecy. In early April, when filing his election papers, Modi revealed for the first time that he is married and has been for decades. Previously, he had always left the marital-status line blank. The BJP explained away the marriage as a customary matter arranged by two traditional families when Modi was a child. But given that Modi has made his time as a chai-wallah ("tea-seller") a staple of his campaign oratory, why did he omit the part of his self-made-man narrative that involved defiance of community elders? Probably because it would not appeal to a certain segment of tradition-minded voters. This selective amnesia is classic Nixon, who talked up his humble Quaker roots only when politically convenient.

Like Nixon, Modi maintains a coterie of private-sector associates, some less savory than others. A 2012 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, India's top accounting body, found that the Gujarat state government had engaged in a range of financial "irregularities," many of which provided "undue benefits" to favored firms, including the Gujarati-based conglomerate Adani Group. A study of special economic zones in Gujarat published in March and conducted by social researcher Manshi Asher, claims that the state government helped the Adani Group to obtain land at favorable prices and to violate environmental laws with impunity.

Even more Nixon-like, however, is Modi's effort to counter his image as the darling of India's richest industrialists by embracing a tired genre of cultural populism. Modi's surrogates frequently disparage the "Delhi-based intelligentsia" that has coalesced around the Congress party establishment. Substitute "East Coast" and "Ivy League," and you can almost hear Nixon speaking. Where Nixon loathed the Kennedys, Modi disdains the Nehru-Gandhi family, the dynasty that has dominated Indian politics for most of the nearly seven decades since independence in 1947.

Like Nixon, Modi is prone to bouts of self-pity. After losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election, Nixon famously informed his detractors that they would not "have Nixon to kick around anymore." Modi, who also occasionally refers to himself in the third person, recently stated that "Modi" should be "hanged" if found guilty of the main charge leveled against him: that as Gujarat's chief minister in 2002, he directed state police not to intervene as extremists burned, beat, and in some cases hacked to death approximately 1,000 Muslim residents. Yet Modi displays a hauntingly Nixonian persecution complex when journalists raise the substance of the accusations. In 2007, he walked out of a television studio when an interviewer persisted in asking about what happened in 2002.

In 2013, an investigation ordered by India's Supreme Court found insufficient grounds to prosecute Modi. He says he has been given a "clean chit." That is an exaggeration. The investigation found damning -- if not criminally prosecutable -- evidence of questionable actions (and inactions) by Modi, as well as indications that crucial records had been destroyed. Some of Modi's behavior after 2002 is puzzling too. Why, for instance, did he in 2007 appoint to his cabinet Maya Kodnani -- a politician suspected of, and later convicted for, distributing swords to rioters and exhorting them to attack Muslims? Then again, why did Nixon make Spiro Agnew his vice-presidential running mate, knowing his reputation for corruption? (Agnew eventually resigned in disgrace, but never served prison time.)

Modi's lack of contrition for his government's failure to protect Muslims in 2002 is the clearest sign of his Nixon-esque penchant for denial. Nixon, likewise, never admitted his involvement in the Watergate scandal while in office and rejected claims that his administration violated international law during the Vietnam War, which he insisted had the backing of a "silent majority" of Americans.

Modi once compared his feelings about the 2002 violence against Muslims to the sadness anyone would feel if he or she accidentally ran over a puppy. His attempts to clarify this statement have not gone down well with his critics. Nixon fared much better with his own puppy story -- his famous 1952 "Checkers speech," which saved his political career two decades before the Watergate break-in ended it. Accused of corruption, Nixon said that the only gift he ever kept during his years in office was a cocker spaniel named Checkers and that he would not break his children's hearts by getting rid of the little pup.

Of course, Indian politics do not translate neatly into the American political idiom. The cultural chasm between the two countries is compounded by important institutional differences. India has no party primaries, for instance, and unlike presidents, prime ministers are not elected on the basis of the popular vote. Voting decisions in India are also more influenced by ethnically based patronage politics than they are in the United States. But the character of India's next leader is of sufficient global significance that it is worth stretching a point to highlight the dangerous turn the country may be taking.

India's strategic analysts have been asking whether Modi might end up as "Nixon in China" -- a leader whose hard-line credentials allow him to pursue a radical foreign-policy initiative, such as redefining India's relationship with Pakistan. My fear is not only that Modi is ill-equipped to pull off such a diplomatic coup, but that he will bring to India's highest office the worst elements of the Nixon package: the concealment, paranoia, sulking, denial, vindictiveness, and outsized sense of entitlement.

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