It’s hard to know exactly what happened yesterday, with the leak of National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley’s unvarnished assessment of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s effectiveness in being a part of the solution in stopping the sectarian bloodshed washing over Bagdhad.
If – as seems likely, given the absence of furore from a notably tight-lipped administration – the memo was deliberately leaked as a matter of policy prior to the Amman talks, it certainly seems to have had an effect. Whether it was the one intended is yet to be determined. State visits at that level are arduously negotiated to the finest detail weeks if not months in advance, and involve the national prestige of all members. One does not at the last minute cancel three-way meetings between presidents, kings and prime ministers, disovering as if by chance that there really isn’t any thing to talk about after all. It simply Isn’t Done.
Caution, arm chair theorizing follows: al Maliki is accutely aware of the fact that his tenuous grip on political power is subject to the whim of Moqtada al Sadr, whose delegates form a major element of his parliamentary majority and whose Jaysh al Mahdi fighters contribute massively to daily bloodshed. The Hadley memo’s leak was intended to remind al Maliki that never mind the politics, his government’s physical survival depends upon the force of coalition arms supported by the good will of coalition governments – governments whose patience with his fiddling while Bagdhad burns is growing thin.
Which raises this question: Given that al Sadr had promised to boycott government if al Maliki met Bush in Amman, did the US give the Iraqi premier a head’s up that the leaked memo was coming? If so, that would give al Maliki the face-saving opportunity of appearing to “snub” Bush by cancelling the Wednesday meeting at the last moment, improving his credibility at home.
The alternative is the non-trivial possibility that an attempt to pressurize al Maliki – and perhaps deliver a rebuke for Iraqi president Jalal al Talibani’s visit to Tehran in the days preceding the Amman summit – resulted in him throwing a prime ministerial snit at the Jordanian royal palace.
The effect seems subtle, but there is a distinction in the difference. In the first case, knowing that al Maliki had to travel to Amman to meet with Bush, but that such a visit carried onerous political consequences, the administration threw him a lifeline. In the second it delivered a ham-handed smackdown to the only man – like him or not- in a statutory position to forge a political consensus tending to reduce the violence.
Interesting times, enormous consequences and everyone borne on the whirlwind. Suddenly it feels like 1914 again.