Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Groucho Marx and Hedging One's Bets

Many people are asking since the US and Iran claim to be arch-enemies, how did we end up supporting the same faction in Iraq? The best answer, I think, is that it is a particularly bizarre example of the Groucho Marx syndrome.

The Groucho Marx syndrome is named for Groucho Marx's famous quip that he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. In the context of international politics, the Groucho Marx syndrome means that any government or faction that is too friendly with a foreign power almost never has much support with its own people. The syndrome works in several ways. One is that a weak government or faction lacking popular support may seek a foreign patron as an alternate source of power. Another is that foreign powers seeking allies tend to choose unpopular governments or factions because they are the most compliant. Finally, even an originally popular government or faction will tend to lose legitimacy to the extent that it becomes too strongly associated with a foreign power.

This creates an inherent problem for any government looking for foreign allies. The more loyal a regime is to its allies, the less loyalty it is apt to command from its own people and the more tenuous its grip on power. Strong governments are rarely reliable allies; they insist on placing their own interests first. The same phenomenon applies to intervention in a civil war. The factions most eager for foreign support are, almost by definition, the ones that would otherwise lose. (Why look for foreign backers if you are winning anyway?) And too strong a foreign association undermines any faction's domestic support.

Iraq's ruling coalition of the Dawa Party and the SIIC suffer from the Groucho Marx syndrome. The leadership of both groups spend the years of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in exile in Iran. The SIIC (formerly SCIRI) was founded under the auspices of the Iranian government. The SIIC's paramilitary, the Badr Brigades was founded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and fought on the side of Iran in its war with Iraq. Is it any wonder that many Iraqis look upon them as Iranian stooges? Partly to lessen their dependence on Iran, the Dawa and SIIC are more than happy hedge their bets by accepting help from the United States as well.

The Iranian-backed Dawa-SIIC coalition was not the US government's first choice as an ally in Iraq. Famously, neoconservatives favored Ahmed Chalabi, as extreme an example of the Groucho Marx syndrome as one could ask for. He had been an exile from Iraq since 1956, when he was only 12 years old. Not surprisingly, then, he had no base of support in Iraq whatever and was therefore willing to do whatever he US backers wanted. However, his complete lack of support inside Iraq meant that his party failed to win even one seat in parliament in the 2005 elections. This was a little too Groucho-Marxist for the Bush Administration, which was forced to hedge its bets and support the Dawa-SIIC coalition. In the meantime, Chalabi has apparently decided to hedge his own bets, and has become friendlier and friendlier with the government of Iran.

The Sadrists and their paramilitary, the Madhi Army, have no such foreign associations. It is the boast of the Sadr family that they stayed in Iraq and endured Saddam's persecution with their fellow countrymen while other opponents went into exile. (Yet, interestingly, Muqtada al-Sadr is in exile in Iran now under the guise of studying. We will see whether this weakens his legitimacy). The Sadrs built their organization under the nose of Saddam Hussein, The Madhi Army is entirely Iraq in origin; it is often the only one to provide security and services to the Shiite poor; it is fiercely nationalistic and proclaims its opposition to American forces and also to Sunnis as fellow countrymen (even as the Madhi Army committed the bulk of ethnic cleansing and the worst atrocities against Sunnis). The Madhi Army does take Iranian arms, money and assistance. They need what help they can get, after all, and the US is arming their rivals. And the Iranians know enough to hedge their bets and support what may be the winning faction.

Meanwhile, the US Army, recognizing the weakness of the Dawa-SIIC coalition, has chosen to hedge our own bets by supporting Sunni Awakening Councils. Any power, whether the US or Iran, hedging its bets by backing rival factions runs into trouble if the rival faction come into open war with each other. Open war will undermine the hedging game and may force the backer to take sides. The whole logic of the Groucho Marx syndrome encourages a foreign power to side with the weaker (and therefore more compliant) faction. This creates a choice between bloody intervention to prop up a weak and unpopular ally or losing altogether. To avoid such a dilemma, the United States is desperately trying to bring about reconciliation between the ruling coalition and the Awakening Councils and the Iranian government is trying, with even more dubious prospects, to maintain a cease-fire between the ruling faction and the Madhi Army.

And if the cease-fire fails, then what? Will Groucho get the last laugh?
The irony would be thick, if rank: the Bush administration and the Iranians finally come to some accord on the situation in Iraq, with the compact formed over the decision to crush a popular indigenous movement, likely killing tens of thousands and disenfranchising millions.

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