The Return of Ayad Allawi

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Nader Daoud / AP

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

In another blow to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, Iraq's former interim leader, Ayad Allawi, has announced that he plans to return to Baghdad to do what the current Prime Minister has not: rid the government of sectarian bias and bring violence under control.

Visions of a triumphant return for Allawi, however, are far-fetched. Allawi, who now spends most of his time outside Iraq, has hired the D.C.-based Republican lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers to help make his case. Some of his new advisers are former members of the Bush Administration, including Robert Blackwill, a former deputy national security adviser, who was involved in putting together the interim government that Allawi headed in 2004.

The notion of Allawi's return is symptomatic of a bipartisan consensus in the U.S. that Iraq's problems could be solved if the Iraqis would simply do as they're told. Last Wednesday Hillary Clinton offered her advice to Iraq's parliament, saying it should get rid of Prime Minister Maliki and pick a "less divisive and more unifying figure." That echoed remarks made earlier in the week by Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Republican Senator John Warner later chimed in to say Maliki had "totally failed," and was unable "to deliver greater security and reconciliation."

Such lectures don't sit well with Maliki, who lashed out on Sunday at Clinton and Levin. He said they seem to "consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages," and told them to "come to their senses."

Despite the recent focus on Maliki's shortcomings and failures, the job of Iraqi Prime Minister — at least as outlined by American officials — is probably impossible. There is probably no one who can reconcile with Sunni nationalists while simultaneously disarming militias tied to Shi'ite Iran. There is no one who can assert control over militia-dominated government ministries while simultaneously asserting control over Sunni communities that remain antagonistic towards the central government. As a senior Western diplomat observed earlier this month, there is no knight in shining armor waiting in the wings to solve the country's problems if and when Maliki finally succumbs.

And yet, that's just how Allawi would like to be considered. He follows in the tradition of prewar Iraqi exiles like Ahmad Chalabi whose outlook and politicking play better in Washington than in Baghdad. Allawi is admirable in some respects. In 2004 he supported offensives against both Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militia — the kind of even-handed approach that impresses Washington and, in a perfect world, would unify Iraqis. But Iraq is far from perfect, and so is Allawi. He was not popular, and even before elections in early 2005, no one thought he had a chance of maintaining his influence.

In 2004, as Allawi offered support to U.S. forces fighting in Fallujah, Baghdad, and southern Iraq, that support was mostly rhetorical. Very few Iraqis actually showed up to fight and die alongside American soldiers and Marines; more were inspired to take up arms and fight as insurgents and militiamen. In many important respects that dynamic has not changed. Any politician seeking to break the power of Shi'ite militias is faced with a dilemma: you cannot survive in Iraqi politics, much less take on the militias, unless you have armed men of your own.

So if Allawi was being literal when he promised on Sunday to "fight for [his] country," chances are he'll eventually want to outsource the actual combat to Americans. Allawi's bid for renewed influence, while far-fetched, raises an important question: does America want to leave Iraq, or does it want Iraqis to do what America tells them to do? As long as American politicians insist that Iraqis do things the American way, American soldiers will have to remain in Iraq and provide the muscle.