Whenever the going gets rough in Iraq, which is quite often, Washington plays the blame game. It's the fault of Iraqi parliamentarians, who have hit the beach for four weeks this summer. It's the fault of the Iranian government, which has supplied militias with highly lethal roadside bombs. But most often U.S. officials prefer to blame the man on top: Nuri al-Maliki. Even Hillary Clinton jumped on Iraq's hapless prime minister, suggesting that parliament should dismiss him.
No doubt Maliki is a sectarian leader whose interests may not entirely align with Washington's. He's also the kind of guy you wouldn't want to get behind at
the doughnut shop for fear he'd take hours to decide on glazed or no-glazed. But in his defense, he holds a position with little power, as the Iraqi constitution stipulates. An expert on Iraq told me last year that even if Joseph Stalin were installed as Iraqi prime minister tomorrow, he wouldn't be able to pass a bill or bring about any form of a power-sharing arrangement. Maliki is not even the senior leader of his own party, Dawa, which itself is not even the most powerful Shiite party in Iraq (SCIRI is). And frankly, this blame-game has a familiar ring to it: A few years back, former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was Washington's favorite scapegoat. Before him, it was interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Do you see a pattern forming?
All of this talk of dumping Maliki may ultimately lead to a changing of the guard in Iraq. But there are few options that Americans may find palpable. One discussed option would be the appointment of Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Western-educated moderate Shiite politician. Another is the installation of strong man, what some have described as Saddam without the mustache or Saddam-lite. Allawi's name has circulated as a potential candidate but his own reign was plagued by allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. Indeed, there are precious few Iraqi politicians out there with the kind of can-do leadership skills to break the necessary heads to get anything done in Iraq. Saddam killed off anyone with even a shred of political showmanship or who posed a threat to his throne.
Yet with all this talk circulating of a coup in Iraq, as Juan Cole reports here, American politicians should be careful what they wish for. The sacking of Prime Minister Maliki could usher in an undemocratic regime in Iraq. But more likely, his dismissal would simply result in some other sap to take his place, and in a year's time, Washington, beset by Iraq's lack of political progress, will once again be asking for the new guy's head.