By a single vote, the Iraqi parliament has retained Ibrahim al-Jaafari as their prime minister. Though widely, and correctly, regarded as an ineffectual and weak leader, al-Jaafari was able to hang on to the semblance of power through the decision of a single man, namely, the virulently anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, a friend of both Syria and Iran -- or, more generally speaking, a friend to anyone who is the enemy of the United States.
Both al-Jaafari's re-election and Sadr's role in bringing it about came as something of a shock, both inside Iraq and outside. Most Iraqis felt that it was "time for a change," as we Americans say whenever we vote out of office a man who has proven incompetent to govern, as al-Jaafari has proven himself over the last year. But the assumption was that the change would be in the direction of a man more decisive and unifying than al-Jaafari, for example, the economist Adel Abdul Mahdi.
In fact, underneath the surface, there has been a profound and radical change. Though al-Jaafari continues to hold on to the title of Prime Minister, he is aware that his one-vote victory was entirely dependent on the political cunning of Moktada al-Sadr. As Robert F. Worth reported in his article in The New York Times: "Mr. Sadr's followers now control the largest bloc of seats -- 32 out of 130 -- within the Shiite alliance. They decided to vote for Mr. Jaafari after he promised to help implement their political program," according to a spokesman for the Sadr movement who is also a sitting member of parliament.
Expressed like this, the bargain between al-Jaafari and Sadr's followers would appear to be simply a case of political horse-trading. "We'll support your guy, if your guy supports our programs." Yet I fear that there is far more going on here than normal parliamentary politicking, and let me explain why.
Adolf Hitler, in his table talk, once remarked that history does not repeat itself. But what would he say if he had been watching the rise of al-Sadr over the course of the last several years, ever since the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein?
Sadr not only controls the largest bloc within the Shiite alliance; he is also the head of a paramilitary organization, the Mahdi army. In this respect, his position is identical to that of Hitler, before he came to power. Hitler, on the one hand, had the Nazi party, a tight-knit organization that was happy to use the parliamentary system in order to bring about the destruction of the Weimar Republic, and thus to end the parliamentary system itself. On the other hand, Hitler also commanded his own paramilitary organization, the famous "brown-shirts" of the SA, whose membership, at its height, may have included between three to four million young German toughs, whose usefulness to the success of the Nazi Party Hitler himself repeatedly stressed. They were invaluable in their ability to intimidate and threaten anyone who seriously opposed the Nazi party.
Hitler's original impulse was to reject out of hand what he saw as an alien form of government that had been imposed on his nation. In the failed Munich putsch of November 1923, Hitler tried to overthrow the hated Weimar Republic directly, in the false confidence that the German people would rise up and endorse a fascist regime like the one that had only recently been established in Italy by Mussolini.
Like Hitler, al-Sadr's original impulse was to reject unconditionally what he saw as the American imposed parliamentary system, and in 2004 he led two violent uprisings against the interim government, both of which, like Hitler's putsch, failed to achieve their goal. Yet, miraculously, again like Hitler, Sadr was able to survive the humiliation of a bloody fiasco that he had masterminded, and was even able to learn from his mistakes, just as Hitler did. The only difference, of course, was that the Bavarian government at least insisted that Hitler should serve some token time in jail for his uprising.
In contrast, Sadr did not spend a single hour in jail and, after leading two violent rebellions, was permitted to continue amassing the kind of "black market" power that is associated with his Mahdi militia -- a power that is all the more disturbing because no one can be sure when it is being exercised. For example, no one knows how far Sadr's followers have been able to infiltrate Iraq's police and military establishments, nor can anyone say to what extent Sadr's followers are behind various bombings and assassinations.
In addition, Sadr is seeking to find a unifying theme that can transcend the divisions within Iraq, both tribal and sectarian; and this unifying theme is anti-Americanism -- a creed that may be shared by both Sunnis and Shiites, and that is also capable of forging strong bonds with nations like Iran and Syria, as well as millions of Muslims across the globe. Here again, like Hitler, Sadr appreciates the fact that there is no better way to unite a divided people than to give them a common enemy -- and that common enemy is us. Indeed, all populist demagogues have always been aware of this fact, and they all have exploited the marvelous unifying powers that hatred of a common enemy is capable of providing their people.
Finally, we come back to where we started -- Sadr's brilliant stroke in letting the weak and discredited al-Jaafari continue to retain his position as Prime Minister of Iraq. Sadr could have told his bloc simply to obstruct any movement toward the formation of a new government, a ploy that would have been ideologically inconsistent with Sadr's previous rejection of the American-imposed Iraqi government. Shouldn't his earlier convictions have led him to boycott the general election and to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the American-tainted Iraqi government?
Yes, rejection of the new government should have been Sadr's response, given his previously stated positions. But so too Hitler, given his hatred of all forms of the parliamentary system, should have directed the Nazi party not to play any political role in the Weimar Republic that the Nazis so much despised. Yet, like Hitler, Sadr has shown himself willing to swallow his political conviction and to play the parliamentary game -- or, more precisely, to use the parliamentary system in order to promote the interests of his own party. And, like Hitler, Sadr has shown himself a consummate political player. Aware that he cannot be the Prime Minister himself, in a government that he repudiates, he will work to subvert this government to his purposes, but from behind the scenes.
Al-Sadr, by throwing his support, at a critical juncture, to the weakest and most ineffectual candidate for the most important position in the government of Iraq, has thereby achieved a bloodless political coup that has virtually made him the most powerful figure in Iraq. He who makes a Prime Minister can also unmake him -- and this is a lesson that al-Jaafari's one-vote victory has made perfectly clear to him, and to every other player in the political game. The path is now open for al-Sadr's legal seizure of power -- the same path that brought Hitler and the Nazi Party control over the fate of Germany. All Sadr needs is patience and cunning -- and it appears that he lacks neither of these qualities.
Since al-Sadr first appeared on the post-war Iraqi scene, it has been difficult for many foreigner observers to take him seriously. He does not look to us even remotely like a leader. Indeed, to use Bush's famous slip of the tongue, al-Sadr has been fearfully "misunderestimated." But then, so too was Adolf Hitler -- a failed painter, a mere corporal -- how could such an insignificant and inconsequential person come to play a decisive role in history?
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, often said that Hitler's rise to power was like a fairy tale. Al-Sadr's rise to power, on the other hand, seems suspiciously like a fable from A Thousand and One Nights. What Hitler did was merely improbable; what al-Sadr has done verges on the seemingly impossible. After having twice led bloody uprisings that killed American troops, Sadr is now the most powerful man in an Iraqi government that the American people have created at great sacrifice to themselves, both in lives and in money. Even more bizarrely, Sadr has made it clear that he will use every bit of power he gets in order to fight against us, and to help spread fanatical anti-Americanism through the Muslim world. We could have stopped him early and effectively; but we didn't. And now it is too late for us to do anything except to wonder what new surprise this twisted tale of Scheherazade will next unfold.
Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.