A basic rule of propaganda: When the propagandist has monopoly of the media, when there is only one message, people will tend to believe that message. This is because critical thinking takes mental energy, requiring mental rebellion against the imposed order. It takes less energy to go with the flow.
But even when monopoly control of the media is absent, there is a tendency to give more credence to a public figure than would be logical. Part of it is the mental energy issue. Part of it is the dislike of mental void, of an undefined public figure versus one who is self-defined. With nothing to choose from, the citizen fills the void with one possibility: that the figure is telling the truth about himself. The classic example is the politician who runs on the simplest of platforms, “No new taxes.”
Occasionally, when assessing personalities, intelligence analysts fall victim to the trap. When the Coalition Transitional Government of Iraq was succeeded by the first elected government, there was concern that Nouri al-Maliki, proposed to be the first prime minister, could be an Iranian agent. So he was vetted by the CIA in a series of short interviews. The conclusion of the CIA, that he was not an Iranian agent, was vulnerable to the Turing Test Loophole. Alan Turing’s test attempted to define the meaning of artificial intelligence. If the machine could fool the interlocutor into thinking it was human, then it was intelligent.
This is the application: If Nouri al-Maliki was more intelligent than his interviewers, he could deceive them as to his true allegiances. If he was less intelligent, he could not, implying that conclusions of the CIA were accurate. Exactly what intelligence means in this case is unimportant. The possibilities are obvious. In subsequent events, around the high-water mark of ISIS in 2014, his incompetence was demonstrated. Retrospectively, it improves the CIA’s chances of being right. But at the time?
Intrigue has been characteristic of the region since the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. In the latter 19th century, the Ottoman military came to be dominated in numbers by Arab officers, who conspired in the secret society al-‘Ahd, against the Ottoman rulers for many years before the open Arab Revolt. Their last leader, Faisal I of Iraq, was educated in the Ottoman court. (We know him as the ally of T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”.) Such was the level of deception that the Ottomans never became aware of the centrality of al-‘Ahd. After the Ottoman dissolution, intrigue continued as a political way of life, fueled by tribalism, Arab nationalism, and the arbitrary nature of the child states of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Al-‘Ahd was the product of a relatively simple, nomadic culture, under the thumb of the culture for which the expression “Byzantine” was coined. Since 1979, Iran has become the modern example of a Byzantine state. Foreign policy is conducted by multiple entities, with both conflicting and competitive aims. This goes beyond the obvious division between secular and religious. The multiplicity of power centers in Iran has no equal. Facilitated by the bonyads, state capitalism, and endemic corruption, it extends to the religious establishment as well. Money is, of course, the lifeblood of conspiracy.
So what does this have to do with Moqtada al-Sadr? What credence we gives to his self-description is due to murkiness of alternatives. But once alternatives are named, we have what probability theory calls a space of outcomes. His history includes multiple flip-flops and complex social/religious bonds:
- Ethnic inclusiveness (flip-flop).
- Violence with organized militias, notably the Mehdi Army, with funding by Iran.
- Positioning as purely political, abjuring militias and violence, supposedly to oppose secularism. (flip-flop.)
- Prolonged residence in Iran; ethnicity partly Iranian.
- Religious stature largely determined by the Iran religious establishment, which is much larger than Iraq’s.
- Coalition with highly incompatible elements., including the Communist Party of Iraq, while previously he opposed secularism (flip-flop). Communism advocates atheism, to which Islam applies the most severe punishment, death.
We recognize the domestic equivalent in the politician whose platform rapidly changes to get elected, with policies after election that don’t represent the platform. We call it political expediency. But Moqtada al-Sadr is exceptional in the frequency and disruptive nature of his turns.
Moqtada al-Sadr maneuvers at high speed through multinational Middle East politics with the reflexes of a bootleg booze runner. More striking than any particular position is his adroitness at the bootleg turn, where with simultaneous application of throttle and brake, the car swivels and skids 180 degrees, taking off at high speed in the opposite direction. If we admit the possibility that Moqtada al-Sadr actually believes his current platform, his record still suggests that he will change again. And he may not believe it anyway. His politicking may be entirely tactical, in the service of abstracted goals that are not apparent to the Western mind. One part of Shia doctrine, a common legacy of oppressed sects, is deception of outsiders.
Now the space of possibilities opens up. Moqtada al-Sadr could be:
- What he says he is, an inclusive Iraqi nationalist.
- An Iranian agent.
- A user of Iran.
- An inclusive bringer of peace.
- A secret dictator in the prodromal phase.
- A dreamer of the Caliphate. They come in many guises. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi set the stage in post-invasion Iraq; see (Brookings, pdf) From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State. It becomes explicit with Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi . This appears to be a fairly common aspiration; Saddam Hussein may have also been a dreamer, as expressed in the novels he wrote (what a versatile guy!). At times, his alliances were as incompatible as those of Moqtada al-Sadr.
We’ve activated our critical faculty, diminishing credence in his stated positions, possibly to zero. The enumerated alternatives form a kind of probability space. The chance that any one of them is true, to the mutual exclusion of the others, may be equal.
The one constant of Moqtada al-Sadr is his extreme hostility to the U.S. But in view of his hospitality to kafir Communists, the antipathy lacks a genuine cultural basis. The beneficiary is Iran, adding a little to Byzantine speculations.
In Is Iraq Headed for Another Civil War?, I wrote,
The Shiite Iraq that follows the passing of Sistani will not be a permissive setting for American operations. Other parts of it, such as the Kurdish area, might be. But the kinds of cultural shift and political combinations that would make a viable rump state are prohibited by the strange-to-us cultural animosities. Iran, a unified and disciplined state, would steamroller it.
In The Kurd Referendum; Implications for U.S. Policy, I wrote,
Unless Brinton’s sequence can be averted, the U.S. position will become untenable. The nature of extremists could make resolution impossible. The curtain on this conflict rises perhaps a year, or a bit more, from now.
The phenomenon of Moqtada al-Sadr is congruent with these notes.