Irena L. Sargsyan: Picking the Wrong Winners ... From Chalabi to the Syrian National Council

Roundup: Media's Take

Irena L. Sargsyan is a research analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had some success in remaking the Syrian opposition from a group of squabbling exiles into a more broadly representative leadership with close ties to the Syrian people. During political transitions in the past, the United States has too often backed the wrong horse, trying to invest authority and resources in exiled elites who proved to be non-entities in their home countries, while overlooking the homegrown leaders who actually rose to power. The administration seems to be avoiding this mistake in Syria, but standing up a new opposition leadership is only the first step. To foster the transition to stable democracies in Syria and other states in the region, the Obama administration will have to provide political and material support to local leaders who may at times rile American sensibilities but who can actually wield power in their home countries.
From Iraq to the Arab Spring, the United States has often erred by promoting exiles who look appealing because of their espousal of Western values, English language skills and media savvy. Yet these same attributes, coupled with a lack of recent experience living in their homelands, make these individuals seem out of touch. Homegrown leaders stand in contrast to those who chose comfortable exile. They may be virtually unknown in the West, but stayed in their homeland and suffered through repression and civil war. Thus, they have greater local legitimacy, deeper ties to indigenous social networks, and keener instincts on local politics due to knowledge of domestic grievances.
In Iraq, for example, U.S. officials initially backed Ahmed Chalabi, an exile who vociferously supported the U.S. intervention and received broad media coverage between 2002 and 2004. But Iraqis quickly repudiated Chalabi, and he failed even to win a seat in the first parliamentary elections in 2005. Similarly, Washington focused attention on members of the al-Hakim family who led the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, supported the U.S. invasion, and returned to Iraq from exile in Iran only after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraqis who remained in the country and suffered under Saddam’s brutal rule brushed aside the Hakims because of their close links to the United States and Iran...

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