Picking the Wrong Winners

From Chalabi to the Syrian National Council, America tends to favor smooth-talking exiles over local leaders that actually enjoy popular legitimacy.

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 homelands 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.

In contrast, officials of the U.S.-led Coalition in Iraq dismissed Muqtada al-Sadr—the Shia leader of both the homegrown Sadrist Trend and its military wing, the Jaysh al-Mahdi Army—as a mere nuisance. The Iraqi elite similarly regarded Sadr as an upstart and a rabble-rouser, while U.S. media barely mentioned him until 2004. Yet it was Sadr, rather than Chalabi or the Hakims, who rose to become a power to be reckoned with and remains a key figure in Iraqi politics today.

A similar pattern can be seen in Egypt. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, gained attention from U.S. officials and media as a potential alternative to Mubarak who could unify Egypt’s fractious political opposition. But ElBaradei had spent little time in Egypt over the years, and he failed to muster enough popular support even to run in Egypt’s first competitive presidential elections. Defying the expectations of Westerners as well as many Egyptians, Mohamed Morsi, a former senior member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who gained street credibility due to the time he spent in prison for his opposition to Mubarak, became Egypt’s president in June 2012. As a candidate, Morsi seemed to possess none of the more obvious requisites for political success, and many Egyptians depicted him as uncharismatic. But Morsi’s electoral victory revealed the depth of the Muslim Brotherhood’s social and religious network and its grassroots appeal.

Iraq and Egypt are not unique. A lack of staying power in former exiles is evident in other transitional countries. Consider Libya, where former exiled professors Mahmoud Jibril and his successor Abdurrahim el-Keib were both unable to hold the post of prime minister for even a year.

As a result of unwarranted faith in the political viability of exiles, nearly two years after the revolution in Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring, Washington lacks coherent strategies for deciding which emerging leaders to support and how to help them become more democratic without inflaming Arab nationalism. The derailed transitions in the region continue to radicalize fragmented Arab societies, produce failing states and imperil regional security and U.S. interests. These failures enable acts such as the recent terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.