Geopolitics

After Maliki, Abadi Is Iraq's Next Great Hope

The U.S. has a poor record on Iraq, but it's optimistic that cooperation with the country's new prime minister can help him win the war against terrorists and restore regional stability.

Haider al-Abadi
Haider al-Abadi
Ansgar Graw and Alfred Hackensberger

ERBIL For accurate prognoses about developments in Iraq, don't ask anybody in Washington. The series of momentous misjudgments out of the mouths of important U.S. politicians first began with George W. Bush's assertion that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. And who can forget that, after the capture of Baghdad in May 2003, Bush gave a speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln under a large banner that read "Mission accomplished."

But the mission was by no means accomplished. His successor, President Barack Obama, carried on with these directionless assessments when he said, upon the 2011 withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Iraq, that the Americans were leaving behind a "sovereign, stable and independent Iraq."

Then in January of this year, when militias of radical ISIS Islamists started flooding back into Iraq from Syria, the president quibbled about comparing them to al-Qaeda. "If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant," he told The New Yorker magazine, referring to the Los Angeles Lakers basketball star.

In June, Secretary of State John Kerry developed some recommendations for dealing with ISIS troops, but they showed little awareness of reality. Kerry said that in Erbil — the contested seat of Iraq's autonomous Kurd regional government — U.S. airstrikes against the radical Islamists would be "a complete and total act of irresponsibility," as long as there was no government in Baghdad that could reconcile the dominant Shias with the Sunnis who dominated in Saddam’s day, and the Kurds. Yet American airstrikes began on Friday.

Perhaps Iraq will lead

That said, Haider al-Abadi, the new prime minister nominated by Iraqi President Fuad Masum to replace Nouri al-Maliki, appears to have better judgment. Born in 1952 during Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, Abadi challenged Hussein's Baath Party and fought the regime from exile in Manchester and London. Two of his brothers were executed for opposing Hussein's regime, and a third spent 10 years in prison.

After Saddam Hussein's fall, Abadi, who is a qualified engineer, returned to Iraq. In 2003, he became communications minister in the transitional government and an advisor to Maliki, who had been elected prime minister. Both men belong to the Dawa Party, which Abadi joined when he was just 15 years old. He was elected to parliament in 2006.

"We are waiting for American support," Abadi, then still just a parliament member, told the Huffington Post in June. Reacting to Kerry's warning that support would be "irresponsible," the Iraqi offered an alternative scenario: "If there are American airstrikes, then we don't need any Iranian ones. If there are no American airstrikes, then we may need Iranian support."

When Abadi accepted the enormous responsibility of taking on the post of prime minister, President Masum told him, "The nation lies in your hands."

Forming a government over the next 30 days will probably turn out to be the least of his problems, because after two terms in office, Maliki has left the country in pieces. Maliki was a Shia as far as both politics and society were concerned. His affiliation was the root cause of Sunni tribe rebellion, which in turn facilitated the invasion of ISIS militias and the intensified push for Kurdish independence. Abadi is now a bearer of hope — for reconciling the different factions, winning the war against the Islamists, and restoring stability to the whole region.

"The new prime minister is an insignificant political figure, just as Maliki once was," cautions Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a political analyst at the American Jamestown Foundation think tank. "He has to form a national unity government that is accepted by both Sunnis and Shias." That will be no easy task, as the Iraqi government is currently dominated by Shias.

A man with strong backing

Maliki has refused to accept the nomination of his party friend, and announced in an impassioned public speech that he would resist it. At the beginning of the week, after Maliki had elite units — under his orders as prime minister — set up road blocks and checkpoints, many inhabitants of the capital city feared an armed revolt by the outgoing prime minister.

But van Wilgenburg isn't counting on that. "Abadi is being supported by both the United States and Iran. I don't believe that Maliki and his militias will resist that."

Things are getting a little lonely for the obstinate Maliki. The Badr organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, has already announced that it will support Abadi, not Maliki. And from Tehran, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran demonstratively congratulated Abadi.

So the decisive question is whether the designated new prime minister stands for a new political course. "As a member of the Dawa Party, Abadi will continue to insist on leading roles for Shias in the political arena," says Daniel Gerlach, an Iraq expert and editor-in-chief of the German zenith Magazine that focuses on the Arab and Islamic world.

Gerlach is skeptical and sees primarily pragmatic reasons for the change in prime minister. "They exchange faces to give people on the outside the impression of change," he says. But realistically, he says, the slate of the power apparatus Maliki built up over the past eight years can't be wiped completely clean. After all, Abadi's nomination is meant to integrate, not turn everything on its head, while certain changes are overseen.

"One mustn’t forget," Gerlach says, "that Maliki is now literally fighting for survival." After the prime minister's departure, corruption charges could be brought against him at any time, and there might even be an attempt on his life. His regime, propped up by numerous uncontrolled private militias, is known for murders and extortion — crimes mainly aimed at the Sunni population. Maliki's demonstration of power in Baghdad could therefore also have served the purpose of getting certain guarantees for his safety from his designated successor.

The first reaction of both Kurdish and Shia opposition politicians to the news of Abadi's designation was satisfaction. Those who have supported Maliki up to now apparently can also live with Abadi. The future prime minister does, after all, come from their ranks. Abadi is a compromise who can use the polarization to lead. "We must be careful not to end up in a war of religion," he warned in June. And even if it may seem a little like wishful thinking, there is hope that his statement, "Shias are not against Sunnis, and Sunnis are not against Shias" underlies his political agenda.

President Barack Obama called Abadi on Monday from Martha's Vineyard, where he is vacationing. The White House summary says that the president told Abadi the United States was prepared to widen cooperation with Iraq in both the political and security areas if Baghdad pushes reforms through.

Let’s hope that this time Washington hits the mark.

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Society

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation

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Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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