Before Iraq's first election in January 2005, the Bush administration debated whether to support any particular candidate. The Central Intelligence Agency wanted to funnel $20 million to its longtime favorite Ayad Allawi, who was then serving as prime minister in a U.S.-appointed government. But Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's top foreign policy adviser, argued that the U.S. should create a level playing-field and let the chips fall where they may.
Ms. Rice won the day. And so did the United Iraqi Alliance, an alliance of Shiite parties led first by Ibrahim Jaafari and, after subsequent elections that year, by Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's current prime minister.
Mr. Allawi failed to break double-digits in the December 2005 election. He was bitter. "Our adversaries in Iraq are heavily supported financially by other quarters. We are not," he later told CNN's Wolf Blitzer as insurgency raged. He failed to mention the millions of dollars funneled to him by Saddam's former allies in Jordan and other Arab states.
In November 2006 the White House reconsidered its neutrality. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley suggested that "Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action," and proposed the U.S. government provide "monetary support to moderate groups" such as Mr. Allawi's. President Bush refused.
President Obama appears less concerned with neutrality. With Messrs. Allawi and Maliki neck and neck as last Sunday's votes are counted, the administration strives to push Mr. Allawi past the goal post. Newspapers quote embassy and administration officials praising Mr. Allawi and badmouthing his opponents. They may believe Mr. Allawi is what he says he is—a secular liberal interested in clean government and reconciliation. But Iraqis remember his record.
While on Iraq's Governing Council, Mr. Allawi not only appointed his brother-in-law Nouri Badran to be interior minister but also defended Mr. Badran after it emerged that he used ministry money allocated to purchase bomb-disposal equipment to speculate instead on the Iraqi dinar. The money—approximately $10 million—disappeared.
Mr. Allawi received his second chance to lead upon the dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Its administrator, Paul Bremer, heeding the advice of both the State Department and the CIA, appointed Mr. Allawi interim prime minister—a perch from which he ran Iraq for almost a year.
During this period Iraq reached its nadir. Insurgency flourished, sectarian tension grew, and corruption exploded. No longer did the disappearance of $10 million make headlines. Mr. Allawi's defense minister, Hazem al-Shalaan, like Mr. Allawi a former Baathist whose anti-Iran rhetoric pleased the U.S., oversaw the waste of approximately $1 billion (yes, billion) on shady and worthless contracts. That money that could have been crucial to fight terrorists as insurgency spread.
Mr. Allawi's suspicion of Iran is well-founded, and he deserves praise for facing down firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in November 2004. But he all but laid a welcome mat for other terrorists. He appointed unrepentant Baathists to sensitive security posts, exacerbating both insurgency and sectarian violence. He courted Syria which, as documents captured in in 2007 in Sinjar (an Iraqi town near the Syrian border) show, was a waypoint for foreign fighters and suicide bombers responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis. Mr. Allawi has learned no lesson: Three days before this month's elections he met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. "Syrian-Iraqi relations are close and must remain like this," Mr. Allawi told Syrian television.
While Iraqis brave bombs and bullets to hold leaders to account and participate in democracy, a dangerous cocktail of anti-Shiite bias and dictator chic permeates Washington's foreign-policy elite. This may make Mr. Allawi attractive in Foggy Bottom and Langley, but not to most Iraqis. Strongmen—including Saddam—drove Iraq into ruin and espoused ethnic and sectarian supremacy.
Iran's influence is pernicious, but Iraqi Shiites are not Iranian pawns. It was Shiite conscripts, not Baathist elites, who manned Iraq's trenches during the nearly decade-long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Most Iraqis, regardless of religion, resent Iran. But as the Pentagon and U.S. Embassy promote Mr. Allawi, in part because he acquiesces to the reintegration of Baathist insurgents, they validate Iranian rhetoric, which argues the Shiites require Tehran for protection.
History matters. In January, I met with one grand ayatollah and representatives of two others in Najaf. Each castigated Iran but said they could neither forgive nor forget 1991, when the elder Bush abandoned Iraq's Shiite uprising to Saddam's helicopter gunships. No Iraqi candidate is perfect, but it's puzzling that the U.S. has thrown so much weight behind one with ties to the country's Baathist past.