AMMAN, JORDAN — What a lagging candidate needs is a wild campaign stunt, says the consultant from Washington, so how about this: Round up some chickens. Let them loose in front of the political headquarters of Iraq’s former prime minister, Ayad Allawi. Make sure the media know about it.
The message: Allawi’s a chicken for shunning a televised debate with the consultant’s candidate, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Saleh Mutlaq, in Wednesday’s parliamentary election. “We will call him a coward,” declares Sam Patten, the puckish adviser to Mutlaq. Both Mutlaq and Allawi are among the hopefuls trying to dislodge eight-year incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
It’s time to get “noisy” in the campaign’s final days, Patten has been urging Mutlaq, a subdued agri-businessman whose central issue is not readily conveyed in sound bites. Mutlaq wants to change the nation’s constitution, which he sees as a deeply flawed product of U.S. occupation, tilted against Sunni Muslims like himself and responsible for a noxious stew of sectarianism still boiling 11 years after the U.S. invasion.
But the Iraqis on the team, strategizing in a well-wired war room here in Jordan’s capital, reject the American’s fowl gambit out of hand. First off, chickens don’t denote cowardice in their country; sheep do. (Specifically, ewes.)
“We’ll set sheep loose in front of his office,” Patten, 42, who sports a regulation K Street blue blazer with pocket square, gamely persists.
It won’t happen. Mutlaq doesn’t like going negative — no personal brawls, he says, stick to the issues.
In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton’s advisers deployed the costumed “Chicken George” to goad President George H.W. Bush to debate. “There are no new ideas,” Patten admits, but even such durable U.S. tactics can be lost in translation.
Few know the challenges better than the narrow industry of U.S. political consultants who, like Patten, are finding a new market in emerging or struggling democracies, leveraging their domestic campaign expertise and sometimes-noble ideals into cash. Politics is not just local but also uniquely cultural, different the world over. That applies also when Washington tries to export democratic values and traditions to a place like Iraq.
“I don’t think democracy is for everybody. I say that advisedly but honestly,” says Tony Marsh, who just spent seven weeks in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, where he worked on a political party’s ads. He has teamed with Patten, a fellow Republican, on campaigns in six countries.
“This whole democracy thing can be a bit of a slippery slope,” Marsh, 59, says. “Once somebody gets into power by the democratic process it’s not long before they slip into authoritarianism.”
Yet here’s Patten working in Iraq, three years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, chasing Jeffersonian sunbeams in a country where bombs keep going off. He adopts a rather sanguine long view.
“People like me are not agents of change,” he reflects. “We’re helpers, perhaps enablers, of a historical process that is going to happen eventually, one way or the other.”
He knows the current terrain well, having worked in Iraq in 2004-05 for the International Republican Institute (IRI), a U.S.-established organization that champions the electoral process. He has also assisted candidates in Ukraine, Romania, Albania, Georgia and Thailand, with proverbial mixed results.
It’s one thing to be a star adviser to a campaign in, say, the United Kingdom — where the prime minister’s contest has former Obama strategists helping rival sides — and another thing to “embed,” as Patten put it, in an untidy, austere apartment in Jordan for four months and shuttle regularly to Baghdad, requiring an armored SUV to visit his candidate.
He is making $20,000 a month on this project, but most of his expenses are not covered, he says. “I’m taking a haircut” on the deal, he says. It does include a $100,000 bonus if Mutlaq triumphs, but the American adviser has no illusions. No matter how many polls, focus groups, Facebook posts, PR releases and TV ads the campaigns churns out, Mutlaq — a chain-smoking agricultural economist with a professorial air — remains a hard sell.
Patten says he doesn’t know when or where his next job will be. But there is one constant: “You are always fighting with the client, because you are an American — and you don’t understand.”
* * *
The Falcon jet roars down the runway and goes airborne in 25 seconds, winging over Amman’s drab residential honeycombs en route to Baghdad. A burly man in a smart suit sinks into one of the eight tan leather passenger seats, squints at his watch and proclaims that he hopes to shave the takeoff to 24 seconds.
The rich Iraqi businessman is one of the major funders of Mutlaq’s campaign and chairman of its steering committee. He declines to be identified except as the Chairman, citing seven attempts on his life.
He bought the Falcon for its “athletic” qualities, he explains: The muscular aircraft can do barrel rolls and its rapid ascent comes in particularly handy when departing Baghdad International, where militants have vowed to shoot down planes.On trips like these to see the candidate, Patten has twice asked the range of “commonly available missiles.” He doesn’t seem to relax until 10,000 feet.
“Sam, did you bring the whiskey with you?” the Chairman queries. No, Patten says, wasn’t that the driver’s job?
So it’s a dry flight. Too bad: A snort or two might steady one’s nerves. Around Iraqi politicians you never know what’s in store.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Mutlaq’s convoy came under fire west of the capital as he headed toward his home turf, Anbar province, to inspect flood damage as part of his government duties. Circumstances are in dispute, but the incident came at a time when Mutlaq’s Al-Arabiya Coalition is blaming the Iraqi army for attacks on noncombatants to suppress voting; the Army says it’s only targeting militant groups, including those with ties to al-Qaeda.
Mutlaq, accompanied by a contingent of some 130 Iraqi soldiers, was stopped at an Army checkpoint. Shots were exchanged. One of his bodyguards was wounded and two soldiers on the other side were hit.
Patten, who wasn’t there, blames the incident on overall chaos in the province rather than an assassination attempt. He later advised the candidate to return to the area to show he wanted to complete his mission. He did so.
Mutlaq, 66, gained his largely powerless post in 2010 after his bloc won a majority of seats in the national election; he was stricken from the ballot because of his previous ties to the Baath party. But by 2012 Mutlaq was calling Maliki a dictator, the worst in Iraq’s history. At one point the deputy quit his job.
Though Mutlaq was connected to Saddam Hussein’s “political world,” Patten says, “I wouldn’t say he was a friend of Saddam.” At the time, Patten supported the U.S. invasion but says “in retrospect I’d have to think about it.” He has advised Mutlaq “to speak out against the invasion and the occupiers,” because that’s his job.
Mutlaq could easily exploit resentment toward the Shiite-dominated government, but won’t play the sectarian card directly, preferring an oblique theme of equality for all ethnic and religious groups.
“He won’t even say the word Sunni,” the Chairman laments. “I haven’t heard it from Day One.”
From 33,000 feet, Patten peers down on the barren brown landscape, then unleashes his index fingers in a hunt-and-peck frenzy on his laptop.
“We need a ‘Daisy’ ad,” he says, citing the nuclear doomsday TV spot that president Lyndon Johnson unleashed against Barry Goldwater in 1964. “So over the top that people will be talking about it, and journalists will be writing about it — for free!”
But for now Patten settles for composing points for a debate that almost certainly won’t happen.
“Welcome to paradise,” he says upon deplaning.
* * *
Patten was born into a gossipy milieu of social climbing and Washington power politics. He is the grandson of the late Georgetown doyenne Susan Mary Alsop and can remember Henry Kissinger patting him on the head at a party when he was 9. He believes his childhood bedroom was where, many years earlier, a newly inaugurated President Kennedy engaged in what Patten calls “extracurricular activity” with one of his actress friends.
JFK and his party arrived around 2 a.m. at the Alsop home at 2720 Dumbarton St. NW in Georgetown after the day’s festivities, according to various accounts. The visit confirmed the social prominence of his grandmother and his step-grandfather, the political columnist Joseph Alsop.
Susan Mary Alsop’s domestic life was, as they say, complicated. Her first husband was Bill Patten Sr., but the son she bore during their marriage — also named Bill — was not Patten’s son. The child belonged to a notable British politician, Duff Cooper, with whom she’d had an affair in the late 1940s.
The younger Bill Patten — Sam’s father — didn’t learn about this until 1996. He eventually wrote a book called “My Three Fathers — And the Elegant Deceptions of My Mother, Susan Mary Alsop.” (That trio would be Patten Sr., Cooper and Alsop.)
Today Sam Patten views his heritage with a bemused detachment and dry humor. He says he read only the first half of his dad’s book.
True, as the grandson of Cooper, he descends from royalty: King William IV.
But sadly, the consultant says, “Nobody saved me a seat in the House of Lords.”
After Patten Sr.’s death in 1960, his widow married Alsop, his close friend. Joe Alsop was gay and the union would be chaste: “It was an agreement they had before they married,” Sam Patten says. But such matters weren’t publicly spoken of in those days. Alsop put it genteelly in his autobiography: “When the opportunity arose to slip into the role of companion and father to a family I had known intimately for so many years, I eagerly volunteered.”
Life among the Washington swells didn’t suit Sam’s father. He moved to Maine, ran a small-town weekly and later became a prison minister. Sam was schooled in Maine and attended Georgetown University, graduating in 1993.
He was always fond of his famous grandmother. One evening in 1996, he was walking her to dinner at a Georgetown restaurant when muggers attacked. Then 25, Sam was stabbed in the hip while protecting the 78-year-old grande dame. He avoided serious internal injury thanks, he says, to the “campaign blubber” he accumulated working on Susan Collins’s first Senate race.
Patten’s résumé hopscotches from there to the oil sector in Kazakhstan in the mid-to-late 1990s, doing public affairs; to assisting the Bush-Cheney run in 2000, as Maine campaign director; to a three-year stint in Moscow with IRI; to a short stay at the State Department in 2008 promoting democracy; to Freedom House, advancing political and human rights in former communist countries. Domestically, his last campaign was in 2012, in Maryland, when he advised independent U.S. Senate candidate Rob Sobhani, a wealthy, unsuccessful challenger to incumbent Benjamin L. Cardin (D).
He cites a 3-2 win-loss record on overseas work and 2-1 at home.
“Confessions of a Political Tourist” is the tentative title of a book he’s been working on. He decided to scrap its earlier title: “Accessory to Disaster.”
* * *
Stone-faced Iraqi soldiers stand guard as the joyful cries of children float into the walled Baghdad compound that serves as Mutlaq’s party headquarters. It’s right across from an amusement park and zoo on a street once frequently rocked by suicide car bombers.
Inside, Mutlaq has convened a meet-the-candidate session in the manner of a traditional Arab diwan — visitors take seats on ornate couches and chairs lining the high-ceilinged room, awaiting an audience with “Dr. Saleh,” as everyone calls the doctorate-holding Mutlaq. He accepts visitors while burning through pack after pack of Kents, accumulating ashes on his shirt and suit.
Passing through are local candidates, some in business attire, but the parade could just as well include what Patten took note of the other day: berobed sheiks, both Sunni and Shia, a tae kwon do group, widows and orphans and a 10-year-old boy with no arms.
The candidate readily blames the United States for making his country a violent mess, then departing too hastily, in his view, before reconstruction and stability were achieved. Yet he has put his faith in an American adviser?
“It’s good to have him, because after all, Americans are responsible for what happened here,” Mutlaq tells me in English. “Politically, the United States is influential, and we would like somebody who knows the mentality there. . . . He is an intelligent guy.”
Patten leans in to tell Mutlaq about a statement he’s been working on regarding Allawi, the former prime minister.
“The bottom line is that he is afraid to debate,” Patten’s statement declares. But Mutlaq declines to make that charge himself, delegating the quote in the release to a surrogate. Allawi’s office, which disputes forging any debate agreement in the first place, later calls the claim of cowardice “ill-mannered” and “shocking.”
When our convoy departs, it passes by Allawi’s party headquarters. Patten can’t resist making a certain barnyard sound.
“Baaah,” he taunts. “Baaah.”
* * *
The consultant isn’t sure how long he can keep at this often-lonely nomadic trade. He certainly doesn’t think he’ll retire at it.
Patten married about a year ago — his wife also has worked overseas, but now she’s in Washington and investigates art crimes. The airline upgrades that flow from Patten’s frequent flyer accounts don’t compensate for time away from family. Sometimes he thinks of relocating to a Maine, maybe to run for office there someday.
But right now he’s sitting at the bar in what he calls Amman’s poshest perch: it offers a cool evening breeze and vistas of the old city and eastern horizon, toward Iraq. He orders a double Maker’s Mark and tells a story about a candidate he once advised in Tirana, Albania; about how he sent a man into city hall wearing a rabbit costume.
You see, in Albania, rabbits denote cowardice. . . .