With President Bush announcing that U.S. troop levels in Iraq will remain relatively unchanged for the remainder of his term and the last surge brigades returning home, it is time to take stock of Iraq’s internal politics. Streets may be calmer now, but it is a very tenuous calm, with the surge essentially freezing into place a fragmented and increasingly fractured country. Rather than advancing Iraq’s political transition and facilitating power-sharing deals among Iraq’s factions, the surge has produced an oil revenue-fueled, religious Shia-dominated national government with close ties to Iran.
As we argue in a new report (co-authored with Marc Lynch), the surge has helped to create a shaky political house of cards in Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki and his allies in the national government have worked to try to consolidate their power rather than take meaningful steps forward to advance Iraq’s political transition and national reconciliation. Maliki’s ruling Shia-Kurdish coalition has begun to fracture, offering evidence that decreased violence or increased capacity of the security forces does not necessarily translate into political progress and greater consensus. Moreover, the tension between U.S. support for the Awakenings and the Iraqi government is one of the shakiest elements of the house of cards that the surge helped to create.
Meanwhile, U.S. military dominance and support absolves the major political actors from having to make tough decisions necessary to achieve a power-sharing equilibrium and the active and intense U.S. interventions in the Iraqi political process actually interfere with the emergence of an authentic Iraqi political consensus. A long-term U.S. troop presence signals to Iraq’s leaders that the United States is prepared to provide a long-term safety net that keeps them in power, which fosters moral hazard, discouraging them from making the tough power-sharing compromises, and ultimately forestalls a sustainable power-sharing arrangement in Iraq.
The next U.S. administration will grapple with a different set of challenges on Iraq, but the core question remains the same for Iraq’s leaders: how to share power among the diverse ethnic and sectarian groups. Iraq’s leaders over the next year will increasingly demand greater control over their own affairs, and many of the power-sharing questions outlined in this report will likely remain unresolved for years to come.