Lowered Expectations For Iraq

Anthony Shadid and Michael Gordon report on the latest U.S. efforts to broker an Iraqi power-sharing deal that would enable the Iraqis to finally form a government almost seven months after their elections. The proposed arrangement “could retain Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister but in a coalition that would significantly curb his authority”:

American officials assert that they do not have a preferred candidate for prime minister. But the proposal is intended to make Mr. Maliki, or a strong-willed successor, more palatable to the rest of a broad-based governing coalition. The redefined authority would be codified by new legislation but would not require that the Constitution be amended. […]

Across the spectrum, there are concerns that Mr. Maliki’s return would further strengthen the hold of his Dawa Party over the key instruments of the state — the police, the army and, perhaps most importantly, intelligence — and close off the possibility that there will ever be a peaceful transfer of power to a rival party.

Mr. Biden said in an interview in Baghdad last week that if Iraq went another six months without a new government it would raise concerns that Iraq’s military might intervene in politics. “My worry will be that generals in the military will start saying, ‘Wait a minute, which way is this going to go?’ ” he said.


Biden’s concerns are echoed by, among others, former New York Times Iraq correspondent John Burns. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he was asked “How is Iraq going to end?” Burns replied, “I have rather somber thoughts about that”:

BURNS: We all hoped, whether you supported or didn’t support the war, that America would find an exit that was honorable for America, that left behind a country — by the time of the surge they had reformulated what the objective would be. It was no longer democracy, it was a government stable enough to defend its own territory, or something to that effect. I’m not sure that that’s been achieved. And I’m rather afraid that that may be lost as the last 50,000 American troops are drawn down over this last year. And that’s not an argument for their staying, because I think, though I quite doubt that anybody cares what I think about this, I think the price for America is already too high, and it’s not really — as Ryan Crocker said, the last ambassador in my time there, he doesn’t really lose a lot of sleep over this, because the fact is America is coming home. There’s going to be no mood in America to reverse that.

ROSE: He also said that the things that would determine the future of Iraq have not yet happened.

BURNS: Well, that’s of course — if I had to place my money on this, it would be on the strongman outcome. That there is somewhere, in what we used to call the Green Zone, a half-colonel or colonel, it’s a story we’ve seen repeated many times in the Middle East, at least we did, and there will be a coup, but probably not until those last American troops have rumbled back across the border to Kuwait. And you just have to hope that if that is the outcome, the only way of ending this sectarian factionalism which is constantly threatening to tear apart the political structures that America will be leaving behind, that he’s not a psychopathic murderer like Saddam.

In addition to radically downwardly redefining “victory” in Iraq, as my colleagues Brian Katulis, Peter Juul and Marc Lynch explained in a September 2008 report, the surge “froze into place the fragmentation that Iraq underwent in 2006 and 2007 and created disincentives to bridge central divisions between Iraqi factions.” While the surge achieved important gains in reducing violence in Iraq, it failed to address the fundamental political conflicts that drove that violence, and which continue to frustrate the formation of a government and threaten to push Iraq back into the embrace of authoritarianism. I look forward to seeing Doug Feith or Dan Senor on TV explaining how this is all President Obama’s fault.