Iraq Today: Failure and Frustration All Round

By Richard Weitz

Ned Parker, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and currently the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written a devastating critique of U.S. policy toward Iraq in the Council’s flagship publication, Foreign Affairs.

Although the article, “The Iraq We Left Behind: Welcome to the World’s Next Failed State,” is perhaps overly pessimistic, it does remind us of the perils of engaging in massive nation-building exercises in the Middle East at a time when that temptation has again arisen.

According to Parker, today’s Iraq at best is an aborted democracy, falling considerably short of the U.S. vision of creating a pioneering democratic, mixed Sunni-Shiite coalition powered by a renewal of its oil wealth.

Instead of law and order, the new Iraq is marked by corruption and chaos.

Iraq is not occurring in isolation. The "Arab Spring" in the region, the assertiveness of Iran, and the Afghan challenges all come together to shape a dynamic, and explosive whole. Credit Image: Bigstock

Endemic corruption is undermining the foundations of the Iraqi state, with a “culture of graft” producing “crippling inefficiencies and dangerous gaps” among key Iraqi institutions such as the armed forces and government ministries. Justice is perverted because the law has become an instrument to hobble political rivals and exploit opportunities for corruption.

Political parties are weak while clan, sectarian, and especially family ties are strong, resulting in family fiefs and nepotism throughout the bureaucracy.

And when the law proves inadequate, then the political leaders and factions employ their ruthless security forces to suppress adversaries, sometimes torturing them in private detention centers, and cow the population at large.

In January, Human Rights Watch warned that Iraq was becoming a police state in which citizens were denied, or afraid to exercise, their basic civil rights.

Parker casts blame widely among multiple players.

He faults Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for encouraging sectarian tensions to rally the Shiite majority behind him. But Parker does not rate Maliki’s opponents any higher, expecting they would act the same way if so empowered.

He sees many of them as aspiring to become another Saddam Hussein, if not in all Iraq, than at least in those parts that fall under their control. “All of Iraq’s political leaders seem to live by the maxim that no enemy can become a partner, just a temporary ally; betrayal lurks around every corner. Each politician grabs as much power as he can, and unchecked ambition, ego, and historical grudges lead them all to ignore the consequences of their behavior for Iraq’s new institutions and its society.”

Most recently, Maliki’s refusal to share power with his political rivals in the Iraqi National Movement bloc, led by Ayad Allawi, prompted that party’s members to boycott the parliament and promote autonomy movements in Sunni-dominated provinces. The bloc’s complaints ranged from Maliki’s monopolizing all key national security posts in the hands of his Shiite-dominated State of Law Coalition led al-Maliki to his removing leading Sunnis from national and local offices on the grounds that they either supported Saddam Hussein’s deposed Baathist regime or were aiding anti-Shiite terrorists. Maliki responded to this boycott by arresting more senior opposition politicians and threatening to form a new government without the Iraqi National Movement.

According to Parker, the result has been an deadlock between Maliki, whose powers are constrained by Iraq’s parliamentary system, and his opponents, whose capacity is limited their divisions by ethnicity, region, ideology, and competing personal ambitions.

“This corrosive deadlock will only fan further disillusionment with the current order, sending the political system hurtling toward implosion.”  The country’s political parties are weak and ridden with factionalism.

Politicians avoid contact with the electorate by hiding in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where they are protected by the Baghdad Brigade and the other Iraqi militias that have replaced the departed foreign national and private security forces.

At present, Maliki is packing Iraq’s electoral commissions with his own people, leading many to doubt whether Iraq’s local elections (schedule for  2013) and national parliamentary elections (due the following year) will be free and fair or will even take place.

Given this background, the government naturally cannot revive the economy, manage basic public services, or provide public safety.

Contracts are awarded on the basis of kickbacks and connections, leading to overpriced and inadequate public services such as the spotty delivery of electricity.

The lack of transparency and abundance of graft leads to billions of dollars vanishing, with some notorious suspects buying immunity through various schemes such as securing their election to parliament.

More than a quarter of the young men cannot find legitimate jobs, inducing them either to become criminals or militants (and often both). The continued bombings and assassinations, though at a much lower level than a few years ago, are enough to discourage foreign investors as well as keep most Iraqis on edge.

At the local level, even Shiites affiliated with Maliki strive for greater autonomy, partly to avoid the problems in Bagdad, but partly to have more opportunities to satisfy their personal ambitions and enrich themselves. This results in considerable political infighting and sometimes actual shooting among rival security forces.

And Iraq’s centralized government system means that federal authorities lack the means to exploit their own resources, such as oil and water, without Baghdad’s approval.

Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution, approved in an October 2005 national referendum, decentralizes much political power on paper, but its imprecise terms, teh debilitating power disputes between the provinces and Baghdad, and the political infighting in Washington have prevented the enactment of important legislation such as the so-called Oil Law, which would share revenue between Baghdad and the provinces as well as provide essential guarantees to foreign investors.

Parker focuses much of his piece on the U.S. role in causing these problems. (He does not discuss the negative effects of the policies of Iran or other countries, perhaps for reasons of space.) Parker recounts the well-known U.S. “debilitating blunders: not sending enough U.S. forces to secure the country, dissolving the old Iraqi military, and allowing a draconian purge of Baath Party members from civilian ministries. It was only belatedly, in Iraq’s darkest hour, that the Bush administration sent thousands more troops to stop the civil war that had erupted.”

Parker praises this surge decision, and then the U.S. pressure that compelled the Iraqis to set aside their differences and form a coalition government.

But then he faults U.S. policy makers, during both the remainder of the Bush and the first Obama administrations, for concentrating on cultivating a long-term relationship with a few Iraqi leaders, such as Maliki, rather than helping consolidate Iraq’s nascent democracy.

Parker believes the most serious error occurred during the summer of 2010 when Washington decided to back Maliki’s reappointment as prime minister without ensuring that a December 2010 power-sharing agreement—which gave the Sunni-backed and secular parties, which won a majority of votes in the 2010 parliamentary elections, a strong role in decision-making–was effectively implemented.

Instead of protesting when Maliki began to undermine the deal,” Washington’s ‘overriding focus and concern’ was building a security relationship with the Iraqi government.

But by turning a blind eye to Maliki’s encroaching authoritarianism, U.S. officials allowed Iraq’s political culture to disintegrate” and resume return to sectarianism and Iraq’s traditional authoritarianism. Parker cites the growing political infighting as the reason why Washington proved unable to secure the parliament’s approval of the immunity legislation required to permit U.S. military forces to remain in Iraq beyond the end of last year.

Where do we go next?

Parker sees three possible scenarios, all negative from the perspective of the Iraqi people as well as the United States, for Iraq’s future unless something radically changes:

  • First, some specific event or series of events — for example, the local and national elections expected in 2013 and 2014, respectively, or an escalation of the campaign of arrests against Maliki’s foes — could trigger violence involving Iraq’s tribes, sects, ethnicities, and parties.
  • Second, the ineffectual rule of the central government could lead Sunni and Shiite regional leaders to carve out their own autonomous zones, leaving Iraq a state in name only, a prospect that could also ignite bloodshed if Baghdad refuses to recognize those boundaries or the provinces begin to fight over territory.
  • Third, Shiite political figures and military officers could mount a coup, claiming the current government was endangering the country and declaring special rule for an emergency period. Repressive crackdowns would follow, triggering a cycle of retributive violence.

Of course, these outcomes are not mutually exclusive; we could see a combined triple negative outcome.

Parker still considers the situation salvageable.

He believes that the United States still can induce Iraqi leaders to return to their power-sharing agreement and adopt additional measures to promote national reconciliation, transparent government, and the rule of law.

In particular, Parker thinks Maliki believes he needs Washington’s continued support to constrain Iranian influence, rebuild Iraq’s military and economy (through arms sales and U.S. investment), and reduce Iraq’s isolation by, for example, ending Iraq’s Chapter VII status in the UN Security Council.

But this proposition is unproven and seems less credible with each passing day.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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