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Iraq: A Few New Faces, Same Old Tricks

“Welcome to the world’s next failed state,” writes Ned Parker, the former Baghdad bureau chief for the LA Times. He’s talking about Iraq, a country the US military and countless diplomats tried very hard to mould into a representative, safe, friendly democracy. Though much of the blame rests with Iraqi officials, America’s democratic Iraq project is heading for failure.

In broad strokes, here’s the picture Parker paints of the new Iraq:

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has become a dictator. His office controls or supersedes other, supposedly independent branches of government. He controls militias and security services, and uses them to eliminate or intimidate political rivals. Maliki’s family and friends hold powerful positions in government; his son is perhaps the second most powerful person in Baghdad. Maliki has sidelined, bullied, and occasionally tortured his rivals and consolidated control of government. He uses the state’s anticorruption offices to target political enemies and stocks the Human Rights Ministry with pliant allies. No one now doubts Maliki’s ability to harness the state for his own political gains. He has turned the government into his personal office. His friends and influential allies play within his system. Rivals and those who want to change the system are pushed aside, or worse. (Read Parker’s entire article (paywall alert) here — it’s worth it.)

The Obama administration is partly to blame. In the twilight of US involvement in Iraq, American officials turned a blind eye as Maliki consolidated his power. Vice President Biden, Obama’s leading figure on Iraq policy, was “largely absent” during the crucial time when American officials mediated a power-sharing agreement among Iraqi political groups and negotiated the withdrawal of troops. Washington’s focus was on a security arrangement with Baghdad. American officials needed a powerful figure on whom to rely. Not a peep was uttered in public when Maliki’s security forces beat democracy activists in broad daylight. No complaints were formally submitted as Maliki harassed and arrested his rivals. One day after the last American soldier left Iraq, Maliki charged his vice president — who then fled for his life to Iraqi Kurdistan — with “running death squads.”

It increasingly seems like the Iraq Washington wanted to shape will never exist. Maliki’s Iraq looks a lot like a less brutal (and Shiite dominated) version of Iraq under Saddam. And in fairness to the incumbent, none of Maliki’s rivals look as if they would have behaved any different as lords of the Green Zone.

“Federalism,” as Parker calls it — an Iraq made up of autonomous states — might be the future.

Iraqi Kurdistan is already nominally independent. The southern, largely Shiite province of Basra chafes under Maliki’s dominance. Though Basra supplies 70 percent of the country’s oil, revenues are not shared equally. Electricity is spotty. Basra’s governor and head of the provincial council, both members of Maliki’s party, resigned in late 2010 after popular demonstrations called for better services and less corruption. It’s not just Basra: regional governors in other provinces, also Maliki’s allies, have resigned recently. In October 2011, Salahuddin Province became the first Sunni region to call for a federal, decentralized political system.

Is “federalism” or “regional autonomy” a bad thing? Perhaps not. If the central government is so dictatorial, as it was under Saddam and is again becoming, the provinces quite reasonably seek more freedom. This was once what Joe Biden, before he was VP, wished for Iraq — to partition it into three states: Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish. That was before the civil war. Things have changed. Washington — with Biden leading the charge — threw its weight behind Maliki in what seemed like the only way to stop the violence: with strong and sometimes ruthless force, and by drawing in and rewarding allies while marginalizing and punishing enemies. Maliki took Washington’s support and has run away with it. In trying to establish a coalition that can wield power effectively, maintain stability, and foster a profitable economy, he threatens to return Iraq to authoritarianism. Perhaps he has forgotten the past, or thinks he can do better. We’ll see.

Image courtesy Shutterstock.

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  • Many predicted this from the beginning.

  • WigWag

    Bush and Obama both made the same mistake; they refused to recognize that the only group worth American support in Iraq is the Kurds.

    Instead of fighting the idea of Kurdish independence, the United States should have embraced it. Instead of worrying that championing Kurdish independence might anger the Ottoman-worshipping Islamists in the Turkish government the United States should have relished the chance to anger the Turks. Instead of focusing on how Kurdish independence might have destabilized Iran and Syria, the United States should have jumped at the chance to destabilize Iran and Syria.

    Rarely does the United States have the opportunity to pursue it’s interests and it’s values at exactly the same time. Supporting the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan (that incorporates Erbil and even Mosul) would have allowed the United States to do exactly that.

    As for the Sunni and Shia Iraqis the best thing for the United States is to pursue policies that maximizes the opportunities to pit them against each other for as long as possible.

  • Brett

    It’s brutal, but this Onion article sums up most of my opinion on the situation. I just really don’t care as long as the Maliki-ruled Iraq is stable and not shooting/bombing US citizens or screwing up oil prices.

  • Kris

    [Gather ’round! Kris, Master of Positive Thinking, will speak!]

    Well… At least he seems more competent than the Mayor of Kabul.

  • Fred

    “No people, indeed, can long enjoy more liberty than that to which their situation and advanced intelligence and morals fairly entitle them. If more than this be allowed, they must soon fall into confusion and disorder,—to be followed, if not by anarchy and despotism, by a change to a form of government more simple and absolute; and, therefore, better suited to their condition.”

    Calhoun is proven right yet again. The Iraqis are simply reverting to the only form of government of which people in that part of the world are capable. Trying to civilize the Middle East was always a fool’s errand. I’m with Brett, as long as Iraq is stable and does not act counter to America’s interests then leave the barbarians to their unspeakable folkways.

  • Toni

    WSJ columnist Dan Henninger has some interesting insights on Obama’s election-year foreign policy efforts concerning Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Hey, presto.

  • Cleon the Butcher already messing up Astapor?

  • Charles R. Williams

    Obama’s nation building crusade in Afghanistan is even less likely to succeed.

  • Well, I used to be a supporter of ‘Liberal Interventionism’. I suppose those are scare quotes. I remember when Maliki was shouting at Bush to fire Petraeus because he was arming the Sunni militias agains al Qaeda. Petraeus and the Sunnis defeated al Qaeda in the field but they didn’t fix Iraq. Nor do I buy the line that Afghanistan was the good war and Iraq the bad one. I remember the same left saying that Afghanistan was a quagmire like Vietnam in the early weeks of that war. But no matter who makes the argument I think it has become clear that trying to intervene based on Western values be they ‘democracy promotion’ or ‘duty to protect’ just do not work well with Middle Eastern culture.

    Nonetheless, having read a virtual sewer of negative Iraq coverage during the Bush years I am skeptical of Ned Parker’s grim picture. It is the Tres Partes Divisa Est meme that has been around since Caeser was a colonel in another Roman province. It is superficial and paints the same old picture of sectarian violence. As a reasonably well informed observer of Iraq, I have to ask – where is Grand Ayatollah Sistani in all this, or Sadr? What is the Sunni leadership saying and doing? How many people is the government actually killing each day? Remember Saddam killed about 450,000 people over 23 years – not counting those killed in his wars. That’s about 20,000 or close to 1% of the population every year for a generation just murdered by the government. I doubt that Maliki rises to the level of a Pinochet or Castro class autocrat, much less Saddam. As Hillary once aptly put it – “We have to deal with Iraq we have, not the one we wish we had.” Today that goes for Bush, Obama and the MSM.

  • Fred

    @number 8. I take a back seat to no one in my fear and loathing of Obama, but let’s be fair, Charles, the whole _mission civilatrice_ project for the Middle East and Afghanistan was (mis)conceived by the Bush administration. Instead of backing the most pro-American thug we could find in that nest of vipers, we tried to install liberal democracy there (I can’t even write it with a straight face). That one is on a Republican president.

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