On the streets of Baghdad and in the corridors of Parliament, the American unity experiment in Iraq has increasingly become, as one politician put it, “a farce that must end.”
For most Iraqis, American engagement for the past several years has only come bearing deficits – in terms of priorities, foresight, and partnership. Last December, Iraq’s bickering parties forged a power-sharing agreement that ended a record-breaking stalemate following the 2010 elections. Actively pushed for by the Obama administration, the “national partnership” agreement brought all blocs together to form a governing coalition. Now, six months later, little confidence remains about the value and stability of the new government.
Despite its inevitable collapse, the United States strongly supports Iraq’s unity government, praising it as a mature step forward. The U.S.-brokered settlement “reflects the results of those elections,” wrote Vice President Joseph Biden at the time, and “does not exclude or marginalize anyone.” Yet, the deal secured Nouri al-Maliki another term as prime minister, despite his bloc’s second-place finish in the elections. The cornerstone of the accord was the foolhardy establishment of a National Council for Higher Policies.
The council was intended to hold “executive” and “binding” authorities to check Maliki’s power, and was to integrate former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi into the government as its first chairman. But today, little American leverage remains to compel Maliki to cede any of his powers, especially to a committed rival. At best, the council stands to be largely an advisory body with no significant clout.
In idly sponsoring a national partnership, the U.S. endorsed a false promise for Iraq’s future. The concept represented a gross misreading of Iraqi politics. Since the Sunni boycott of the 2005 elections, misconstrued Western biases have supported such a framework as a way of advancing national unity. But in reality, there are no broadly-shared ideological or overarching visions to sustain such a government. The practice of “governing by consensus” is not indigenous to Iraqi political culture. The experiment today is viewed as an American venture, and Iraqis perceive its foundations as a formula for dividing the spoils, not sharing power.
Moreover, the national partnership has reinforced Iraq’s dysfunctional polity. To house a gargantuan government, some positions were arbitrarily created to satisfy Iraqi personalities. The new officialdom embraces 42 ministries, three deputy prime ministers, and three vice presidents. Many roles are ill-defined, and in some cases lack a constitutional basis. But unlike titles, governing power has become a zero-sum game: as a rule of thumb, no sharing agreement, however creative, will satisfy all of Iraq’s major players.
Contrary to its positive “all-inclusive” appeal, the government is not a functioning coalition by any standard. Adding more units to a collective body only diversifies the interests and constituencies that the coalition has to amalgamate. Thus, the government has become indecisive, incoherent, and counterproductive to good governance, lacking sufficient uniformity to confront Iraq’s daunting challenges. Consensus-building, by reaching lowest common denominators, can only bring about painstaking and diluted resolutions.
Ironically, Iraq’s unity framework has reproduced institutionalized sectarian consciousness. During their formation, many executive and ministerial positions were allocated based on informal sectarian obligations. This has carried irrevocable consequences, reflecting what is taking place in Lebanon. There, a fragmented society hosts a sectarian political structure, where the prime minister is a Sunni, the president a Maronite Christian, and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite. By deepening sectarian roots in Iraq, the U.S. has helped place Iraq squarely on the same unstable path as Lebanon.
There was also the mistaken belief among sponsors of the national partnership in Iraq that a grand coalition would constrain Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies. Unlike a Parliament or judicial body, intra-coalition balancing measures are not institutions, but are based on collective action and mutual interests. A large, diverse coalition only grants Maliki the latitude to choose when and where to exploit divisions, and which actors to court or marginalize. By default, Maliki becomes the indispensable hub of any configuration of alliances.
In addition, the unity government has undercut democratic and institutional development. Although an opposition it is a basic tenet of a healthy democracy, one does not exist in Iraq. A credible opposition can bolster accountability and performance, while safeguarding Parliament as a counterweight to executive overreach. In the past, Iraq’s inertia and divisions have allowed for opportunities to solidify power. Today, Maliki’s coalition partners serve both as formal supporters and informal rivals, effectively blurring their roles. Iraq’s actors have become highly sensitive to political posturing and counter-maneuvering, illustrated by their inability these past five months to agree on a defense and interior minister.
Finally, Washington’s push for a powerful National Council for Higher Policies will only result in a more cluttered government that is too interwoven and liable to gridlock. Such a grand institution will only expand organizational structures, likely spawning independent task forces and protection units, along with separate intelligence departments. This favors fragmentation, so that competition will weaken governance, security, and opportunities for cooperation.
Iraq’s unity government has proven futile. The lack of political stability in Baghdad guarantees the prolongation of unresolved issues – such as agreement over oil and revenue-sharing, the taking of a census (already conflictual as a process), and accords over disputed territories claimed by various ethnic groups.
With the U.S. military scheduled to withdraw by year’s end, Iraqi politics must evolve responsibly. Yet U.S. policy is only reinforcing the dysfunction.
Recent talks among some Iraqi leaders suggest a growing tendency that some parties will opt out of Maliki’s coalition and form a parliamentary opposition. This initiative, however detrimental to national partnership, should be encouraged by Washington. The emergence of a stronger Parliament will help realign a sustainable U.S. policy with long-term interests in Iraq.
is a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and an adjunct fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. He is the editor of the book “Volatile Landscape: Iraq and its Insurgent Movements” (2010). He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR