The Iraqi parliament’s decision to adjourn until September 4 gives an easy sound bite to American advocates of withdrawal from Iraq. “Why should our soldiers fight and die in 120-degree heat,” they will ask, “while Iraqi lawmakers go on vacation?”
But the truth is that the parliament can, on its own, do little or nothing to resolve Iraq’s political impasse. Most of the business of governing happens outside of parliament, in negotiations among the major powerbrokers in prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition government. The parliament cut its scheduled summer recess short by a month, staying in session during July. But the government failed to reach compromise on important legislation, including laws to divide Iraq’s oil resources and allow some former Baathist officials to participate in the government, thereby increasing Sunni representation. As a result, the parliament had little to do for the past four weeks. This would not likely have changed in August, given that Maliki’s government still hasn’t reached agreement on its legislative priorities.
Indeed, the largest Sunni bloc in Maliki’s coalition — the Iraq Accordance Front — has threatened to quit the government as early as this week. It argues that Maliki has not adequately met its demands to disband Shiite militias and allow greater Sunni political involvement. The dissolution or fragmentation of Maliki’s coalition would be a far heavier blow than a mere month-long recess by the Iraqi parliament. U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker should spend the next few days reminding both Maliki and the Sunnis that such a break would be perceived by much of the American political class as further justification for U.S. troop withdrawal.
Crocker should also continue to work with all parties on the passage of at least a few important compromise laws (an oil-sharing agreement being the top priority). These proposed Iraqi laws have taken on an outsized significance in the American political debate, and may be more important to us right now than to the Iraqis. The lack of movement on these so-called benchmarks shouldn’t obscure important recent political progress on the ground, as Sunni tribes have begun to ally themselves with us against al Qaeda. That our debate hasn’t yet taken full account of this change is just one of the ways in which, as liberal hawks Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack argued in an eye-opening New York Times op-ed, it has become detached from new realities in Iraq.
Ultimately, reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shiites is crucial. But it wasn’t going to happen in the next two months, whether the Iraqi parliament stayed in session or not. General Petraeus’s September report has come to be seen as a final test for Iraq, which makes sense only for Democrats hell-bent on leaving no matter what, and for nervous Republicans seeking a soft exit. We are beginning to see the fruits of a sound counterinsurgency strategy and, in this context, a debate focused on how to get out rather than how to consolidate our gains is shameful, however easy the sound bites are.