So Iraq has a government. Now what?

I’ve been offline for a few days doing some work in Sarajevo ahead of the Bosnian deployment to Afghanistan, so I’m late with a posting about the new Iraqi government. Rather than rehash what others have written, just a few thoughts as we look ahead and, perhaps, as we reconsider the last eight months:


  • Already many diplomats, analysts, and pundits are talking about how fractious the new Iraqi government is. They are right. The irony, however, is that many of the same people have argued for a unity government that includes all major political blocs. This is one of those knee-jerk positions that drive me nuts. Of course unity governments are fractious. And of course they don’t work well. Would the U.S. government function well if, after President Obama’s victory, we had insisted he give 45 percent of the executive slots to McCain’s people? Would Rahm Emanuel work well sharing a cubicle with Karl Rove? I understand the desire to have greater representation so that no one feels disfranchised, but are unity governments the best way to accomplish this? The answer is no: It would be better if local representation were better developed, and the relationship between local government and Baghdad better defined. Most people forget that Iraq is also supposed to have a bicameral legislature according to its constitution. And yet, very little has been done to bring a council of the regions into reality. And both the Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. Embassy were horrendous at developing local government. If regional parties that get shut out of the governing coalition still maintained dominant control over day-to-day affairs in regions where they are strong — even absent formal federalism — it could create a check against Baghdad’s tyranny over the minority. At the same time, allowing some parties to govern without others would both promote efficiency and increase accountability.

  • Jalal Talabani is going to be president for a second term. Fine. But what are the contingency plans if he doesn’t live through his term? He is getting old, and his health isn’t great. I’d say chances are better than even that we will have a state funeral in the next four years. Should Talabani pass away during that period, are the Kurds going to be happy without the presidency? Will the Kurds then try to bring down the government to restart negotiations?

  • It’s also important to remember why the Kurds want Talabani in office. It’s not for the same reasons the Americans traditionally like good ol’ Mam Jalal: It’s not because he’s a jovial fellow who can talk to any party and make ephemeral and somewhat contradictory promises to anyone that asks. Rather, the Kurds wanted Talabani to have the presidency because they are scared to death his return to Iraqi Kurdistan would reignite the factional fighting with Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and perhaps mean reengaging in the dirty war of yore. (Some people in Iraqi Kurdistan would still like to know where the approximately 3,000 people arrested by Talabani and Barzani in the 1990s are; hence, the increasing tendency among some of their relatives to talk about both as “Little Saddams.” Not all mass graves were dug by Baathists; the Kurds did their share of digging as well.)

  • It’s time to correct a few mistakes. Ayad Allawi’s list is not “secular.” It is a loose coalition of Sunni Islamists and once-and-future Baathists. These are not our friends. Allawi is increasingly Syria’s friend. Syria, of course, is the underground railway for suicide bombers. 

  • Likewise, it’s time to stop demonizing the Shia parties. The Iraqi Shia may not always be our friends, but they are not our enemy; the Islamic Republic of Iran is, or at least the circle that governs it. The Shia are more democratic internally than the Kurds and the Sunni parties. 

  • Iran will have heavy influence, but some forces will mitigate it. If the United States underestimated the psychological impact of occupation, the Iranians constantly underestimate the importance of Iraqi nationalism. Iran’s strength is its staying power, and the fact that it is Iraq’s next-door neighbor. It leans on everyone, Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd. While the Shia are caricatured as Iranian puppets, the Kurds have done as much to leak U.S. intelligence to Iran as the Shia parties; we just give them a free pass because they throw better dinner parties and spread money and silk rugs around Washington. Still, the Iraqi Shia do not particularly like their big brother to the east. As I tell military audiences, remember, during the Iran-Iraq War, it was not the favorite sons of Tikrit who were in the trenches and running through minefields and barbed wire; it was the Shia conscripts. Very few of them defected to Iran. It is absolutely boneheaded to try to boil down any Iraqi’s identity to just a single variable. And we do ourselves a disservice vis-à-vis the majority of Iraq’s population by continuing to pander to ex-Baathists.

This item has been amended.

Michael Rubin — Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East ...

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