Saturday, November 13, 2010

Expectations and an Iraqiya Opposition

"Sometimes societies are most prone to unrest not when conditions are the worst, but when the situation begins to improve and expectations rise."
- U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual

This is quoted in Iraq After Us, the recent This American Life program based on a month's worth of conversations with Iraqis in Baghdad and Diyala province back in August (thanks for sending). In the manual itself, this comment comes in the context of the end of major combat operations. But it seems equally relevant for this moment, after 8 months of tedious wrangling appear to have produced a fragile power sharing agreement that will retain Nouri Al-Malaki as prime minister while carving out a role for Ayad Allawi on the new and ill defined council overseeing security and foreign policy.

There is relief from the Obama administration, who pushed hard for the new council and a significant role for Ayad Allawi. And there is no doubt that an Iraqi government is long overdue. But it seems to me that this particular government risks being one of form over substance.

U.S. diplomats made the inclusion of Ayad Allawi in the governing coalition a key focal point of their negotiations. Better to have Allawi, the Iraqiya block, and by extension the Sunnis "inside the tent pissing out" -- to borrow President Johnson's turn of phrase -- then the other way around. But this seems to ignore the real differences of policy and ideology between Allawi and Malaki. There are already significant differences of vision for Iraq within Malaki's coalition, which includes both the Kurds and the Sadrists. The risk is of a government that is born into paralysis. A government in name only, no more able to deliver services than the void of the last 8 months has been.

This, it seems to me, creates a real risk. Expectations have been raised. There is now a government to account. But it doesn't look structured to make tough decisions or move Iraq in a single direction. And for an Iraqi population with no history of democratic decision making, this taste of representative government may not be so sweet.

Why not have Allawi and the Iraqiya block in opposition? As recently as a week ago, Allawi was publicly flirting with the idea, though it seemed to be a non-starter with western diplomats. There would be risks there, of course, with a descent into pure identity politics a real possibility. But that risk is not alleviated by a government that will likely be inclusive in name only. A more honest Iraqiya opposition would have the advantage of presenting a clear choice. Maliki and his block would be able to govern more freely, without a convenient scapegoat in their coalition, and with a vigilant opposition holding them to account. The government would have a much better chance delivering on basic services without internal posturing for credit and power. And in time, Iraqis would be able to decide if they liked the direction the State of Law Coalition and Maliki's Da'wa party were taking Iraq. That sounds like democracy. So why was this option anathema to the west?

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