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A Democracy Made of Straw

Why did it take two administrations to learn that Baghdad doesn’t work like Washington?

Vice President Joe Biden always had a clear idea of America's exit strategy in Iraq. President Barack Obama gave Biden the vexed Iraq portfolio in mid-2009, and when I flew with the vice president to Baghdad that summer, he explained to me that Iraq's sectarian leaders were, at the end of the day, politicians, like him, and faced the quandaries all politicians face. With an election looming the following year, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had to hang on to his base while appealing to Sunnis and Kurds. "If he wants to stay in power," Biden asked, "how does he do it?" Sectarianism was a losing proposition in a multi-confessional state like Iraq. With a great deal of American help, Biden believed, Iraqis could learn how to use politics in order to settle disputes without bloodshed. Now that Iraq is teetering on the edge of civil war, or at the very least, state fragmentation, that faith looks very naïve indeed. It's fair to wonder if Biden was kidding himself, or me.

In The Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr offers a harsh account of Obama's foreign policy. The scholar and former administration official argues that the White House was not committed either to promoting Iraqi national unity or to strengthening democratic institutions, but rather to "ensuring a state strong enough to permit U.S. withdrawal." The evidence is clear enough. The president's senior military officers had proposed that, after "active combat" operations ended in mid-2010, the United States would leave behind a residual force of at least 35,000 troops to help train Iraqi forces and suppress militias. The White House, eager to shift focus to Afghanistan and acutely aware of the public's disgust with America's unending role in Iraq, kept pushing that number down until it reached 3,500. When Iraqi leaders balked at the proposed terms of a status of forces agreement which would permit that force to remain, the administration decided to pull all troops out of the country. At this point, the White House had little choice but to claim that Iraq was prepared to stand on its own two feet. Iraqi politics became the administration's deus ex machina.

Until recently, events appeared to give substance to Biden's hope that politics could hold Iraq together despite the centrifugal pull of sectarianism. In a 2012 speech, Antony Blinken, then the vice president's national security advisor, said that the U.S. military effort had "created the time and space" for the advent of a new Iraqi political culture. In conversations over the years, Blinken, who later became the deputy national security advisor, often pointed out crises overcome without bloodshed. For example, in December, 2011, when Maliki sought to arrest Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, on charges of terrorism, Sunni leaders did what politicians do -- they cried bloody murder. They did not, however, commit murder.

Earlier this week Blinken agreed to talk to me on the record about what went wrong. He pointed out, first, that the crisis Iraq is experiencing -- invasion by Sunni extremists -- is not the political collapse the administration's critics had long warned of. Even in recent months, he pointed out, "virtually all of the actors have continued to try to work within the political system, within the four corners of the constitution, albeit pushing those corners to the max." Instead of political failure producing civil war, the external security threat represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, had pushed the political system almost to collapse. Maliki, he said, could have reacted to the threat in such a way as to bring the parties together; he has plainly failed to do so, and now Iraq's Sunni minority appears to be throwing in its lot with extremists and their Baathist allies of convenience.

Well, maybe. But if you say that your house of straw stood up just fine until the big bad wolf gave an extra big puff, you have conceded that you built a rickety house. Biden's faith that the intrinsic logic of political competition would lead to compromise doesn't stand up to scrutiny much better than George W. Bush's faith that "free" Iraqis would build a democracy. Americans keep getting surprised that people in tormented countries don't behave according to the laws of material self-interest. The logic of sectarianism, or tribalism, keeps trumping the logic of the collective good.

The other problem with the Obama administration's view is that Iraq is not really suffering from an external threat. ISIS is rapidly recruiting Iraqis, and it has been joined by home-grown Sunni forces which have laid low in recent years. The astonishing rapidity with which this small band of fighters has conquered much of northern and western Iraq is a testimony to Maliki's failure to persuade Sunnis that they have a place in Iraq; neither Sunni citizens nor soldiers have been prepared to risk their lives to protect the Maliki regime. Maliki has been undermining Iraq's governing institutions since he was re-elected in late 2010. Now the time has come to pay the piper.

Could the administration have prevented Maliki from returning to power, as Nasr and others claim? I doubt it. In The Endgame, an exhaustive history of the American entanglement with Iraq, authors Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor recount the failed attempt to broke a multi-sectarian compromise; Biden could not even get the Kurds, America's true allies, to play along. Could the administration, alternatively, have bribed, threatened or persuaded Maliki to stop marginalizing and repressing Sunnis? Again, this seems fanciful. Maliki proved beyond much doubt that in contemporary Iraqi politics a rational actor can keep his grip on power while pursuing a ruthlessly sectarian agenda.

Can he still? Iraq held parliamentary elections on April 30. The Iraqi Supreme Court has now certified the election, beginning a process which will terminate with the election of a speaker, a president and a prime minister. Blinken says that the threat from ISIS just might prove to be the "catalyst" rather than the "circuit-breaker" for some kind of government of national unity. "There is a logic to all three communities dealing with the threat posed by [ISIS]," he observed. "But that logic can take hold only if a government comes into being that is committed to bringing the country together and not splitting it apart." The administration is working with Iraqi leaders to shape the process, as it did in 2010. That is not an altogether hopeful precedent.

Last time around, the hope was that Maliki would govern along with Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister whose Iraqiyya party had actually won more seats than Maliki's State of Law. This time, the White House is cajoling Shiite leaders to jettison Maliki in favor of a less divisive and authoritarian figure. According to reports from Baghdad, Shiite leaders have begun to consider doing just that. The administration has, however, just agreed to send 300 military advisors to the country without demanding political reform as a quid-pro-quo. Obama probably felt that, with the Visigoths already rattling the gates of the capital, he could not afford to wait for the political jockeying to play out over the coming months.

Shiite militias and regular troops will almost certainly hold off the Sunni forces north of Baghdad, though the extremists may slip around the capital to besiege the holy Shiite cities to the south. The likeliest current scenario is a de facto Sunni-Shia partition, with the Kurds tightening their hold as well. Blinken concedes that it may be too late to preserve Iraq as a unitary state, but he points out that there's a world of difference between a "loose federation" and a perpetual civil war. An inclusive government which peels Sunnis away from the extremists will ultimately help facilitate the former; more sectarianism will virtually ensure the latter.

The Obama administration once hoped that the logic of politics would produce reconciliation in Iraq. Now it hopes that the logic of collective self-defense will do so. So far, it must be said, Iraq has operated according to a logic which Americans do not share, and perhaps cannot fathom.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Midfield General

Underrated by Design

FIFA's system has made Japan and Korea the sleeper teams in this World Cup -- just like last time.

Something happens when you put away your pride and go up against the best, knowing all the while that failure is the most likely outcome. More often than not, you learn. You learn about your own character and fortitude, and you learn what makes the opposition so strong. These lessons can be costly, but Japan and Korea are always willing to pay -- and that's why FIFA underrates them.

There's a certain disconnect from reality when it comes to FIFA's expectations for these two East Asian teams and their actual performance on the field. Consider the 2002 World Cup, regarded as a watershed moment for soccer in Japan and Korea. After dismal performances in France in 1998, the two countries -- joint hosts of the tournament that year -- went into the cup rated 32nd (Japan) and 40th (Korea). Home field is always an advantage, but few expected the joint hosts to finish ninth and fourth respectively, with wins for Japan over Portugal and Korea over Italy.

Four years later, in the wake of that epic accomplishment, they achieved together basically what the world expected of them: 29th for Japan (ranked 18th going into the tournament by FIFA) and 17th for Korea (ranked 29th) -- not surprising, but not too shabby, either. And that might have been the end of the story: a gradual settling down into a comfortable sort of respectability, of the kind the United States has lately enjoyed. But in 2010, something went a little pear-shaped in the FIFA view of its leading Asian teams.

Japan and Korea were ranked 45th and 47th before the South African games began, but Japan finished ninth again and Korea 15th. Only a penalty shootout against Paraguay kept Japan out of the quarterfinals after it claimed the scalps of Denmark and Cameroon. Meanwhile, Korea beat Greece and drew with Nigeria, hardly a pair of lightweights. This time around, Japan is ranked 47th and Korea languishes at 55th. Yet both teams have already taken a point from higher-ranked opponents and could make the group stage.

To understand what's happening here, it helps to think about a regular person trying to learn a sport like tennis. If he always plays against people who are even worse than he is, he'll rack up a lot of wins. No one, however, will be very impressed.  And if he keeps picking weak opponents, it'll be tough for him to improve his game. To get better, he'll have to take on superior players and probably lose quite a few matches in the process.

Japan and Korea find themselves in the same situation. Their corner of the world offers few worthy competitors; if the gulf between them and the superpowers of South America and Europe is wide, the gulf between them and many of their neighbors is even wider. After being given a bye in the early rounds of qualifying for this World Cup, both Japan and Korea went 8-3-3 against Asian opposition. But most of the teams they faced had exceedingly poor FIFA rankings.

Korea won 6-0 over Lebanon, currently ranked 125th by FIFA, and 4-1 over 100th-ranked Qatar. Japan won 8-0 against Tajikistan, now ranked 126th by FIFA, and 6-0 against 63rd-ranked Jordan. (The Jordanians somehow made a playoff with Uruguay for a spot in Brazil, suggesting they were Asia-plus-Australia's fifth-best team; they lost 5-0 to the South Americans over two legs.) But because of the flimsy opposition, even these good results didn't push Japan and Korea too far up the FIFA table.

The Asian qualifying tournament ended for Japan and Korea in June 2013. So what did they do to warm up for Brazil? Japan's next three matches were against Brazil, Italy, and Mexico at the Confederations Cup. It lost all three. Over the next 12 months, Japan also played Uruguay, Ghana, Serbia, the Netherlands, and Belgium, going 2-1-2. Korea took a similar path, taking on Brazil, Switzerland, Russia, Mexico, the United States, Greece, and Ghana -- and compiling a record of 1-0-6.

It wasn't the greatest run of results for either team, and it didn't do their FIFA rankings any favors. But all of these opponents were teams with long histories in the World Cup. If Japan and Korea wanted to get better, these were the teams they had to play. Just as for Honda in the 1970s and Hyundai in the 1980s, the only way to compete with the dominant powers on the world's biggest stage was to meet them head-to-head, learn from them, and come back even stronger. Japan even came up with a new way to make cars that turned out to be more efficient and reliable than anything its American and German competitors were doing.

Even if FIFA can't see how its rankings are misevaluating Japan and Korea, the bookmakers can. Adjusting for a four percent profit, Japan was expected to win 28 of the 50 international games it played before this year's World Cup, and it won exactly 28 of them. Korea, if anything, was overrated; bettors expected its team to win 25 matches, but they came up with only 22 victories. At least someone is giving these Asian soccer superpowers their due.

Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP / Getty Images