Iraqi Politics and Zombies

My FP.com colleague Dan Drezner has created something of a cottage industry around "International Relations Theory and Zombies."  Well now Iraq has offered up an empirical case study for him --- in Iraq, where the Parliament's Accountability and Justice (nee de-Baathification) committee rose up from its grave and shambled forth seeking brains to devour.   Call it "Iraqi Political Accommodation... and Zombies."

The story, of course, is the Committee's surprising decision to disqualify some 500 politicians, including the Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlak and the current Minister of Defense  Abdul-Qadir Jassem al-Obeidi,  from contesting the upcoming Parliamentary elections on the grounds of alleged Baathist ties.   The Higher Election Commission disappointed many observers by accepting the recommendation;  the issue now goes to appeal.   Mutlak's list -- which includes such figures as former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and current Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi -- is talking about boycotting the election, which many fear could have a major negative impact on the elections and on longer-term prospects for Iraqi political accommodation. Not bad work for a zombie!

I say that it's the work of a "zombie" because the Accountability and Justice Committee, a relic of the Bremer era rooted in the conceptually flawed and badly politicized De-Baathification Commission, should be dead.  It is basically continuing to operate because the early 2008 legislation establishing its replacement never got off the ground, so the old team just stayed in place.   It's most unfortunate that such a relic has thrown more fuel onto the fire of mistrust and institutional dysfunction... but hardly a surprise in the thinly institutionalized and still deeply polarized and hotly politicized Iraqi scene.

How significant is all this?  I don't think that it shows a military "unraveling" as chronicled in Tom Rick's eponymous never-ending series, but rather the political problems which the "surge" never really resolved.  And those go deep, and should not be a surprise. Major political legislation intended to overcome sectarian and institutional complaints has been stalled or ineffective.  Crucial Arab-Kurd issues remain unresolved.   Tensions between centralizers and federalists remain unresolved. The Awakenings remain largely unintegrated into the state.  Last year's provincial elections generated excitement at the time and some political fluidity but have had only a limited impact on the wider environment and many of the new councils have proven disappointing.  The Iraqi refugees and internally displaced remain a persistent, gaping hole in the state.  Now the upcoming elections, along with the occasional bursts of horrific violence and rumours of coup attempts and foiled plots of various kinds,  has generated a feverish political environment and ramped up uncertainty about the future.... which this move only feeds.      

That said, even if the ban on Mutlak and the others stands, I doubt it will lead to an across the board 2005-style Sunni boycott.  Iraqi Sunni politics remain intensely fragmented and wracked by internal competition, as they have been for years.  The same fragmentation and divisions which make it difficult for the Sunnis either to form a workable electoral coalition or to rekindle the insurgency will probably make it impossible for them to coordinate or enforce a "Sunni" boycott.  Mutlak's list has plenty of ambitious Sunni rivals who will be only too happy to take advantage of its boycott to grab some extra power for themselves.  

The whole situation may, however, help to drive down Sunni turnout in the elections and further distance them from the Iraqi political system.   The disqualifications come on top of all those long-running complaints mentioned above.   Parliamentary elections in which Sunni turnout is depressed, leading candidates have been disqualified on what appear to be sectarian grounds, and the final results do not significantly change the quality or quantity of Sunni representation will probably lead to even more dissatisfaction.  

The real significance of the electoral ban is not that it is likely to retrigger a sectarian war or lead to apocalyptic outcomes.  It's more a manifestation of ongoing, lingering problems that continue to erode confidence in the emerging Iraqi state and erode the legitimacy of the evolving political system.   It certainly doesn't mean that the U.S. should rethink its commitment to drawing down its military forces there, as some will likely suggest.  Indeed, the American commitment to withdraw did help to focus Iraqi minds, and some progress has been made on key issues -- though clearly not enough.  These Iraqi problems have persisted and evolved despite the ongoing presence of large numbers of U.S. troops, and keeping them there longer wouldn't do any more to solve them.    It would also infuriate Iraqi public opinion, and violate the SOFA agreement.   The U.S. should remain politically engaged and supportive but military force levels really aren't the issue. 

Meanwhile, about those zombies.... 

Marc Lynch

How Gaza could help Israeli-Palestinian peace talks


*** Before I get to my post, just a moment to say that here are a number of ways for you to give to help with the Haiti disaster -- please give if you can ***

There's something of a buzz right now about a U.S.-led push to once again try to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  It is to their credit that George Mitchell and the Obama administration remain deeply committed to pushing forward on this issue in the face of all the skepticism and all the setbacks.  I wouldn't be surprised if some formula is found to revive the talks -- which would be no small diplomatic achievement.  If they do manage to get the two parties to the table, would it have real prospects for a successful outcome or would it shape up as another Annapolis, highly publicized talks which nobody expects to produce anything?  I think that there's one place where a new U.S. initiative could totally reshape the game in a productive direction:  Gaza. 

It wouldn't surprise me if some form of talks finally convened.  Israel has a lot to gain from reviving talks right now  -- or at least in being seen as favoring the revival of talks.    Since its leadership is likely quite confident that the U.S. will not or can not place any serious pressure on it, Israel has little to lose and much to gain from open-ended talks with a two year horizon.  It would dull the edge of the mounting international criticism over Gaza and over settlements, without committing it to making any real concessions. In contrast to the first part of the Obama administration, when the Israelis worried that they might face serious and sustained American pressure, their calculations now are likely different.  So they have real reasons to agree at this point which they didn't before (even if they may well prefer simply to let the other side be the ones saying no). 

The Palestinian Authority leadership is likely afraid of such talks for exactly the same reason.  After initial enthusiasm for an Obama-led process and for the appointment of George Mitchell, many Palestinians and Arabs are now deeply suspicious of talks with Netanyahu --- especially if those are not based on a clear commitment to some of the core Palestinian needs.  The U.S. has lost credibility with both sides by failing to deliver on the settlement freeze, which not only puts Mahmoud Abbas out on a limb if he agrees but also reduces expectations that the U.S. will be able to play an effective role in the negotiations.   Agreeing to two years of open-ended talks without the prospect of meaningful American pressure on Israel to stop its ongoing settlement construction activities would dramatically weaken the PA's position.   That's how a lot of Arabs and Palestinians that I follow feel -- and it would take quite a bit to change those views at this point.

Still, once negotiations actually begin the dynamics could change and American mediation could become more effective during the private give and take of talks than it now appears.  Mitchell is really good at that, for one thing. For it to have a shot, though,  I'd like to see some signs of creative thinking in this regard (if the rumors of a "borders first" approach prove to be right, then here's my view on that).  One area crying out for fresh thought is in the administration's approach to Gaza and to Palestinian politics.  A serious initiative by the U.S. to pair the new peace talks with a plan to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza could radically reshape the game for the better.  

The administration's over-commitment to the "West Bank only/Abu Mazen-Fayyad only" approach -- where it continues to pretty much ignore Gaza or even tacitly support the intensification of the blockade on the Egyptian side, while falling back on the Bush-era Quartet Conditions to justify not dealing with Hamas -- really boxes it in.  That leaves the Palestinian party to any negotiations working from a very weak domestic position, with little ability to command a Palestinian consensus or to deliver on whatever deal is struck.  Finding some formula for a Palestinian national unity government would never have been easy, but is virtually impossible without American buy-in.  Achieving that would have created a Palestinian government in line with the real distribution of views among Palestinians and capable of delivering on any agreement reached, as well as given Hamas incentives to not play the spoiler.   But despite the perennial round of stories in the Arab press of an imminent Hamas-Fatah deal, it still looks as distant as ever. 

Hamas and a national unity government aside, the administration's inability  to find a way to alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Gaza over the last year stands as a major missed opportunity. Addressing the blockade and misery of Gaza would have been the right thing to do morally, would have clearly signaled change from the Bush approach, and very likely would have undermined Hamas control over Gaza by removing its ability to control and tax the flow of goods through the tunnels.  There were some early indications that the administration would do something.    I suppose that initially they were waiting to use a move on Gaza as a bargaining chip, a step in their intricate early plan for Israeli concessions to be matched by Arab concessions.   When that plan fell apart, Gaza seems to have just fallen off the radar... for Americans, at least, although Gaza remains a fixture on al-Jazeera and in Arab politics more broadly.  

If the U.S. really wants to launch a new peace process which won't be just another Annapolis, it should seriously consider announcing serious moves  to alleviate the humanitarian conditions in Gaza as part of the launch.   This would surprise and please Arab public opinion, and might even please Israelis who have grown uncomfortable with the indefinite suffering there.  It would also put Hamas in a bind -- they could hardly complain about a process which  improved the quality of life in Gaza, and it would give them even greater incentives to refrain from spoiler violence. In that regard, it's very interesting that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has been making a very public tour of the Gulf including meetings with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain. Even if real Palestinian reconciliation isn't in the cards, combining relief for Gaza with the launch of new negotiations may give the new effort more support across the Arab public and strengthen the Palestinian Authority going into the talks.  

Reuters 2009, via Human Rights Watch