Iraq's Moment of Truth

I've just published a short piece over at the Review section of the National about where we stand in the Iraqi elections.   It begins:

The final results of Iraq’s elections are yet to be released, but with 95 per cent of the votes counted, it is clear that the contest is a dead heat between the two leading parties – the State of Law list headed by Nouri al Maliki, Iraq’s current prime minister, and the Al Iraqiya list headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi.

The eventual winner will have the first shot at forming a coalition government, but these negotiations are widely expected to take several weeks, and Iraq’s next government is unlikely to be seated before May. While there is still a real risk that allegations of fraud, or a prolonged electoral deadlock, could trigger contentious or violent protests, the vote in Iraq can still avoid the ignominious fate of recent “decisive elections” in the region, like those in Afghanistan and Iran.

Contrary to the persistent worries of outside observers, Iraq is not unravelling. Indeed, the results suggest that Iraqi nationalism is becoming a more potent force than sectarianism and that most voters have no trouble accepting a strong central government. Both of the leading lists – al Maliki’s Shiite-dominated “party of state” and Allawi’s avowedly nonsectarian alliance – claimed to represent Iraqi nationalism, and both potential prime ministers have reputations for the forceful exercise of state power.

Meanwhile, lists identified with sectarian, Iranian or American interests fared poorly....  And a number of leading members of the post-2003 ruling elite were undone by the open-list voting system, which allowed Iraqis to select their preferred candidates from among each electoral list rather than accepting the rankings carefully negotiated in advance by party leaders. 

I look at the impact of the deBaathification fiasco, and at the rise of Allawi's al-Iraqiya list, and then at what may come:

The moment of truth for Iraq will come if Allawi edges out al Maliki, or if the latter wins a narrow victory but cannot assemble a governing coalition due to the considerable animosity he has generated among his political rivals. Will he peacefully accept the rotation of power? Iraqis and outside analysts have watched nervously over the last few years as the prime minister centralised power within his office. His warning, pointedly issued as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, that an “illegitimate” electoral result could result in violence further frayed nerves – leading one Saudi newspaper to describe him as “Iraq’s Ahmadinejad”.

Iraq therefore faces a double-edged test after the elections. If al Maliki triumphs in a narrow election and assembles a coalition that largely reproduces the outgoing government, many Iraqis may feel that the election was a sham, and that democracy is not capable of producing true change. If al Maliki loses, he may not surrender power without a fight – and many of his backers may reject the prospect of being ruled by Allawi, who drew so heavily on Sunni votes.

Finally, I consider what it means for U.S. policy:

For the United States, which still has over 90,000 troops in the country, the elections have been set up as a crucial turning point before the large scale withdrawal of forces can begin. But the electoral experience has only highlighted the essential irrelevance of the United States to unfolding events. The American military presence provided Washington little influence over Iraq’s turbulent politics. The dozens of lists and parties competing for seats in the Iraqi parliament spent much of the campaign competing with one another to be the loudest advocates of Iraqi nationalism and sovereignty. When American officials tentatively intervened in the de-Baathification fiasco, Iraqi politicians turned America’s carefully modulated complaints into political dynamite, rushing to loudly denounce foreign interference in Iraqi affairs. It was not an edifying sight to see leading Iraqi politicians declaring General David Petraeus a “Baathist” and General Raymond Odierno, the commander of US forces, openly accusing them in turn of being Iranian pawns.

The United States structured its drawdown in order to keep the maximum number of troops in Iraq until after the elections – a schedule touted as a necessity to provide security. But American troops largely stayed out of the way as Iraqis went to the polls: Iraqi security forces and election officials took the lead. The US army’s main role was, and remains, as a security blanket – available to restore the peace as a last resort, or perhaps to stand guard against a possible coup or enforce a peaceful transfer of power if al Maliki refuses to leave office.

American analysts, who have a difficult time imagining an Iraq without a large-scale US military presence, are anxiously scanning the political landscape in search of a reason why the United States cannot possibly withdraw its troops. But they miss the wider picture of an Iraqi public which no longer wants or needs their supposedly stabilising role. Whatever the private feelings of Iraqi leaders – many of whom may well fear for their political obsolescence, if not their physical safety, after American troops depart – the electoral campaign has made clear the strong nationalist current in Iraqi politics. No request for an extension of the US presence or a renegotiation of the agreement dictating troops depart by the end of 2012 is likely to be forthcoming.

There's more --- read it all over at the National

Marc Lynch

Does health care reform mean Obama really does have a Middle East strategy?

What does last night's victory on health care reform say about President Obama's Middle East strategy? A lot of people have already pointed out how it could strengthen his hand abroad by showing domestic strength, free up bandwidth to engage more vigorously on foreign policy, or reduce his need to cater to Congress on key issues.  All of those may be true, but I had a slightly different reaction.  For most of the last year, I've been torn between two general views of Obama's Middle East policy. One says that he's got no strategy, that his team is making things up as it goes, reacting to events, and has no clear idea of how to achieve his lofty goals. The other says that he's been playing a long game, keeping his eye on the long-term objective while others get lost in the tactics and the public theatrics.  I've gone back and forth, hoping it's the latter while seeing way too many signs of the former.  I still don't know which is right, but last night's  passage of health care reform suggests that maybe, just maybe, his administration really does know how to play a long game... in the Middle East as well as on domestic priorities. 

The "no strategy" perspective doesn't need much rehearsal, since we all know it quite well. In this version, Obama stumbled into a useless and losing battle with the Israeli government over settlements and has neither recovered the confidence of the Israelis  nor satisfied Arabs or Palestinians. His administration has been overly focused on getting to negotiations for their own sake, with little conception of how those negotiations will produce the desired outcome of a two-state solution. Meanwhile, goes this argument, Obama has pursued engagement with Iran despite its limited prospects, pursuing talks for the sake of talks and ignoring calculated insults and historic opportunities to push for regime change.  This is pretty much the Washington DC conventional wisdom (which is almost in itself a good reason to believe that it's wrong).

The "long game" version is that Obama has a signature method when tackling difficult, long-term objectives, whether health care, Israeli-Palestinian peace or Iran. Obama's method is to lay out an ambitious but realistic final status objective in stark terms and then to let political hardball unfold around those objectives. His most fervent opposition gets more and more outraged, raising the rhetorical pitch until they discredit themselves with key mainstream audiences who recoil from their overheated, apocalyptic and nutty words. And then, just as the Washington DC conventional wisdom declares his ambition dead, they suddenly wake up to the reality that he's won. How'd that happen? The final outcome isn't as pure as many would like, but it's nevertheless a substantial, major achievement against all expectations.

So does health care reform offer a roadmap for Obama's Middle East strategy? On Iran, this has been a fairly explicit strategy. Obama's "two track engagement" involved reaching out to Iran with an open hand, sort of like he did to Republicans on health care. If they took up the offer, great -- he gets a negotiated grand bargain with widespread, bipartisan support. If they don't, then he is in a much stronger position to paint them as obstructionists with a relevant audience -- independents in U.S. politics, the international community in the case of Iran.  And while the battle is waged openly over broad public opinion, much of the real action is focused on a few key swing votes (shaky Democrats in health care, China and Russia and various Arab and Muslim states on Iran sancti0ns).  I suppose that if you wanted to extend the metaphor, the Green Movement and the Tea Parties would play similar roles, albeit in opposite directions --- unexpected outbursts of popular anger and mobilization which throw off the momentum of the strategy (and may or may not ultimately matter when the final scorecard is read).  The "long game" read of the health-care/Iran comparison then would suggest a coherent, common method to dealing with intractable problems.

Obama's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian  conflict is less explicitly constructed along the health care reform/Iran model, but there are still similarities. Obama laid out a grand vision of a two-state solution which would finally deal with an intractable issue which most reasonable people have long agreed needed to be resolved for moral and strategic reasons.  Many people warned that he was over-reaching. Others were frustrated that he seemed to be playing too passive a role, leaving a floundering process to his deputies (George Mitchell, Congressional Democrats). Some complained that he was going way too far, others that he wasn't going nearly far enough. The optimistic, "long game" view would be that  the Obama administration has patiently suffered Netanyahu's provocations in order to allow the Israeli government to reveal itself as outside the mainstream and unreasonable, and win over mainstream support for the American vision. When the theatrics are over, hard-ball politics will commence, Obama will engage personally at the closing stages, and a realistic final status agreement will be reached which doesn't satisfy the purists on either side but which represents a major accomplishment far beyond what had been previously expected. 

 So is there really a "long game"? I still really don't know. The problem with long games is that they can get derailed by day to day turbulence, even if they are well-conceived -- especially if people panic. The media and policy crowd can rarely follow a long game, since they tend to be distracted by bright shiny balls and over-react to the latest headlines. Even a well-conceived long game strategy  might be internally flawed:  in Iran, for instance, the focus on sanctions rather than on a grand bargain may be a conceptual flaw in the long-game itself, while in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the conceptual flaw may be the over-reliance on the existing Palestinian Authority, under-appreciation of the significance of Gaza, a failure to grapple with the ongoing demographic and physical transformations of the West Bank, and the limited appetite for peacemaking in today's Israeli public. 

I wouldn't push this too far. But Obama's health care victory should at least get people to reconsider the strategic logic behind his administration's Middle East strategy... and give at least some support for the optimistic reading that on the big picture, Obama may actually know what he's doing. 

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