Political Immaturity and the Prospect for Positive Change in Iraq

Abbas J. Ali

Voices calling for replacing the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, have emerged simultaneously in various quarters, inside and outside of Iraq. These calls have been characterized by intensity and urgency. Indeed, there are some who claim that once Maliki leaves the political scene, Iraq’s ills will be significantly eliminated. According to these groups, the alternative for not removing Maliki will be the collapse of state institutions and eventual fragmentation.
Iyad Allawi, leader of the Iraqiya coalition, and two of his associates, Osama al-Nujaifi, Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, and Rafe al-Essawi, Iraq’s Finance Minister, are among those who make the argument (New York Times, December 28, 2011 ) that Iraq is on the verge of civil war and is doomed if Maliki does not step down. This claim is further strengthened as political leaders of ethnic Kurds in the Northern Iraq appear to be cooperating with the Iraqiya coalition and defying the central government by refusing to send Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, to Baghdad to face trial for alleged involvement in terrorism.
The leaders of Iraqiya, in coordination with Kurdish politicians, have reached a conclusion that the United States, supported by several neighboring countries, can easily pave the way for profound political changes that can ultimately catapult them to power. This, however, may turn out to be a dangerous gamble.
Those who are intimately familiar with Iraqi’s domestic power structure and regional politics suggest that Allawi and Co. have misread political trends and events. These experts argue that the leaders of the Iraqiya coalition are unrealistically betting that the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, their major backers, will blindly go along with their design. While these countries may have a desire to see a weak regime in Iraq, the question that comes up, however, is “Are these countries willing to venture into a risky adventure and endanger their own national interests?”
For over a year, policymakers in Washington have expected the Iraqiya coalitions, and their alliance with the ethnic Kurdish groups, to deliver on their promise to permit American troops to stay in Iraq well beyond 2012. But these politicians, faced with strong resentment to foreign troops, have failed miserably to do so. Worse, these politicians have not been able to secure a vote in parliament and the government ministerial council to ensure a guarantee of legal immunity for American military trainers in Iraq. Policy makers in Washington should by now have concluded that these politicians are not reliable political actors.
More importantly, in its focus on reelection issues, the Obama administration has not been in a mood to be distracted by political bickering in Iraq and has been determined to project Iraq as a stable country in its 2012 campaign. The administration, too, has increasingly viewed political disputes in Iraq as crude games driven by selfish interests and unprincipled jockeying for senior government positions. Many policymakers in Washington avoid confronting Maliki’s fierce patriotism and have recognized his unwavering stance in defending Iraqi interests in the face of rising interference from neighboring countries such as Iran and Turkey. However, these policymakers have also appreciated Maliki’s diplomatic skills: frankness in closed door meetings, and tactfulness in his public statements.
Though Turkey has always provided support and protection for Iraqiya leaders, it has its own urgent regional concerns. At this point, Turkey is consumed by its fixation on changing the Assad regime in Syria. This has already put it at odds with its two powerful neighbors: Iran and Russia. For Turkey, publicly campaigning for Maliki’s removal from power will lead to a direct confrontation with Iran and ultimately embolden ethnic Kurds in Iraq to the detriment of Turkish national interests.
Turkish leaders, in their communication with their Iranian counterparts, know that the Iranians do not appreciate Maliki’s patriotic message and Arab nationalistic tone. Nevertheless, the leadership in Tehran considers Maliki to be an alternative that they can live with and for this reason are unwilling to tolerate having a government headed by Allawi or his like.
The major Arab regional player, Saudi Arabia, understands perfectly the current strategic shifts in the area. While it has made it known that it does not approve of or favor the Maliki government, the Kingdom prefers to let the current political dispute in Iraq take its course. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia figures that any alternative to Maliki, at present, might strengthen a formidable foe, the Sadrists, who have held on to real power in Baghdad and the surrounding area. The latter displays fierce patriotism, are difficult to manipulate, and are eager to aggressively promote their message to surrounding countries. Occupied with domestic security and other immediate matters in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Egypt, the Kingdom is not ready to initiate a gamble in Iraq at this time which might stir more trouble in its backyard and hinder the achievement of its immediate regional goals.
While foreign powers have a major role to play in Iraq’s future, at the end it will be domestic players and the existing power equation that will determine the nature and shape of the government in Iraq. Unfortunately, those who aggressively seek to replace Maliki have transcended neither sectarian nor selfish concerns and instead have demonstrated a political immaturity, thereby, revealing three serious and troubling deficiencies.
First, they have not presented convincing economic and political programs designed to lift the country from its deep misery. Instead, they have been calling for replacing Maliki. However, replacing Maliki is neither a program nor a unifying patriotic course of action. In addition, Iraqi ills are not the immediate results of Maliki’s actions. Rather, these ills have thrived since 1979 and have reached a peak since the collapse of government institutions and the destruction of infrastructure and the social fabric at the hand of the invading forces.
Second, the Iraqiya leaders and their sympathizers have failed to agree on alternatives to replacing Maliki. Indeed, they seem to dislike even those whom they have entertained as possible candidates for the position of Prime Minister. In an interview with the New York Times (December 22, 2011), Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, suggested three names as possible substitutes: Ibrahim Jaafari, Iraq’s prime minister, 2005 - 2006; Adel Abdul Mahdi, a former vice president; and Ahmad Chalabi, a former member of the American appointed Iraqi Governing Council after the invasion. Though, al-Hashimi stated that “We will live with any other nominees,” he highlighted the deficiencies of each nominee.
Third, Iraqiya leaders have called for foreign powers to help them in replacing Maliki and cleaning up the Iraqi mess. In their open letter to the Obama administration they stated, “We are glad that your brave soldiers have made it home for the holidays and we wish them peace and happiness. . . . .we respectfully ask America’s leaders to understand that unconditional support for Mr. Maliki is pushing Iraq down the path to civil war. Unless America acts rapidly to help create a successful unity government, Iraq is doomed.”
Most Iraqis appreciate Maliki’s independent thinking and his skillfulness in ending the military occupation. Nevertheless, these same Iraqis accuse Maliki of not acting firmly in confronting divisive voices, restoring security, and forcefully defeating terrorism. On the other hand, the same voices that call for removing Maliki blame him for having a strong will and acting with utmost secrecy in national security matters.
It appears that the gap between the ordinary Iraqis and the political elite regarding patriotic priorities is too large to bridge under the prevailing conditions. While the public seeks to live in peace and safety and attain tangible improvements in daily life, the political elite are set on maximizing their personal and partisan interests, irrespective of the suffering of the Iraqi people. The continuation of political chaos and insecurity in the country demonstrates a lack of moral clarity and political maturity among the current politicians. In this environment, the future of Iraq is anything but secure. Abbas J. Ali is Professor and Director of School of International Management, Eberly College of Business and IT, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.