US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Iraq’s Future: Making the Most of the Elections’ Success

in Program

The mood in Iraq has changed, and important parts of society appear to be energized and engaged in building a new political culture for the country.  For the United States, there is much satisfaction, although Americans must be careful to not over-identify with the latest developments.  Iraqis acted for their own interests, to regain their self-respect and dignity, and to recapture their own sovereignty and destiny.  While some may feel enduring gratitude to the United States for its regime-toppling intervention, others surely see US influence in the country in decline, and not that relevant to what animates Iraqi politics today.  The challenge for the international community is to reinforce the positive trends, while learning to understand and manage some of the implications of a new Iraq.

The elections themselves were flawed, but that may be beside the point. The strange environment–closing the borders, imposing curfews, turning the country into a martial-law type atmosphere–seemed paradoxical to the displays of joy and the theme of liberty and individual expression that all elections should manifest.  But the human response to the security requirements and the desire to defy the insurgents will endure as a rare uplifting moment in Middle East history, even if the insurgents recapture some momentum through further acts of violence, which can be expected.

Now for the hard part.  Even before the election results are known, Iraqis are beginning the horse-trading and jockeying for position to fill the positions in the new government.  While the balancing of Shia majority interests with a strong showing by Kurds and an apparent consensus to help compensate for the Sunnis’ poor turnout will be carefully analyzed, it is important to bear in mind that this government will be in power for barely a year, and constant realignments of power sharing are likely to occur, as Iraq goes through many more important political milestones and tests over the coming year.

It has become regrettably de rigueur to assess Iraqi politics by community.  While it would be far preferable to look for signs of integration and cross-communal cooperation, for this early stage of new Iraqi politics, basic identity issues still matter.  It is assumed that tribal, ethnic and sectarian ties were critical in how first-time voters viewed their options.  But that does not mean simple solidarity within each community.  Shia have demonstrated a wide diversity of political ideas and there is genuine competition among Shia leaders who offer different life-styles and political philosophies as they jockey for the top jobs.  Kurds struggle between seeking special status and recognition within the Iraqi state, or using this unique moment to push the self-determination impulse forward.  Sunnis are facing a much greater challenge, with the severe loss of status, but there are signs of greater desire to become more actively involved in the next stages of the political process.  Sunnis also face pressure to silently support the insurgents, who may soon turn their attention from the occupiers to the new government, once it is in place.

The short term task of selecting top officials will quickly transition to the real challenge ahead: the constitution.  Federalism and the role of religion are likely to be the issues that have the most consequence for internal stability and how Iraq is seen by its neighbors and the international community.  On federalism, Kurds and possibly the Sunnis will push for strong rights of the constituent states, including perhaps the right to secede, and a less centralized system for distributing the country’s vast oil wealth, which is located in the north and the south, to the disadvantage of the Sunni heartland.  On religion, there’s a more sanguine view that leading Shia have been clear on “no turbans” in power, so that the references to Islam as a source of legitimacy may still stir some controversy with respect to rights of women and family law, but will fall short of the existential crisis that promoting an Iran-like state would surely cause.

For Iraq’s neighbors, a new dynamic is now in play.  Previously, the concern had been chaos and terrorism spilling beyond Iraq’s borders.  Now the specter of a strong, successful, and potentially democratic Iraq is creating political waves in the region.  During the 1980s, the Arab world wanted a strong Iraq as a buffer against the Iranian revolution, but by the 1990s, Saddam-s aggression was a threat to the Arabs as well.  During the long containment of Iraq, the Arab system adjusted to a weak Iraq–is it ready for the reemergence of an Iraq with great economic and strategic potential, led by Iraqis who feel resentment if not contempt towards the Arabs who did so little to stop Saddam’s abuses?  Inter-Arab diplomacy and political fence-building will be fascinating to watch, and will be complicated by a likely new sense of Iraqi superiority towards what it sees as stagnant and ineffective Arab regimes.  Democracy advocates in the Arab world will use Iraq’s new political progress as a stimulant in their own countries, and incumbent leaders will need to respond to an emboldened reformist impulse.

It’s also important for the international community to think now about Iraq as a more competent security player in the region.  Once the training of a new Iraqi army and security forces is further along, a whole new set of issues will emerge relating to procurement of new equipment and setting national defense and security goals.  There could well be a point, as the coalition begins to withdraw, when Iraqi leaders will seek new capabilities to deal with regional threats in ways that might look like the reemergence of Iraq as a regional strongman.  Assuming Iran does not forego entirely its nuclear program, there could well be a demand in the region for a stronger Iraq, and the experience and technical knowledge remains in country.  Can this be managed in ways that do not create new imbalances?  Or is a bigger security role for a democratic Iraq a desirable outcome?  Will a stronger, truly independent Iraq be a friend of the United States?

For the United States, there is still a preoccupation with short term issues, from trying to quell the insurgency to helping Iraq through a dizzying set of steps in political institutional building that need to occur in a short timeframe.  There is also still a great sensitivity about America’s legacy in its Iraq engagement, which is viewed in much of the world as a reckless intervention that created new instability.  For history to treat it more favorably will require Iraq to emerge as a stable and coherent polity that eschews aggression at home and abroad.  Iraq in 2005 may well serve as a necessary stimulant to the reform debate in the region if the elections of January lead to constructive compromises and a peaceful way forward.  Iraq’s potential success also raises some challenging issues for regional security that deserve close attention.  

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