By Ellen Laipson – As the world is riveted to the upheaval in Egypt, Iraq’s decade-long transition to more representative government seems like old news. Iraq’s change was caused by US military action, while Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan are witnessing spontaneous, popular uprisings. Over time, these bottom-up demands for change may enjoy a legitimacy that is different than the ambiguous status of Iraqi political culture. Nonetheless, the formation of Iraq’s new government is an important regional development which enables Washington to move forward with its ambitious agenda to civilianize its presence in Iraq, to partner with Iraq on a wide range of institution-building activities, and to promote Iraq’s reintegration in a now uncertain Arab world.
It took eight months after the March 2010 elections resulted in a virtual tie between incumbent Prime Minister Nouri el-Maliki’s largely Shia political coalition, the State of Law, and the Iraqiya party, with its mainly Sunni list, led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, to reach agreement. The two rivals had to overcome their distrust to form an inclusive government that allocates eight ministries to State of Law and six to Iraqiya. Of the total of twenty-nine ministries, six are “sovereign,” or of higher national significance, and here, State of Law took the lion’s share (Defense, Interior, National Security, and Oil), while Iraqiya took the Finance Ministry and the Kurdistan Alliance retained the Foreign Ministry.
The United States played an important role in cajoling the parties to the finish line. The US insisted that it was focused on process, not on personalities, and as the months wore on, some saw an ironic convergence of US and Iranian interest in facilitating Maliki’s continuation in office. In the final tally, Iran succeeded in reintegrating the firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr, whose power in Iraqi politics may be less than before, but for Iraq’s leaders, US engagement was the more essential ingredient in moving the political process forward. Iraq’s political culture may still look rough around the edges, and violence is a chronic concern, but the new power sharing arrangements across the political spectrum in Iraq is a considerable achievement.
Now that the new government is in place, the real opportunity for US engagement begins. The comprehensive web of bilateral interests, commitments and activities was essentially on hold for most of 2010, and the Obama Administration is eager to reenergize the agenda of the Strategic Framework Agreement that outlines plans for cooperation in a range of civilian fields, including culture, economics and energy, health and environment, information technology and communications, and law enforcement and judicial cooperation. Ministerial level exchanges in Baghdad and Washington can resume, an important dimension of the bilateral relationship at a time when Iraqis are questioning the durability of American interest and attention. In the spirit of the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), State leads the “whole of government” effort in Iraq, and one hopes that the top floor of the department can find time, given the Egypt crisis, to ensure that the momentum and pace of US-Iraq cooperation increases.
But there are signs, as much in Washington as in Iraq, that sustaining the momentum of the civilianization of US presence will be hard. Congress is skeptical that the State Department can effectively handle the scale of the programs it is now inheriting from the Defense Department (such as police training – a multi-billion dollar effort), and has serious security concerns about diplomatic posts (down to two consulates and two Embassy branch offices) outside Baghdad. The new Congress seems to be unenthusiastic about foreign assistance in general. One could also worry that one fallout from the wave of protests across the region will be new scrutiny to assistance programs in the Arab world, and raise additional questions about the effectiveness of big investments in reform in the Arab world.
That would be the wrong conclusion for Iraq, Egypt and the region. US engagement in Iraq’s transition is meaningful to progress on the ground, but it’s also a political and even psychological symbol of US commitment to legal institutional change in societies that are still largely pre-democratic in experience but pro-democratic in sentiment. Painful lessons were learned over the last 25 years about the consequences (and even the financial cost) of the US losing interest in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan; when things get worse, the cost of re-engaging US diplomacy, defense and development is often higher than a steady and sustained US presence in countries of regional and global significance.
With all the talk of US power in decline, there is no doubt in Baghdad or Cairo that US policy and US involvement make critical differences to outcomes, as leaders and politicians struggle to cope with rising expectations and changing power dynamics. A steady and serious program of cooperation with Iraq as it becomes a more independent and important regional player is relevant to prospects for long-term democracy and stability in Egypt. While Iraqis may not yet see themselves as a model for others, the eight years of tumultuous change in Iraq has given the Arab world a post-authoritarian case study that is worthy of continued attention and support from Washington.
Photo Credit: US Vice President Joe Biden and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on July 4, 2010 (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)