Wednesday, August 13, 2008

This is a Parting, Some Separation

In October 2005, I first plagiarized borrowed from publius the concept of "vectors" to describe the sought after cross-sectarian/ethnic political alliances that could be formed by the Iraqi electorate. These vectors are desirable because they would indicate that the Iraqi electorate was eschewing communal-based, factional politics that almost inevitably leads to instability or democratically enabled tyranny - a heavy-handed rule of the majority. Unfortunately, the Iraqi people have tended to vote communally, with each sectarian/ethnic constituency voting for similar parties/blocs with little, if any, crossover. This voting patterns has reinforced and exaggerated the sectarian/ethnic identification which has fueled certain of Iraq's multiple insurgencies and civil wars.

There are several causes for the centrifugal forces pulling voters into electoral enclaves: First, it is a typical human reaction to fear, anxiety and lawlessness (available in ample supplies during and after the US invasion). This is especially true in, though not exclusive to, a society that still has a vital tribal component. Second, political/social/religious developments in Iraq in the decades preceding the invasion had exacerbated sectarian/ethnic divisions while empowering resistance movements and groups that tended to organize around such totems, and so these groups were best positioned to fill the vacuum post-invasion. Finally, decisions by the Bush administration to organize the Iraqi government around a confessional power sharing arrangement, aka the "Lebanon Model," further entrenched these modalities.

Nevertheless, there have been recurring predictions that a new political consensus would emerge, one organized around the principle of Iraqi nationalism rather than religion or ethnic identity. Thus far, however, those predicting the imminent emergence of such a cohesive, non-sectarian, nationalist vector have been disappointed. Nevertheless, there are signs that a recent coalescence of disparate groups could establish the framework for such a conglomeration going forward.

As Reidar Visser argues, the recent scuttling of the provincial elections law represented a victory for a nationalistic, cross-sectarian bloc (with Sunni and Shiite groups - including the Sadrists and even some Badr!) prevailing over the entrenched powers most committed to the fragmentation of Iraq into semi-autonomous regions (ISCI, the Kurds and some of Dawa). Recall, the law could not be passed largely because the Kurds (and their staunch allies, ISCI) would not agree to a Kirkuk power-sharing arrangement inserted into the elections law. Visser:

Yesterday’s failure of the Iraqi parliament to pass the provincial elections law before the summer recess may well end up being blamed on Sadrists and other “recalcitrants” who refused to give up their principles and adopt a more “businesslike” attitude. Or, alternatively, as an AP headline puts it today, “Iraqi election bill falls to ethnic rivalry.” However, quite apart from issues related to Islamic radicalism or ethnic identities, first and foremost the parliamentary deliberations of the elections law exposed some of the fundamental weaknesses and contradictions of Pax Americana in Iraq. [...]

...On the one hand, there was a broad alliance of parties that pushed the elections agenda forward, and insisted on the insertion of a timeline in the legislation that was adopted in February this year. This group featured cross-sectarian cooperation and participation by secularists as well as Islamists, with the key parties being the Sadrists (Shiite Islamist), Fadila (Shiite Islamist), Tawafuq (Sunni Islamist), al-Hiwar al-Watani (Iraqi nationalist, mostly Sunni) and Iraqiyya (nationalist, secular-leaning). Those who opposed the prospect of early elections [and the power sharing provision] were primarily the Kurdish parties and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, Shiite Islamist), with some support from the Daawa party of Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki.

So, with the fault lines established (more on those fault lines here), Visser examines the common platforms:

Why was the Kirkuk clause inserted, who did it, and why could it derail the whole elections process in Iraq? The question of who did it is easy to answer. The clause was supported by many of the same parties that had earlier challenged the Maliki government to hold provincial elections by October: Sadrists, Fadila, Hiwar, and Iraqiyya. Conversely, the power-sharing formula for Kirkuk was opposed by the Kurds, ISCI, some Shiite independents, and some members of Maliki’s Daawa party...

As for the underlying reasons for the voting patterns, deeper antagonisms have been at work. For some time, these two constellations of parties have faced each other in what is the most salient battlefront in Iraqi politics today – far more important than those supposedly “irreconcilable differences between Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis” on which some Western analysts like to dwell. Firstly, to a considerable extent, this is a raw battle of power and shares of the pie, as Sam Parker of the United States Institute of Peace pointed out when he coined the dichotomy “the Powers That Aren’t” (PTA, the Sadrists, Fadila, Iraqiyya, most Sunni groups) and “the Powers That Be” (PTB, the Kurds, ISCI, Daawa and the IIP) to describe the struggle between the two sides, first in an anonymous guest post on the Abu Aardvark blog, and later in an NYT interview. Secondly, to some extent this is also about ideology, with centrists versus ethno-federalists constituting the principal cleavage. The centrists are sceptical to any weakening Baghdad’s power and to any extension of the federalism principle south of Kurdistan. Above all, they have misgivings against an ethno-sectarian implementation of federalism that would partition Iraq into three statelets – Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite. The ethno-federalists, on the other hand, favour precisely this kind of Balkans approach to Iraq: they want a free hand for the Kurds in Kirkuk, in exchange for support for Shiite sectarian supremacy in the rest of Iraq – either through Shiite dominance in Baghdad, or through the establishment of a Shiite sectarian region south of Baghdad.

...when the Kirkuk issue came up recently, it became painfully clear that the Powers That Be did not enjoy sufficient parliamentary support to proceed with their preferred solution – a delay of the vote in Kirkuk without any changes to the local administration, which effectively would have perpetuated Kurdish hegemony in the province...

In this way the PTB were forced to resort to their emergency weapon: the presidential veto. By 2008, parliamentary majorities simply aren’t sufficient in Iraq: instead, bills are vetoed and lifted out of the parliamentary debate for closed-doors discussions among the “political leaderships”, which is mostly a euphemism for The Powers That Be themselves. This is what has happened to the oil legislation, the constitutional revision, and, this time around, the provincial elections law. The net result is that the PTB consolidate their grip on power, and no meaningful moves towards national reconciliation take place.

At the same time, the fact that the Powers That Be are unable to hold together is a remarkable testament to the endurance of certain Iraqi nationalist values that simply refuse to give way to the PTB agenda and that seem bound to create problems for the overall stability of the current system in the long term. Symptomatically, ISCI politician Jalal al-Din al-Saghir condemned unnamed politicians for having “listened to popular feeling” about Kirkuk – a cardinal sin from the Powers That Be perspective.

The ideas presented in these last two paragraphs should be taken into consideration when assessing our prior, and perhaps future, decision to unconditionally support the Maliki government in Iraq, more or less despite its agenda and popular mandate (or lack thereof). As I have argued previously, our support for Maliki, ISCI and the Kurds has been largely based on the Bush administration banking on those groups' willingness to countenance long term US military presence, and their openess to foreign involvement in the oil sector with very generous terms for the outside firms.

With Maliki and others indicating that the Bush team might have misjudged those tendencies, the continuation of US policy along these lines is even more incoherent (though, I would add, that our policies in this regard would still be incoherent and ultimately counterproductive even if Maliki is merely pretending to oppose a long term US military presence for the domestic audience - which is still very much a possibility). Visser examines this further:

At least, the actions of PTB are understandable: they simply want to grab ever more power, and to exclude everyone else. What is more difficult to understand is the behaviour of the international players. Why, for example, does the United States continue to support this steadily declining force? Previously, Washington may have considered them more malleable and susceptible to pressure, even if this factor is less evident today, and despite the fact that question marks concerning Iran’s influence in the PTB camp linger. But the Iraq that is being built by reliance on the PTB simply isn’t a sustainable one. Because it is based on appetite for power and extreme opportunism alone, it cannot survive except through the application of brute force and the use of material power: concrete walls (as seen in Baghdad), bribes to political enemies (particularly prominent among the Sunni tribes), and authoritarian handling of internal opponents (such as the Sadrists). When Washington’s ability and willingness to finance these kinds of measures comes to an end, the only way forward will be increased authoritarianism or increased reliance on regional patrons.

One of the many advantages of the Obama approach to a timed withdrawal from Iraq is that the US government will no longer be forced to tie its fortunes to those Iraqi political factions that seem, or are, most amenable to an American presence. We could, alternatively, begin to encourage - consistently -Iraqi nationalism, a political platform of reconciliation and a more responsive, democratic government. At the very least, we will not be the bankrollers for, and accomplices to, the increasingly authoritarian "PTB."

There is no guarantee that these political parties will be able to form a cohesive bloc around a broad--based agenda (Swopa has his doubts, as do I), but at the very least, the US could get out of the way of (and tacitly support) ad hoc coalitions that would tend to loosen the ethnic/sectarian grip and encourage nationalism, which would, in turn, give way to a budding array of mini-vectors that would push the process in what will be, in the long term, a more stable direction.

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