You want to know what progress looks like in Iraq? It’s when the front page of the New York Times features an article not about Iraq’s security situation, but about its politics. The focus of the piece, by Alissa J. Rubin, is on fears among Iraqi politicos that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki may be amassing too much power. That, too, counts as progress.
I vividly recall visiting Iraq in 2007 and early 2008 and hearing from all concerned — Iraqis as well as Americans — how weak and ineffectual Maliki was. Up until mid-2007 the security situation was dire and the prime minister seemed helpless to turn things around. There was widespread talk that the parliament would oust him — something that probably would have happened if only the political parties could have agreed on a consensus candidate to replace him.
The perception of Maliki’s weakness changed dramatically in the spring of 2008 when he made the gutsy decision to send the Iraqi security forces to clean out first Basra, then Sadr City. Those were pivotal events that, along with the surge, dealt crippling blows to Moqtada al Sadr’s thuggish militia and helped to set off a virtuous spiral of security improvements.
It’s pretty clear that stronger central government results in better security. Of course, Iraqi politicos, still understandably traumatized by the Saddam Hussein years, cannot help thinking that their government can become so strong as to repress them. That is a legitimate concern in the future but for now, with 140,000 U.S. troops still in the country, there is a powerful outside guarantee that no faction in Iraqi politics can override the constitution and oppress everyone else. That, by the way, is another argument for keeping a substantial U.S. force presence in the country for years to come. In the meantime, I’d rather have the Iraqi political class fretting that their prime minister is too strong rather than too weak.