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Don’t Confuse Power Consolidation with Dictatorship in Iraq

Since the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been steadily consolidating power. Political opponents cry foul, and raise the specter of dictatorship. Iraq may have tons of problems but, for the time being, dictatorship is not among them. True, Maliki is consolidating power, but any competent leader in Iraq would. Creating a functional, accountable government requires it.

The Iraqi constitution was an achievement, but it set Iraq down the path to paralyzed, dysfunctional government. Here’s how it works: The Iraqi people elect a parliament, the parliament chooses a president, the president chooses the prime minister, the prime minister appoints his cabinet, and then the Iraqi parliament ratifies the whole package. In practice, this sounds like checks-and-balances. In reality, the parliamentary blocs refuse to ratify the government unless they each get an allotment of ministries. Pundits used to complain that nothing could be worse than Israel’s system of cobbling together governments, but the situation in Iraq is worse. Compounding the problem is that many of the party slates are fractious. Party leaders cannot strike deals without risking fracturing their slate; politicians can flee their party after the election causing party numbers always to be in flux. It’s in vogue to describe Ayad Allawi, for example, as a secularist, but he populates his list with an untenable mix of unrepentant Sunni Islamists who would be equally at home in al-Qaeda as they are in Allawi’s Iraqiya Party, and “ex” Baathists who would be equally at home in Saddam’s palace as they would be in Allawi’s Jordanian villa or British state house.

Maliki is between a rock and a hard place. The constitutional system the Americans helped craft has given him a cabinet akin to an American one in which Karl Rove would work aside Al Sharpton, and Doug Feith and Samantha Power share a cubicle. To accuse Maliki of being a dictator for consolidating power and trying to implement an agenda is like accusing Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama of doing the same.

So what has Maliki done? Maliki, like Allawi and As-Sadr, created a shadow circle of advisers to whom he turns to craft policy; the ministers generally just collect their pensions. True, he has moved to arrest other Iraqi politicians like Tareq al-Hashemi. But, just because Maliki targeted Hashemi doesn’t mean that Hashemi wasn’t guilty. INTERPOL certainly believed the evidence against Hashemi as, frankly, do even many of Hashemi’s supporters.

Maliki successfully did what Allawi was unable to: form a government. Maliki is far from perfect and, like many other Iraqi candidates, has a serious corruption problem within his government. Allawi is the sour grapes candidate, however, and spreads money—mysteriously donated to him by Jordanians, Saudis, and others outside Iraq— around Washington and Europe to sow uncertainty. That Masud Barzani calls Maliki a dictator is risible, as Barzani remains the most autocratic figure in Iraq, basically Saddam without the mustache. That’s another story, however.

Now it’s time for Maliki to sink or swim. He should have his chance to succeed, and then he should be held accountable to the voters. The proper position of the United States would be to ensure the sanctity of the elections, the timing of which should be set in stone.



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