Commentary Magazine


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Looking Beyond Talabani

Over at CNN, I speculate on what Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s incapacitation or death might mean for Iraq. Talabani was a colorful figure and, while the eulogies will be glowing, he certainly had a dark side. Talabani was pro-American to Americans, pro-Iranian to Iranians, and even pro-Turkish to the Turks. He had the opportunity to be a democrat, but as recently as 2009 was ordering Kurdish security forces to kill certain rivals in the upstart Gorran Party. Files that emerged from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party headquarters also show that Talabani often collaborated with the Iraqi leader prior to his overthrow, and that, according to Kurdish press and those with firsthand knowledge of the files, many close aides—including his former chief of staff—were at one time on Saddam’s payroll.

During the Kurdish Civil War (1994-1997), Talabani worked hand-in-hand with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Talabani’s case highlights how the Iran link is not limited to Iraqi Shi’ites: Qods Force commander Qasim Suleimani was a frequent visitor to Talabani’s Baghdad compound.

Whatever his faults and whatever happens next, one thing will be clear in hindsight: Talabani’s role as president was crucial in stitching together a broad-based Iraqi government. Personality matters, and Talabani’s gregarious and energetic personality helped. He could laugh at himself, and crack a joke to neutralize tension that threatened to boil over and consume all around him.

Herein lies the problem for U.S. policy: Rather than build a system that does not rely overwhelmingly on one or two individuals, too often U.S. diplomats and generals build policy around a personality. In Afghanistan, it is Hamid Karzai. In Pakistan, it was for too long General Kayani. In Iraq, it has been Jalal Talabani. In Egypt it is, unwisely, Mohamed Morsi. Stability might seem a noble goal in the short term, but the ultimate stability comes from constructing a system in which no man is indispensable. Some indispensable figures like Hamid Karzai will embrace corruption, calculating that they are immune from international accountability because diplomats can find no alternative.

The indispensable man often also maintains his position by ensuring that no competent rival emerges from the bureaucracy; the most able men are cut off at the knees. Karzai’s firing of Defense Minister Wardak falls into this category. Talabani spent his later years trying to undercut Barham Salih, the relatively young wunderkind who emerged from Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Let us hope Talabani recovers. But if he does not, the political chaos that might emerge should be a reminder that any system dependent on one man is not one upon which the United States can ever depend.