If Iraq falls apart it will result from political unraveling, not car bombs. The latter makes for lurid American headlines, but will not draw a post-traumatic population into another civil war. The country’s ability to absorb attacks and resume the business of statehood is a thoroughly ignored dimension of all the car-bomb stories. As a people, Iraqis have shed the local malady of tribal revenge. It has been replaced, at least in some instances, by a taste for consensual governance. But Iraqi leaders are only first exploring the regional malady of outsized power politics.
After seven months of parliamentary stalemate in the wake of a close election, there is a dismaying report from Baghdad about Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki:
Mr. Maliki’s party, State of Law, and another Shiite party with ties to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr shut out a third, the Iraqi National Alliance, and its contender, Adel Abdelmehdi, in negotiations within the Shiite bloc, alliance officials said Friday. State of Law, the Sadrists and their allies command 148 seats in Parliament and need another 15 to win a majority and establish a new government. That support is expected to come from the Kurds.
This represents a potential ruling alliance of strong-arm statists and radical Islamists. To get the full measure of how depressing that is, recall that one of the best strategic justifications for the initial invasion of Iraq was to head-off this very same toxic fraternization. There is always the chance that this story is being blown out of proportion in an otherwise static political landscape. But if not, it could mean much greater Iranian influence in Iraqi politics.
Let us not tragically lose sight of the following: This is not even close to the inevitable outcome of Iraqi elections. In the March election, the moderate Iraqiya alliance enjoyed a modest victory. What followed was parliamentary horse-trading Middle East style. Now the moderates are being sidelined.
Washington is far from blameless. In Barack Obama’s eagerness to “responsibly” hand over full sovereignty to Iraq and close the curtain on the Bush years, he has very nearly abandoned the fledgling Mesopotamian democracy to the depredations of regional thugs and radicals. Surely, the Kurds, upon whom the solidification of the next Iraqi government may rest, would be less inclined to submit to extremists out of self preservation if they were reassured of America’s continued support. In no sane reckoning, should the U.S. be done with Iraq’s political future. Americans gave their lives to turn a murderous dictatorship into a struggling democracy. Many Iraqis also gave their lives in service of the same. We still have more leverage there than do any of Iraq’s neighbors; yet, the administration is loath to use it.
Where are the critics of the war who told us that mere elections do not ensure democracy? Is it not time they spoke up to demand closer American stewardship of Baghdad’s parliamentary progress and the Kurdish aspiration. Barack Obama himself said in 2006, freedoms “do not just come from deposing a tyrant and handing out ballots.” Yet today, he is among the most simplistic, if ironic, defenders of the war’s achievements and also the most dismissive of the need for further democratic nurturance. Here, as on other fronts, the president courts disaster for the worst possible reason: blind political rigidity.