Commentary Magazine


Topic: sectarianism

Broad-based Coalition in Iraq? No Thanks

Whenever there’s a crisis in one country or another, American diplomats and the conflict-resolution crowd counsel handing power to a broad-based coalition. Anarchy in Somalia? Broad-based coalition. Chaos in Kenya? Broad-based coalition. Terrorists seize Iraq’s second-largest city? Broad-based coalition. I’m dating myself, but it’s almost like “Mad-Libs Diplomacy,” with only the name of the country left blank.

And while it’s comforting to think that simply getting everyone under the same umbrella of government will solve the problem, it’s the sort of conventional wisdom that is often repeated but never demonstrated. Would the White House work better if Valerie Jarett and Karl Rove shared an office, and if Chuck Hagel shared an office with Donald Rumsfeld? Or, if it’s not fair to assume duplication of every office, what about a situation in which Dick Cheney answered to Al Sharpton or vice versa? As dysfunctional as the U.S. government seems now, I’m pretty confident that governing by a broad-based coalition here would make things demonstrably worse.

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Whenever there’s a crisis in one country or another, American diplomats and the conflict-resolution crowd counsel handing power to a broad-based coalition. Anarchy in Somalia? Broad-based coalition. Chaos in Kenya? Broad-based coalition. Terrorists seize Iraq’s second-largest city? Broad-based coalition. I’m dating myself, but it’s almost like “Mad-Libs Diplomacy,” with only the name of the country left blank.

And while it’s comforting to think that simply getting everyone under the same umbrella of government will solve the problem, it’s the sort of conventional wisdom that is often repeated but never demonstrated. Would the White House work better if Valerie Jarett and Karl Rove shared an office, and if Chuck Hagel shared an office with Donald Rumsfeld? Or, if it’s not fair to assume duplication of every office, what about a situation in which Dick Cheney answered to Al Sharpton or vice versa? As dysfunctional as the U.S. government seems now, I’m pretty confident that governing by a broad-based coalition here would make things demonstrably worse.

Indeed, the problem in Iraq over the past decade has in many ways been that the governing coalition is too broad. Whereas any U.S. president gets to pick his Cabinet, subject to Senate confirmation, Iraq’s prime minister has very little control over any of his ministers who are effectively appointed by and answer to different political parties. An incompetent and corrupt minister? To fire him or her would bring down the government because it would undercut party representation and patronage. A minister who is abusive to those of a different sect? Ditto.

Perhaps the United States does not want to stand by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki anymore. That’s understandable given the current crisis. But it is up to the Iraqis—and Maliki’s own party—to decide whether to replace him or not. For the United States to try to impose its candidate or a triumvirate of candidates would only de-legitimize them.

Rather, if the United States wants to improve governance in Iraq, it should focus on two issues. First, the problem in Iraq and newly-emerging democracies is not so much that all parties aren’t represented in government, but rather that there is no real concept of how to be an active and responsible opposition. If the Sunnis feel underrepresented, then it is essential to help them build capacity and coordinate with Shi’ites and Kurds who are not part of the government. They dislike Maliki’s policies? Rather than fight, they should put forward their own ideas.

The second issue—and this is important to the future stability of Iraq—is that retirement should be safe. If ongoing political coalition talks determine that Maliki will not serve a third term, then it is in the interest of Iraq—both now and in the future—to allow him to retire in Iraq in peace. There will be a temptation for retaliation—investigating corruption, real or imagined—or criminalizing other actions. Such temptation should be discouraged not only against Maliki but against any future successors, all of whom will likely be as controversial in Iraq’s volatile political milieu.

It may be comforting to think politicians in polarized countries can join hands and sing Kumbayah, but broad-based coalitions are a recipe for paralysis, not effective governance.

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Maliki Should Not Appease Terror

February 2013 was a particularly bloody month in Iraq, with more than 200 killed and 500 wounded in terrorist attacks. When it comes to Iraq, the United States military has a sectarian problem: In the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the Pentagon often is more sectarian than Iraqis, and deeply biased against the Shi’ites. The reasons for this are multifold:

  • The Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran
  • The 1983 attack on the Marine Barracks in Beirut.
  • Subsequent Hezbollah hostage-taking in Lebanon
  • CENTCOM deals almost exclusively with Sunni generals and Sunni royal families who don’t hesitate to badmouth Shi’ites at every possible opportunity.

Iranian malfeasance is real, but the Shi’ites are not all fifth columnists for Iran. Most Iraqis—including the vast majority of Iraqi Shi’ites—place Iraqi nationalism above sectarian solidarity. The whole reason Iran must sponsor militias in Iraq is to impose through force of arms what is not in Iraqi hearts and minds.

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February 2013 was a particularly bloody month in Iraq, with more than 200 killed and 500 wounded in terrorist attacks. When it comes to Iraq, the United States military has a sectarian problem: In the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the Pentagon often is more sectarian than Iraqis, and deeply biased against the Shi’ites. The reasons for this are multifold:

  • The Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran
  • The 1983 attack on the Marine Barracks in Beirut.
  • Subsequent Hezbollah hostage-taking in Lebanon
  • CENTCOM deals almost exclusively with Sunni generals and Sunni royal families who don’t hesitate to badmouth Shi’ites at every possible opportunity.

Iranian malfeasance is real, but the Shi’ites are not all fifth columnists for Iran. Most Iraqis—including the vast majority of Iraqi Shi’ites—place Iraqi nationalism above sectarian solidarity. The whole reason Iran must sponsor militias in Iraq is to impose through force of arms what is not in Iraqi hearts and minds.

While it is easy to blame Maliki for precipitating sectarian crises by issuing an arrest warrant first for Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and then several bodyguards employed by Finance Minister Rafi Issawi, the sectarian story breaks down when other details emerge: Few doubt Hashemi’s guilt, and several of the judges and the plaintiffs in the Issawi case were Sunni Arabs from al-Anbar. The Iraqi government has also taken on Shi’ite terrorists, like the Hezbollah-affiliated Jaysh al-Mukhtar.

The crisis is now coming to a head, with Issawi’s Friday resignation and calls for a general strike on Tuesday. To blame Maliki for the Iraqi government’s actions against Hashemi and Issawi, however, is dangerous. While it may be frustrating that Maliki simply does not meet the demands of some Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, it would set a horrendous precedent to accept a dynamic in which prominent Sunni politicians say “accept our agenda or face terrorism”: That’s not politics, it’s blackmail.

Nor are the Sunni protestors necessarily motivated by justice or a desire for a more perfect democracy. Youtube footage of Friday prayers in al-Anbar a week ago shows Sunni preachers threatening violence against not only the Iraqi government, but also against European and American interests. Nor are they shy about announcing ties to al-Qaeda.

The surge was a successful military strategy, but it was politically short-sighted. The base problem in Iraq remains that many Sunni Arabs refuse to accept that they are the minority in the country and will never have the same power that they did under the Baathists. There is simply no solution to the Iraqi situation that would put the Shi’ites back in the bottle. To try to disenfranchise the Shi’ites validates Iranian propaganda, which says that only the Islamic Republic defends the Shi’ites’ human rights.

The way forward is not to counsel Maliki and the Iraqi government to submit to blackmail or appease an al-Qaeda-affiliated fringe, but rather to:

  • Make clear to al-Anbar residents that there will be no concessions under fire.
  • Target terrorists and those inciting violence regardless of their sect.
  • Remove grievances by fighting sectarian discrimination in the ministries which leave Sunnis and other minorities feeling dispossessed and unable to make a living.
  • Counter Iranian influence by targeting Iranian-backed militias.
  • Establish guarantees and checks-and-balances to ensure transparent elections not only in al-Anbar and Baghdad but also in Erbil, and other cities susceptible to the dominance of local militias.

A strong, independent Iraq—capable of both empowering Shi’ites and standing up to Tehran—is not only in America’s interest, but it would also be a poison pill for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Criticizing the victims of terrorism should never be American policy, no matter what Saudi generals, Turkish ministers, or the American officers to whom they whisper may counsel.

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