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.