Monday, March 15, 2010

What An American Expert Gets Wrong About Iraq And Its Election

Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution has long thought that the U.S. will need to maintain a large military and diplomatic presence in Iraq to help with its transition from years of dictatorship. In his latest piece, “Iraq: An Elections Preview,” he writes that the Americans will be crucial in the negotiations over a new government following Iraq’s parliamentary elections, and could need to deploy troops into Iraq’s streets again to help put down a return to violence if those talks fail. The first part of his argument is persuasive, but Pollack fails to realize the diminishing role America plays in Iraq.

Pollack’s thesis is that it will take months to form a new Iraqi government after the March elections, and that the U.S. will need to shepherd this process along so that talks don’t fall apart. Because none of the major lists will win a majority a broad based coalition will be necessary to gain the necessary seats in parliament to select a new prime minister. If the four largest blocs, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law, the Supreme Council-Sadrist led National Alliance, Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s National Movement, and the Kurdish Alliance all emerge relatively equal in the standings, it could lead to deadlock. Pollack is afraid if that process drags out the sides could turn to violence to push their positions in the street. He even mentions a new civil war as a possible outcome. That would require a robust American diplomatic effort to keep talks going and U.S. troops returning to Iraq’s cities, which they left in June 2009. Pollack is obviously worried that the Obama administration is only interested in withdrawing forces, which it is, and will abandon Iraq at this crucial moment, which will lead the country to fall apart once again.

Pollack gets many points right, but misses some major ones as well. First, it will likely take months for Iraq’s major lists to form a new government. After the January 2009 provincial elections, it took until April to announce new ruling coalitions in the fourteen governorates that took part. Putting together a national government will be much harder, and take longer. Many parties look towards the U.S. as a neutral moderator in moments like this. The Americans for example, were crucial in getting the election law passed in early 2010 when parliament missed its own deadline. It would be natural then, for Iraq’s parties to call on the U.S. embassy if they hit an impasse in their talks. At the same time, huge public pressure from Washington wasn’t able to stop the banning of candidates before the March vote. In fact, the Prime Minister and others turned on the U.S. for trying to influence the process, so there is a limit to what it can do, especially if it isn’t done behind closed doors. Where Pollack runs into problems is his warning that violence may erupt if things don’t go well. Iraq’s leaders didn’t turn to fighting when it took months to put together the provincial councils, so why would they do it now? In many southern governorates Maliki shut out the Supreme Council who had run that region since 2005, but they didn’t take that as an affront serious enough to deploy their militia. The Sunnis also want a place in government, and have joined all of the major lists so they will get some sort of representation, even if it is a minor one. There simply doesn’t seem to be motivation for a turn to violence at this moment, especially not a new civil war. That would require not only a breakdown of Iraqi politics, but the state as well, both of which are unlikely. Another problem with Pollack is that he believes U.S. forces could help. This assumes that Baghdad would ask for American assistance, but with a large Iraqi security force why would they? Iraqis rarely see U.S. troops these days except in the countryside, and they also have a very low opinion of the U.S. military

Overall, Pollack fails because he doesn’t believe Iraqis can deal with their own problems. Instead he thinks that the U.S. constantly needs to step in to maintain political and military stability in the country. He doesn’t realize that U.S. influence has declined, and is sometimes resented. Yes, the U.S. embassy will remain a key player when Iraq hits a road block, but at the same time, there is only so much that the U.S. can do since Iraq’s politicians are driven by their own internal power struggles and constituencies. That is especially true on the military front where it’s highly unlikely that Iraq will either return to large scale fighting at this time or ask large numbers of U.S. troops for help if it does. Iraqis are in control now, and they are going to determine their own future with some U.S. help, but not with the overwhelming influence that Pollack and others hope to maintain.


Department of State, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” 2/15/10

International Crisis Group “Iraq’s Uncertain Future: Elections and Beyond,” 2/25/10

Pollack, Kenneth, “Iraq: An Elections Preview,” Brookings Institution, 3/2/10

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