Thursday, March 1, 2012

Kenneth Pollack, And What’s Wrong With Much Of The Conventional U.S. Wisdom On Iraq

Kenneth Pollack of the Brooking Institution’s Saban Center has been a longtime American commentator on Iraq. At the beginning of February he published an article entitled “Iraq’s Endless Political Crisis,” which appeared in both The Atlantic and The National Interest. While he got some points right, he repeated some of the most common fallacies of Western analysts. One is the belief that the Iraqi National Movement (INM) is a unified entity, with a shared view that stood up to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The other is seeing Iraqi politics through a sectarian lens, namely that there is one Sunni party, the INM, which must have a seat at the government table for Iraqi politics to be fair and democratic. Neither of these points stands up to close scrutiny.

Part of Pollack’s piece argued that the Iraqi National Movement (INM) presented a united front in the current political crisis against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who they all believed was becoming a dictator. Pollack wrote that the leadership of the INM all held together during their boycott of parliament and the cabinet, which started in December 2011, despite pressure to defect. He postulated that this was because they all saw the premier as becoming an autocrat that needed to be confronted. This part of Pollack’s argument was far from true. For one, the National Movement had at least three different positions with regards to Maliki. Iyad Allawi and Finance Minister Rafi Issawi wanted to maintain the boycott of both the parliament and cabinet until they got some concessions from the premier. Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq didn’t mind ending the boycott of parliament, but wanted to keep the INM ministers out of the cabinet until he was able to return to his job. On December 13, Mutlaq gave an interview with CNN where he said that Maliki was becoming a dictator after his move to arrest alleged Baathists throughout the country. He has since repeated this remark several more times to the Iraqi media. In retaliation, Maliki called for a vote of no confidence against Mutlaq, and has not allowed him to return to his office since then. Finally, Speaker of Parliament Osama Nujafi and Jamal Karbuli, who heads the Solution Party within the INM wanted to the list to return to government, and had no problem working with the prime minister. In fact, Nujafi never followed the boycott, attending all sessions of parliament, and five of the INM’s seven ministers continued to go to cabinet meetings. Nujafi and Karbuli have also refrained from the name calling against Maliki, which other members of the National Movement have participated in. Many of the disputes between Maliki, Allawi, and Mutlaq date back to before the 2003 invasion when each leader took a different stance towards the Saddam Hussein regime. This has led to deep mistrust and personal dislike between them, which is not shared by other politicians such as between the premier and Nujafi. Finally, the reason why the INM ended its boycott of parliament at the end of January, and then of the cabinet a few days later was that the list was going to completely come apart if it did not, because it was so internally divided, and ineffective in carrying out its strategy. Contrary to Pollack’s view then, the Iraqi National Movement did not stick together. Rather it has always been made up of several different parties, each with their own agenda. These aspects of the recent confrontation have often been overlooked by American analysts like Pollack, which leads them to misread the situation, and fail to understand why Maliki has consistently been able to out maneuver the INM.

Another major element of Pollack’s article was his sectarian view of Iraqi politics. According to Pollack, the Iraqi National Movement has an important role to play in government, because it represents the Sunnis, and if it is not included that sect might revolt, and lead to a new civil war. This interpretation is also wrong on many counts. First, Sunnis are not a monolithic group. They are represented by several different parties within the government such as the different parts of the Iraqi National Movement like Allawi’s Iraqi National List and Mutlaq’s Iraqi National Dialogue Front. There are other lists as well such as the Unity of Iraq and the Iraqi Accordance Front, who are part of the Centrist List that has aligned itself with the INM, and White Iraqiya, which is a breakaway National Movement faction that disagreed with the lists’ stance towards the prime minister. While Maliki has excluded Allawi from government, and would like to get rid of Mutlaq and others from the INM if he could, that does not mean there would not be other prominent Sunni politicians in the government. The Agriculture Minister Izz al-Din al-Dawla is from Speaker Nujafi’s Iraqiyoon, the Communication Minister Mohammed Tawafak Allawi is from Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National List, the Education Minister Mohammed Tamim is from Mutlaq’s Iraqi National Dialogue Front, the Electricity Minister Abdul Karim Aftan and the Industry Minister Ahmad Nasser al-Dalli Karblui are from Jamal Karblui’s Solution Movement, Finance Minister Rafi Issawi represents his own National Future Gathering, and Science and Technology Minister Abdul al-Karim al-Samarraie is from Vice President Tariq Hashemi’s Renewal Party. Most of these ministers have had no problem with the prime minister, and Maliki has been willing to work with them. All of this diversity is missed by Pollack, and others, who tend to write about the INM as the Sunnis’ party who have to work with the Shiite party and the Kurdish party to maintain Iraq’s ethnosectarian balance. Any move against a National Movement member by Maliki is considered sectarian, and a threat to the Sunnis’ stake in government. What Pollack is missing is that the premier was not going after Sunnis per se, but individuals he has had conflicts with. Some of these disputes are petty and personal, but they are not sectarian. Finally, Pollack, like many others, argued that if this crisis continues, the Sunnis could become so alienated from government that they would return to fighting. The insurgency lost the last civil war from 2005-2008, being largely cleansed from many parts of Baghdad, and surrounding areas. Their realization that they were losing was the main reason why the majority of Sunni militants gave up and switched sides to join the Anbar Awakening and the Sons of Iraq. This is a fresh memory, so there would be few who would be willing to join a lost cause of fighting the government and Shiite parties once again. Not only that, but the large oil revenues, which Baghdad distributes through provincial budgets and ministries draws all the ruling parties together, because they all want a piece of the pie for their constituents and party members, providing another incentive to remain part of the system.

Kenneth Pollack expresses many of the conventional U.S. ideas about Iraq. That thinking misses many of the nuances of Iraqi politics. It also leads to supporting large and unwieldy governments out of the belief that each sect has its own party that needs to be included. Keeping them at the table is seen as more important than having a functional administration. The fact that the National Movement has made a series of poor decisions, has been easily outmaneuvered because of its internal divisions, that some of its leadership has deep seated personal rivalries with Maliki, while others have been completely open to working with him, and that there are other parties that represent Sunnis, is usually not noted. The willingness of many Sunni politicians to remain in the government despite one crisis after another should also dispel the growing commentaries about a new civil war breaking out in Iraq. Members of the government have a vested interest to remain part of it because of all the benefits they gain from it. Iraq will continue to face political crises for the foreseeable future. With American troops finally out of the country, Iraqi leaders are focusing upon setting out the parameters of their powers and settling their disputes. With an immature political system with no set rules of behavior, this will take years to work out. What commentators in the United States need to start doing is studying Iraq from an Iraqi perspective instead of imposing their views upon events. That would provide a much richer portrayal of what is going on within the country rather than the regular reports about the government being on the verge of collapse, the nation unraveling, and a return to civil war.


AIN, “MP: Foreign guarantees behind return of Iraqiya Slate to parliament,” 1/31/12
- “Mutleg: Not regretful over describing Maliki as “Dictator,”” 1/11/12

Gutman, Roy, “As US troops exit Iraq, Maliki moves against Sunni rivals,” McClatchy Newspapers, 12/19/11

Ibrahim, Haidar, “Iraqiya’s controversial remarks over ministers’ boycott termination,” AK News, 1/13/12

Knights, Michael, “Iraq’s Political Crisis: Challenges for U.S. Policy,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 12/21/11

Pollack, Kenneth, “Iraq’s Endless Political Crises,” The Atlantic, 2/1/12

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