Saturday, August 23, 2008

Change the Iraqis Can Believe In? Why Obama–Biden Could Mean More of the Same (Or Maybe Something Worse)

By Reidar Visser (

23 August 2008

In many ways, Barack Obama’s approach to Iraq is strikingly similar to that of the Bush administration and John McCain. In theory, the addition of Joe Biden to Obama’s ticket could change this, but over the last weeks and months there have been interesting moves by Biden to remove most traces of his “Iraq plans” from the public domain.

With regard to Iraq, the real context of the upcoming Democratic convention is that “the surge” in Iraq is not working at all. Despite measurable successes in bringing the levels of violence down, the American-sponsored political system in Iraq is actually more dysfunctional than ever, and incapable of delivering the results that both Iraqis and Americans are looking for. Perhaps the best evidence is the fact that it is now Washington’s own darlings in Iraq and their pet projects that stand in the way of progress, as seen in the vice-presidential vetoes this year against the provincial powers law and the provincial elections law. There is in fact a cross-sectarian majority in the Iraqi parliament that wants to have early elections and power-sharing in Kirkuk, but Washington’s allies among the Kurds and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) keep blocking progress towards national reconciliation and a more sustainable political system. The salient cleavages in Iraqi politics are increasingly of a non-sectarian nature – the alliance that challenged the Maliki government through its demand for early elections and power-sharing in Kirkuk had an eminently cross-sectarian composition, and no matter how the media likes to spin it, the recent sacking of the police commander in Diyala did pit some powerful Shiite players against each other – but American policy fails to respond to this reality.

Thankfully, there is growing attention to these cross-sectarian trends at least among some US analysts. There has been some debate as to the usefulness or otherwise of a new nomenclature introduced by USIP’s Sam Parker that employs the terms “The Powers That Be” and “The Powers That Aren’t” to describe the real battlefronts in Iraqi politics, with some critics finding the dichotomy pretentious and nothing more than a new name for “government and opposition”. However, that overlooks the way in which Parker’s concepts clearly augment our understanding of Iraq: they define the glue that holds the government together, and provides a very good point of departure for discussing those ideological pressures that threaten to tear the current system apart and which should be taken into account in any serious discussion of future US policy.

Barack Obama, though, has yet to discover the usefulness of these concepts. During his recent trip to the Middle East, he revealed an extremely dated way of thinking about Iraq, more or less reiterating the Iraq cosmology of those Bush administration officials that have been in charge since 2003. During a press conference in Amman on 22 July following a visit to Anbar where meetings with “Sunni tribal leaders” were high on the agenda, this tendency could be seen very clearly, with Obama consistently portraying the principal dynamic of Iraqi politics as a struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. For example, Obama opined: “I think resolving the big issues like the hydrocarbons law in a way that gives Sunnis the impression that their voice is heard, that’s going to be important.” In fact, the real problem with regard to the hydrocarbons law is that two Kurdish parties insist on the right of federal regions to sign contracts with foreign compaines, whereas almost all the other parties – in this case Sunnis and Shiites alike, and including some of those Shiites that normally are quite pro-Kurdish – favour a more centralised system. Most Iraqis are confident that a purely demographic distribution system based on governorates (not sects!) will be adopted, and see the American quest for a “Sunni quota” as out of touch with Iraqi traditions of centralised government. Again, Obama: “Now, the willingness of Sunni cabinet members who have resigned to now return, to have those cabinet seats filled, and a sense that the Sunnis are going to participate aggressively in the upcoming elections, that, again, is I think a sign of progress.” Once more, very few analysts that have done work on Iraq before 2003 think the return to the government of the tiny Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) would be of any consequence whatsoever. With or without the IIP in their ranks, Maliki and his team will still fail to bring significant change to Iraq and a less sectarian political system of the kind that a majority of parliamentarians are calling for.

Arguably, the addition of Joe Biden to the Obama ticket might aggravate these tendencies, because in the past Biden has been a leading American voice in promoting an interpretation of Iraq as a country of three mutually hostile and internally stable population blocks. His various “plans for Iraq”, while frequently misunderstood, in different ways reinforce the view that the main problem in Iraq has to do with a centralised state structure and coexistence issues. Like many others in American politics, Biden has failed to acknowledge the emerging non-sectarian trends in Iraq, seeking instead to push ideas about “Sunni federalism” during his visit to the Anbar governorate. Remarkably, however, it seems that Biden may have cleaned up his Iraq rhetoric as part of his VP bid. At least, it is quite conspicuous how every trace of his “plan for Iraq” now appears to have been erased from his website at, where he now instead supports Barrack Obama’s more general argument about shifting the focus to Afghanistan. Also, at some point between April 2008 and today, Biden’s website specifically devoted to his soft partition schemes,, was quietly shut down – at this site, Biden’s rhetoric had consistently focused on a tripartite Iraq to the very end. Only on his Senate website traces of his Iraq policy remain, but even there a more toned-down version appears, with the emphasis on a general push for federalisation. This is still in contravention of the Iraqi constitution (which specifically rejects any kind of elite-driven federalisation process) but it could perhaps mean that Biden increasingly realises that his plans were unsustainable and that trends in Iraq militate against them.

Still, for Iraq this seems to be a stark choice. On the one hand, there is McCain, who looks set to persevere with the Bush policy of handling Iraq primarily through military power instead of working for a more truly inclusive political system. With its systematic promotion to top positions in the new Iraq of some of the most sectarian, pro-Iranian and unprofessional cliques among Iraq’s 18 million (and mostly Iraqi nationalist) Shiites, this contradictive policy seems so obviously antithetical to long-term American interests that it is really hard to make perfect sense of (except if one does what should be the unthinkable and puts it in the frightening context of a grander plan to eventually force regime change in Iran as well). Democrats appear to be equally ignorant about the survival of Iraqi nationalist sentiment, but they express this in a different policy: acceptance of Iranian influence in Iraq as something natural. This was even written into Obama’s “New Strategy for a New World”, released in mid-July. Commenting on Iraq, Obama writes, “Iraq is not going to be a perfect place…we are not going to … eliminate every trace of Iranian influence”. He seems unaware that this particular statement may be seen as deeply offensive by many Iraqi Shiites who are proud of their Iraqi identity but fearful of Iran and the pro-Iranian elites that have been empowered by the Bush administration. Their fear is that a new Democratic administration will accord Iran exaggerated influence in Iraq as part of a grand, Dayton-style regional settlement designed as an antidote to the Bush administration’s unilateralist policies.

Of course, Obama’s stance flows from a multi-lateralist attitude which in itself is laudable. In general, it makes sense for the United States to rely more on national and regional equilibriums than to seek to micro-manage in the name of democracy. But in the specific case of Iraq, there is a responsibility for correcting past mistakes as part of a viable exit strategy. Democrats cannot simply close their eyes and imagine that the Iraq of 2008 in any way represents a natural state of affairs, and that a quick withdrawal automatically will prompt some kind of Hobbesian reset whereby the country will find back to its true self. Real change in Iraq would mean that Obama realised that for five years straight the United States has promoted and consolidated an artificial sectarian system in the country, and that disengagement from Iraq should also aim at reversing this trend. The real challenge is not to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds but to bring Powers That Aren’t into the system. The instrument to do this is not some kind of federalism magic or a complex oil distribution formula, but to move away from the sectarian quota system more generally and towards a traditional state model with autonomy for the Kurds and more modest decentralisation in the rest of the country. And Biden should remember that the only thing that is artificial about today’s Iraq is the particular selection of sectarian leaders that the Bush administration has anointed to lead the country, and the exaggerated Iranian influence that comes with some of them.

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and a noted expert on Iraqi politics and history. He completed an undergraduate degree in history and comparative politics at the University of Bergen and a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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