Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
MORNING IN MESOPOTAMIA
Antony J. Blinken
Ned Parker's article "The Iraq We Left Behind" (March/April 2012) gives the impression that Iraq is a hybrid of North Korea and Somalia, part ruthless dictatorship and part lawless wasteland: in short, "the world's next failed state." Leaving aside the inherent contradiction in describing a country as both authoritarian and anarchic, Iraq today bears little resemblance to the caricature portrayed in these pages.
The article glossed over, or ignored altogether, the clear, measurable progress Iraq has made in the few short years since it lurched to the brink of sectarian war. Since U.S. President Barack Obama took office with a commitment to end the war responsibly and initiated the drawdown of 144,000 troops, violence in Iraq has declined and remains at historic lows -- a trend that has continued since the last U.S. troops departed late last year. Weekly security incidents fell from an average of 1,600 in 2007-8 to fewer than 100 today. Meanwhile, since 2005, oil production, the lifeblood of Iraq's economy, is up 50 percent, to almost three million barrels per day, providing the revenue that enabled lawmakers to pass a $100 billion budget in mid-February. Recent months have also seen unprecedented steps toward Iraq's reintegration with the region, including the appointment of a Saudi ambassador to Baghdad for the first time since 1990, visits to Iraq by senior Emirati and Jordanian officials, the settlement of Iraq's dispute with Kuwait over Saddam Hussein's confiscation of Kuwaiti aircraft, and Baghdad's playing host to the Arab League summit. U.S. military forces were critical to setting the conditions for these achievements. They succeeded, at great cost, in restoring a measure of stability when all seemed lost and in training an Iraqi army that is now defying doubters and capably providing security for the country. These advances created the time and the space for what U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden sees as the most important development in Iraq in recent years: politics supplanting violence as the dominant means for the country's various factions to settle their disputes and advance their interests.
For the past two years, critics repeatedly and mistakenly warned that a string of political crises, over the election law, the de-Baathification process, the election itself, and the formation of a government, would lead to renewed sectarian violence. Each time, however, the Iraqis resolved their differences through the political process, not violence, with quiet and continuous assistance from the United States.
Parker lauds as a golden age in Iraqi politics the period from late 2007 through late 2008, which he attributes to the large U.S. troop presence and the U.S. government's focus on promoting democracy. During that purported halcyon era, charges of terrorism leveled against a Sunni Arab politician led followers of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Sunni Arab parties, and those loyal to the secular Shiite leader Ayad Allawi to boycott the parliament for eight months, despite the presence of more than 150,000 U.S. troops in the country. A similar boycott early this year, when all U.S. troops were gone, lasted just two months.
STILL THE ONE
Parker also claims that the Obama administration turned its attention away from Iraq after the last Iraqi election, in March 2010, and abandoned the democratic principles for which the United States had fought. In fact, during the period he describes, the "largely absent" vice president made four visits to Iraq, spoke on the phone dozens of times with senior Iraqi officials from every major bloc, and, at Obama's request, chaired a monthly cabinet-level meeting on Iraq. I and other senior U.S. officials based in Washington, including Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough and Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, each made multiple trips to Iraq. Most important, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, led by Ambassador James Jeffrey, was as engaged with Iraqi leaders, day in and day out, as at any point since the 2003 invasion. In virtually every meeting and public statement, we reaffirmed the United States' commitment to the rule of law and Iraq's constitution.
To cite one example, during the lengthy government-formation period that followed the last election, the embassy team and senior officials from Washington shuttled among the parties for months. The president and the vice president were deeply engaged. When the deal was finally sealed, there were four people in the room: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; Allawi, the leader of the Iraqiya Party; Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Region; and Ambassador Jeffrey.
As that episode suggests, Iraq's leaders continue to strongly desire U.S. engagement. The United States remains the indispensable honest broker: the only party trusted by, and in daily contact with, all the leading blocs. In virtually every meeting, including when Maliki visited Obama in Washington last December, we have made clear to our Iraqi counterparts that continued U.S. support requires that they compromise across sectarian lines, respect the rule of law, and uphold their constitution.
We are clear-eyed about the fundamental challenges that Iraq still faces: finding workable ways to share power and holding all sides to the agreements they make, stamping out the violent extremists who continue to launch outrageous attacks, resolving long-standing disputes about the country's internal boundaries, and ensuring that the necessary legal framework and financial arrangements are in place to allow the energy sector to further flourish.
But a little context is in order. For more than three decades, Iraq had known nothing but dictatorship, war, sanctions, and sectarian violence. In just three years, its progress toward a more normal political existence has been remarkable. Iraq still has a long way to go, but today it is less violent, more democratic, and more prosperous than at any time in recent history, and the United States remains deeply engaged there. To call Washington "absent" turns a blind eye to the facts. To call Iraq a "failed state" renders that term meaningless.
ANTONY J. BLINKEN is Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States and National Security Adviser to the Vice President.
A SOLID STATE
Ned Parker's article reflects the new conventional wisdom among media outlets, think tanks, and large swaths of the policymaking and military communities: that Iraq is on its way to becoming a failed state, if it isn't one already. Long gone is the vision of a U.S.-aligned, democratic Iraq serving as a beacon to the rest of the Middle East. The country, pessimists such as Parker argue, suffers from terrorism, organized crime, corruption, human rights abuses, an absence of law and order, and a lack of basic services that is shameful for such an oil-rich place.
These problems are real and must be addressed. But those who decry Iraq's current state would do well to remember that the country is just now emerging from years of war, dictatorship, and sanctions. It achieved true sovereignty only in December 2011, when the last U.S. forces withdrew. For all its flaws, Iraq is actually moving in the right direction.
To begin with, the security situation has improved dramatically. Occasional coordinated terrorist attacks continue, mostly targeting Iraqi security forces and police. Only a few years ago, by contrast, the chief threat was not just irregular terrorism but also rocket and sniper attacks, kidnappings, drive-by shootings, and pitched battles in the streets. In 2006, the government did not control large parts of the capital, let alone the countryside, and elements of the security forces were unaccountable to those in power. All told, the violence that year left approximately 30,000 Iraqi civilians dead.
Since then, things have turned around. In 2007, an armed Sunni tribal movement known as the Anbar Awakening gained the upper hand over al Qaeda and, with support from U.S. and allied forces, inspired similar anti-al Qaeda groups within the Sunni community. At the same time, the U.S. troop "surge" bolstered the confidence of Iraqi government forces and anti-al Qaeda Sunnis. Meanwhile, Sunnis in Baghdad finally realized that they were losing the battle against the Shiite militias and that their past support for the insurgents had only weakened their position. These developments led to a dramatic reduction in violence and helped turn former Sunni fighters into U.S. allies.
To be sure, the most radical Sunni militias continue to attack the Iraqi government and its institutions. Terrorist attacks spiked last May, after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and last December, following the final withdrawal of U.S. troops. But these militias have not achieved their aim of bringing down the Iraqi government, nor have they reignited the civil war Iraq suffered in 2006 and 2007. Terrorism and criminal violence now claim on average fewer than 60 lives a week: a 90 percent reduction from 2006. What is more, most of these casualties are now caused by occasional high-profile al Qaeda attacks, not by the constant turf wars between sectarian groups that used to ravage streets and neighborhoods across the country.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has reined in the Shiite militias that once controlled large portions of Baghdad and the southern provinces and had fueled vicious sectarian conflicts in the mixed Sunni-Shiite provinces, especially Diyala and Nineveh. A crucial turning point came in March 2008, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent the Iraqi army into the streets of Basra to confront militias under the command of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Then, in December 2011, Maliki convinced the League of the Righteous, a prominent Shiite militia that had kidnapped and attacked U.S. forces and contractors, to renounce violence and enter into talks with his State of Law bloc.
THE BALLOT, NOT THE BULLET
Iraq's politics have also matured. Maliki's campaign in Basra demonstrated that a Shiite leader could take on Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Since then, the country's political system and civil society have mostly rewarded moderates and sidelined sectarians and radicals. In Iraq's 2010 parliamentary elections, Maliki's Dawa Party included prominent Sunni leaders on its list. Despite its history as a Shiite Islamist movement, Dawa positioned itself as centrist, and voters responded by giving the party 89 out of 325 seats in the legislature. At the same time, the secular, moderate, and mostly Sunni Iraqiya bloc, led by the former Shiite prime minister Ayad Allawi, won 91 seats. Only the Sadrists espoused a radical, anti-American message during the campaign. But they, too, moved away from organized violence and rebranded themselves as a political movement, which helped them capture 40 seats. In short, the election revealed Iraqi voters to be mature, moderate, and eager to move beyond years of bitter sectarian politics.
Since then, Iraq has suffered sporadic crises. After the election, politicians struggled to form a government for almost nine months, as Maliki and Allawi, neither of whom had won a majority, debated who had the right
to form a coalition. Following a deal brokered by the United States and Iraqi Kurdish leaders, a national unity government was finally seated in December 2010. Another particularly tense moment came in December 2011, when Maliki announced that an arrest warrant had been issued for the prominent Sunni leader Tariq al-Hashimi, who occupies the mostly ceremonial post of vice president. This led to a brief boycott by the Iraqiya coalition, whose members have since returned to parliament.
Despite such hiccups, Iraq now has a functioning government, comprising representatives of all the major blocs, including Sunni ministers of finance, technology, education, and agriculture from the Iraqiya bloc. Iraqi democracy is far from perfect, but Baghdad was never going to turn into Copenhagen overnight.
Parker and others correctly note that Maliki has concentrated power in his own hands; since 2006, he has increased his direct control over the security forces and deftly played rival political forces against one another. But the prime minister's power will continue to be balanced by an increasingly independent parliament. Under the leadership of Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, of Iraqiya, Iraq's parliament, the Council of Representatives, has begun asserting itself for the first time. The council resisted attempts by Maliki to sack the Independent High Electoral Commission in 2011 and recently extended the term of the commission despite the prime minister's opposition. Furthermore, Maliki and Nujaifi have demonstrated their ability to work together to resolve issues: they reduced the number of ministries in the government in mid-2011 and brokered an agreement between their parties over the Iraqiya boycott in January.
Iraq's economy has also made great strides, and the International Monetary Fund predicts that it will grow by more than 12 percent this year. Iraq holds foreign reserves of roughly $50 billion, its budget deficit stands at only 14 percent of GDP (down from approximately 19 percent in 2010), and inflation hovers around four percent. The value of the country's currency, the dinar, has remained mostly steady since the drop in violence in mid-2008. Meanwhile, oil revenues are set to increase as the government continues to cooperate with international companies on exporting, producing, and storing oil. Although U.S. investment in the country still lags, money has poured in from Europe, China, Iran, and Turkey. Foreign investment has risen from about $5 billion in 2006 to about $50 billion today and continues to grow roughly in line with GDP .
None of this is to deny Iraq's many problems. As Parker observes, the absence of true rule of law poses the greatest threat to the country's success. Pervasive corruption and human rights abuses, particularly in secret detention centers where prisoners are presumed guilty and denied habeas corpus, undermine Baghdad's claim to democratic legitimacy. Iraq's inefficient, Byzantine bureaucracy consistently fails to address these issues, in the process stymying growth and deterring foreign investment.
But these issues form a central part of the national discourse. Iraq's irrepressible media and its vocal political class consistently work to hold the country's leaders responsible for their deficiencies. And as security and the economy continue to improve, Iraq's civil society will be more empowered to shine light on the abuses and inefficiencies of the bureaucracy. Iraq is now an independent democracy that can provide for its own people. After decades of war and dictatorship, that is no small achievement.
NORMAN RICKLEFS is a consultant specializing in Iraqi security-sector reform and government relations. He has served as a Political Adviser to the Commanding General of Australian forces in Iraq and as a Senior Adviser to Iraq's Interior Minister.
As long as Iraq stays quiet, the Obama administration appears content with a deeply dysfunctional government in Baghdad that has tightened its grip on power and regularly violates human rights. Just as U.S. President George W. Bush once declared the war in Iraq a "mission accomplished," the Obama White House similarly boasts about its own Iraq policy, ignoring inconvenient realities in order to reap short-term political gains.
Antony Blinken tailors facts to suit his arguments instead of seriously addressing the issues my article raised. He gives the Obama administration credit for the seating of Iraq's current government in December 2010 and points to Vice President Joseph Biden's role in the process. But what Blinken fails to mention is that after making a short visit to Baghdad in January 2011, Biden did not return for another ten months. During his absence, the U.S.-brokered power-sharing deal unraveled, relations deteriorated among the country's political parties, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's military office continued operating secret detention centers, notorious for their alleged use of torture.
Iraq also failed to satisfy key conditions agreed on by its major political factions for the new unity government, including the creation of a special post for Ayad Allawi, Maliki's chief competitor. All of Iraq's security posts remain under the prime minister's control, despite stipulations during the 2010 negotiations that the main parties would apportion control of the Defense and Interior Ministries. Iraq's main Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions have shown themselves unable to share power or foster mutual trust, undermining the only hope for democracy in the country. Rather than try to build a harmonious government, Maliki has driven his Sunni vice president from office on controversial terrorism charges, intimated that he might do the same to his Sunni finance minister, and attempted to fire his Sunni deputy prime minister for calling him a dictator.
Norman Ricklefs is correct to note that the Iraqi people demonstrated a preference for secular, nationalist parties in the 2010 election. But he and Blinken ignore the ugly sectarian turn that the country's politics has taken since. Maliki's state-controlled television channel popularizes stories of Shiites killed by Sunni armed groups, and the prime minister often makes speeches that pander to the Shiite community's fears. Sunni parties indulge in the same demagoguery. Ricklefs sees the decision of the League of the Righteous, a Shiite militia, to disavow violence and enter into talks with Maliki's political bloc as a positive development. But some caution is in order: Iraqi interpreters who once worked for the U.S. military report that the reformed militia continues to threaten their lives.
Celebrating Iraq's improved security is equally premature. Blinken writes that violence "has declined and remains at historic lows." But with as many as 300 people still dying each month from bombings, rocket attacks, and shootings, such declarations offer ordinary Iraqis little in the way of comfort.
Most troubling to observe is how the Maliki government has abandoned any concern for civil liberties since the 2010 election. In the intervening months, security forces have raided the offices of nongovernmental organizations, including the human rights group Where Are My Rights. Authorities beat, jailed, and even killed some civilian protesters during demonstrations last year inspired by the Arab Spring. For all the talk of Iraq's vigorous press, 65 journalists were arrested and another three were murdered in 2011.
Gone is any semblance of accountability or transparency. Several Iraqi human rights officials who uncovered abuses in the so-called black jails run by Maliki's military office have been threatened with arrest and chased from the country. Similarly, anticorruption officials have been harassed and forced from office for investigating allegations of graft on the part of both Maliki's associates and their opponents. Absent a real commitment to combating corruption, Iraq will fall victim to the resource curse that has plagued other oil-producing countries. The gains from increased energy production fill the coffers of officials in the Green Zone, but they do not benefit the majority of the Iraqi public. Despite hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenues, 23 percent of the country lives in poverty.
Both Blinken and Ricklefs argue that Iraq, for all its flaws, has come a long way from the depths of its recent sectarian civil war. But such comparisons miss the point. Today's violence is orchestrated by the state as much as by any armed group. Fewer Iraqis cower in fear of al Qaeda, but security forces now torture detainees to extract confessions. Shiite militias are less capable of intimidation, but judges and civil servants know they must serve a political agenda or face retribution -- even death. On the surface, Iraq may be calmer than it was five years ago, but it has not become a healthy state.
The West should harbor no illusions. Without impartial, transparent institutions, Iraq will fall victim to authoritarianism or civil war, if not both. The country can still be saved, but to pretend that it is marching toward democracy risks dooming it to the opposite.