Iraq's Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi smiles during a meeting with German's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Baghdad August 16, 2014.
Courtesy Reuters

Haider al-Abadi, selected to be Iraq’s new prime minister, is already being hailed as a potential savior for his country. For months, Iraqi politics has been in a state of outright crisis, with a political deadlock in parliament; a prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with authoritarian tendencies; and an expanding insurgency in northern Iraq led by the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), also called Islamic State (IS). Policymakers in the United States and elsewhere have argued that ending the emergency requires Iraq’s political leaders to create a government that shares power between Iraq’s main ethnic and sectarian communities. The hope is that Abadi, who was chosen with support from Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, will be able to do just that. 

Abadi’s appointment as prime minister is a welcome opportunity. But the system of power sharing that resulted in his appointment is part of the reason that Iraq’s politics have been so turbulent in the first place. It’s not sufficient for sectarian groups simply to cooperate on the selection of a political leader or the composition of a cabinet. (After all, every Iraqi government since 2003, including Maliki’s, has been cobbled together in similar fashion.) Achieving true stability in Baghdad will require devising institutions capable of resolving political conflicts when they recur. And it’s not at all clear whether Iraq's political establishment is up to that task.

By empowering specific political factions, rather than the country's political institutions, Iraq's power-sharing arrangements have failed to cope with natural changes in the country’s balance of power. Consider Maliki’s tenure as prime minister. The United States backed him as a compromise candidate in 2006 in the hope that his appointment would create stability and allow Washington to transfer security responsibilities to the Iraqi government. Maliki was considered capable of balancing between the two strongest poles of Shia politics, the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, both of which had powerful militias. Neither group would stomach a prime minister from the other, but Maliki’s Dawa party did not have a strong militia. His selection therefore promised to preserve Shia ascendency without threatening either faction’s role within it. Maliki’s appointment similarly reassured the Iranian government and Iraqi’s Kurdish population that, because they had a lowest common denominator in office, they would have a strong hand to pursue their own interests.

But this was not a sustainable arrangement: any prime minister would eventually seek to break free of this structurally weak position. Maliki's campaign against the Sadrist militia Jaish al-Mahdi in Basra and Baghdad in the spring of 2008 needs to be understood in this context. This wasn't a bid to strengthen the Iraqi state. Indeed, the campaign was hardly in the service of Iraqi state institutions at all: Maliki, commanding the operations himself, mostly circumvented the ministry of defense. Maliki's goal was to personally strengthen his hand against the factions that had been limiting his authority. Once his Shia flank was secure, he used the same methods to target Sunni rivals after the 2010 election, destroying Iraq’s best chance for political progress. 

Iraq's superficial power-sharing has favored the selection of leaders who lack any independent base of power within the government or outside of it, forcing them to devise their own ways of carving out authority. Abadi now finds himself in the same position as Maliki -- in fact, he owes his power to essentially the same set of backers (especially Iran) as Maliki did in 2006. He also inherits the same set of weak institutions. Abadi may be a transformative leader in a way that Maliki was not (and may learn lessons from Maliki’s authoritarian experiment), but the structure of Iraq’s politics will tempt him in the same direction. 

Rather than a system of ad hoc power-sharing that reflects the country's sectarianism, Iraq needs stable constitutional arrangements, a set of rules that will be authoritative even as the country's balance of power changes. Of course, this is easier said than done. Strong institutions don’t fall out of the sky.

South Africa's transition to democracy is an instructive case in point. Post-apartheid leaders didn't simply make gestures of reconciliation to their former oppressors; they crafted a constitution that offered more than a zero-sum transfer of power from whites to blacks. The country's new institutions regulated the market, transformed the civil service, and boosted social grants and access to health care and services for the poor. Although the reforms were imperfectly implemented, they initially helped the leaders of the African National Congress reverse apartheid’s legacy, as they were elected to do, but also gave the still powerful white minority reason to believe that its economic investments were safe. Using the new set of institutions was therefore in the self-interest of both parties.

The lesson for countries like Iraq is that institutions don’t gain any independent authority unless they initially serve powerful interests, but if they do, they can one day constrain those very powers. As political scientist Stephen Holmes has put it, power politics “can incubate the rule of law.”

But it's hard to tell whether Abadi will be interested in or capable of founding a functional political system of this sort. It is clear that he would face formidable challenges, including the political elites’ attachment to the patronage benefits of the current system. Maliki's authoritarian tendencies -- and his violation of the nationalist mandate he received in the 2010 elections -- have deepened Iraq's sectarianism, as violence has displaced tens of thousands. In such circumstances, it would be extremely difficult for any leader to rally the public behind a nationalist political project. Still, Abadi should search for potential overlaps between the goals of the country's various political blocs and demonstrate that they can be reached within institutional channels.

Abadi's most important test will be how he conducts the fight against ISIS. That will be his first opportunity to demonstrate the value -- or futility -- of revitalizing the organs of state, particularly those dealing with security. Abadi will have to find ways to organize potential Sunni opponents of ISIS under the authority of the state. This would lead not only to military payoffs but to political ones. Unlike in 2006 -- when the United States organized Sunni opposition forces to fight al Qaeda in Iraq and then asked a reluctant Maliki to integrate its combatants into Iraq’s security forces -- the Iraqi government has the potential to demonstrate for the country’s Sunnis, Shia, and Kurdish populations the benefits of working through the Iraqi state. But this will be a difficult task. Restructuring the military in this way, and addressing its corrupt chain of command, will likely gain support from the public and political leaders only if they are relatively assured of a successful outcome. In a country where security has always rested on personal rather than national loyalties, Abadi faces a transformative challenge. 

Institutional development in Iraq will be a difficult, nonlinear process, and by no means inevitable. The United States, particularly with its limited military presence in Iraq, cannot control the path the country will take. It shouldn’t expect the current power-sharing deal to solve Iraq’s political problems; it also shouldn't expect to change the country's existing political dynamics by offering arms as a reward for forming a new government. If Washington wants to make a positive impact, it should focus on redeveloping the diplomatic, military, and economic relationships that can make the United States a more effective partner to the Iraqi state rather than to particular factions. Unfortunately, U.S. policy seems to be the reverse at the moment -- calling for Iraqi leaders to reach a grand compromise based on power-sharing principles and avoiding long-term commitments to Iraqis who choose a nationalist path. 

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  • KEVIN RUSSELL is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Yale University. He was an Iraq policy analyst for the Department of Defense from 2006–08 and State Department Governance Specialist in 2008–09.
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