The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
In mid-November, after eight months of political deadlock, Nouri al-Maliki was finally designated for a second term as prime minister of Iraq. In the West, talk swirled about a supposed power-sharing deal that lay behind the apparent breakthrough. The most optimistic accounts have portrayed the new, yet-to-be-formed Iraqi cabinet as a “government of national unity” with real power given to the four biggest winners in the March parliamentary elections: the secular but increasingly Sunni-leaning Iraqiya; the two biggest (and recently merged) Shiite Islamist coalitions, State of Law, headed by Maliki, and the Sadrist-dominated Iraqi National Alliance; and a coalition of Kurdish parties.
But so far, the power-sharing deal has been disconcertingly lacking in substance. Right now, it appears that the notion of power-sharing in Iraq is nothing more than a spin-doctor operation by the Obama administration -- to which Iraq’s dominant Shiite Islamist parties are happy to pay lip service. Looking at the distribution of influential positions in the new government, only one player has been given true power: Nouri al-Maliki.
Iraqiya, besides having gained the speakership of the parliament -- an important position but one that remains checked by deputy speakers with relatively strong powers -- has only been promised a castle in the air: the presidency of a projected National Council for Strategic Policies. The council, which ostensibly would give Iraqiya influence in all major decisions regarding defense, internal security, and economic and energy-related issues, is thus far being treated by Maliki and his allies as a deliberative think tank whose main function would be to offer advice.
As for the Kurds, they have apparently received promises from Maliki on key demands regarding disputed territories and possibly the oil sector; in terms of specific cabinet positions, however, they, too, have few guarantees. The presidency, which the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani had demanded for personal reasons, is now an essentially powerless position. This new office lacks the strong veto power of the transitional three-man presidency council, which expired when Talabani was elected as an ordinary president without any deputies on November 11, bringing the five-year transition stipulated in the Iraqi constitution to an end.
Despite the weaknesses of the projected National Council for Strategic Policies, the Obama administration refers to it as the centerpiece of the supposed power-sharing deal. It is essentially a consolation prize, created by U.S. policymakers who wanted to accommodate Ayad Allawi, the leader of Iraqiya, which won the most seats in the election. His ambitions for the prime minister office were never really taken seriously by Washington (for which anything other than a Shiite Islamist prime minister, such as Maliki, seemed impossible to imagine).
From the beginning, the U.S. effort to push for the council was dominated by wishful thinking and attempts to circumvent the Iraqi constitutional framework. Initially, U.S. policymakers considered reviving Iraq’s so-called Political Council for National Security, a mostly dormant committee that came into being in 2006 without any legal basis. (Its functions were agreed upon by its members without approval from parliament.) Moreover, the internal bylaws of the council required it to make decisions by a two-thirds majority -- often a virtual impossibility, given that the body was comprised of nearly all the top members of the Iraqi government, who have long demonstrated difficulty in reaching agreement on anything. Accordingly, the idea of using this institution to satisfy the aspirations of Iraqiya was always going to be unrealistic.
Unsurprisingly, Allawi showed little interest in serving as chairman of the proposed body when the United States first suggested the possibility this past summer. So U.S. officials then shifted to the idea of giving the presidency to Iraqiya instead. But this move, too, rested on a faulty reading of the Iraqi constitution and legal framework. Now that the transitional three-man presidency council has expired, the Iraqi presidency is mostly symbolic; to make it a genuinely powerful position would require the approval of a supermajority in parliament and a popular referendum. Such an outcome, of course, is far from guaranteed, which would predicate the entire government-formation process on hypothetical future events, leaving Iraqiya in a highly vulnerable position if it accepted the presidency under those terms.
As it happened, the Kurds strongly resisted these plans, and at the same time, Iraqiya was intimidated by Iranian moves to back Maliki as prime minister. As a result -- and with much U.S. encouragement -- Allawi and his Iraqiya party opted for another scenario with hypothetical propositions: the original idea of a security council now modified as the National Council for Strategic Policies.
But the central problem, which both the United States and Iraqiya refuse to recognize, remains the same as before: public talk of councils, and even signed agreements by the country’s biggest political blocs, cannot override the demands of Iraq’s constitution and laws. At a minimum, in order to reach a true power-sharing deal, the Iraqi parliament would need to pass a law clearly defining the powers of the projected council before a vote of confidence in the next government.
The fractious and ineffective Iraqi parliament, however, is unlikely to pass such a contentious piece of legislation anytime soon, leaving Iraqiya without a legal guarantee for its role in a power-sharing arrangement. Even if a miracle were to happen and the National Assembly passed the necessary legislation, the council -- at least according to leaked drafts -- would still be an extremely weak institution with little real power, due to the requirements for consensus decisions (in the range of an 80 percent majority threshold). The list of proposed members of the council is also long, making it hard to see how Allawi or any other Iraqiya leader could turn the head of the body into an effective post.
To some extent, Iraqiya has its own poor strategy to blame for its loss of influence. When it was awarded the speakership on November 11, it could have pushed for a law on the projected council prior to the election of Talabani as president and the subsequent nomination of Maliki as prime minister, thereby maintaining leverage at a stage when its cooperation was still needed. Instead, Iraqiya’s members proceeded to voice rather lame demands: they asked for a vote on a “pledge” to legislate the council (instead of actually legislating it) and demanded that the parliament clear three of its party members from the de-Baathification process. Eventually, despite the rejection by the rest of the assembly of even these modest demands, Iraqiya’s own newly elected speaker, Usama al-Nujayfi, went ahead with the process of electing Talabani anyway. This move gave up much of Iraqiya’s freshly won leverage, since Talabani immediately proceeded to charge Maliki with forming the new government.
The main responsibility for the fragile character of Iraq’s “power-sharing deal,” however, rests with the Obama administration. Washington continues to spend more energy pursuing its own, idiosyncratic exegesis of Iraqi politics than it does engaging with the real world. The faulty U.S. logic of today has its conceptual precedents in a plan for Iraqi governance pushed by then Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) in 2007. The so-called Biden plan for Iraq, which found its way into pieces of legislation passed by the U.S. Senate, violated the Iraqi constitution in the creation of new federal regions: instead of adhering to the bottom-up procedures for federalization outlined in the Iraqi constitution and the federalism law of October 2006, the Biden plan advocated a one-off, “comprehensive” federalism settlement.
As in 2007, Vice President Biden, who is a key proponent of the proposed new arrangements, is once again relying on his own vision in disregard of Iraq’s constitution and laws -- which, as of today, simply have no room for his projected council. The resulting reality gap between Washington and Baghdad is now getting so large that it threatens to derail the overall Iraq policy of the U.S. government. The Obama administration argues that the nonexistent council is a triumph of U.S. diplomacy and even a defeat for Iran. The former assumption is delusional; the latter is both wrong and dangerous. U.S. officials have tried to claim that Iran wanted to exclude Iraqiya from the political process entirely, and so its inclusion on the theoretical council represents a sort of victory. In fact, Tehran’s minimum requirement in Iraq was simply that some kind of Shiite-led alliance should constitute the backbone of the new government -- an outcome that Washington has consistently supported and one that is in line with the recent deals cut in Baghdad.
Accordingly, it appears that both Maliki and the leadership in Tehran have concluded that this new institution is harmless enough -- if the council can make Washington happy without wielding any real significance, then it may be worth pursuing as an act of political theater. The question, then, is how long the United States will continue to celebrate its latest “victory” in Iraq instead of forging a truly sustainable long-term policy.