Iraq and Gulf Analysis

A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005–2010

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 30 November 2010 15:51

Now available from

In 2005, under the auspices of the U.S. occupation, Iraq adopted a constitution that defined the first parliamentary cycle as a “transitional” period. Between 2005 and 2010 the political system would become transformed from one dominated by power-sharing among ethno-sectarian communities toward a more robustly national, issue-based form of democracy with a strong prime minister.

As the U.S. sharply reduced its troop presence in Iraq in 2010, it became clear that this democratic transition had not happened. The lengthy process of government formation after the March 2010 election remained influenced by the same ethno-sectarian bargaining that had characterized Iraqi politics five years earlier. The goal of having a strong prime minister with a national orientation was still distant. In fact, most Iraqi politicians seemed to cling to the instruments of ethno-sectarian quotas and regional patronage as a way of bolstering their own influence.

A brand new book, A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005–2010, explains what went wrong at the level of Iraq’s parliamentary politics between 2005 and 2010 and identifies potential problems in the years that lie ahead. Updated all the way to the formal end of the transition on 11 November 2010, it argues that most players on the Iraqi scene never tried to move towards a more progressive form of politics. Only one leading Iraqi politician, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, even tried to pursue the constitutional vision of a majoritarian democracy—and he failed. But Iraq’s politicians are not the only ones at fault. Another key theme in A Responsible End? is the strong role played by the U.S. government and the United Nations in enshrining a retrograde, ethno-sectarian politics in Iraq during a period that was supposed to be about political progress.

To go directly to Amazon, click here.


Reidar Visser is the most careful observer of Iraqi politics writing in English today. He is also a one-man truth squad, skewering the conventional wisdom that has been so wrong about Iraq so many times and holding politicians and analysts to account for their errors and missteps. One could hardly find a better source for deciphering the complexities of Iraqi politics.

University of Vermont

Since the invasion in 2003, Reidar Visser’s stature as one of the world’s leading experts on Iraq has continued to grow. Visser has shared his expertise through his copious writings and detailed blogs. These have now been gathered together for the first time in one book, A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010. This book provides an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to understand Iraqi politics from 2005 to the present… It should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the terrible costs of regime change in Iraq and what the future holds for that country beyond occupation and civil war.

International Institute for Strategic Studies

Visser offers a trenchant critique of US entanglement in Iraq and points to avenues of positive engagement on the part of the international community… His analysis of the promise and pitfalls of federalism is the best I have read.

George Washington University

To buy this book from Amazon, click here.

20 Responses to “A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005–2010”

  1. Jason said

    At the beginning of the war, those opposed predicted that Iraq would violently disintegrate on the model of Yugoslavia, and end up dominated by Iran like Lebanon and Gaza. Those in favor prayed that there was enough of a cohesive society to build a unified, democratic nation-state. Knowledgeable (and honest) people understood that even in homogenous places like Germany and Japan, that took about 7-10 years, and something like 40 in South Korea.

    Barring a catastrophe over Kirkuk, Iraq seems to have narrowly avoided the Yugoslavia model. Iran’s mercenary proxies have been suppressed militarily, but have achieved a large parliamentary block and kingmaker status in government formation. The wheels of constitutional democracy, however flawed, are turning forward.

    I guess my question is, “who got it right?”

  2. Reidar Visser said

    I’d say none of them. One of the major points in the book is that there was in fact limited progress in Iraq in the 2008-2009 period, but that this was despite the policies of the USG, not because of them. Indeed, I argue in the book that Washington was incapable of even understanding that a certain amount of progress was going on, leading it to pursue policies that eventually reversed those positive tendencies instead.

  3. alexno said

    Only one leading Iraqi politician, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, even tried to pursue the constitutional vision of a majoritarian democracy—and he failed.

    One of the major points in the book is that there was in fact limited progress in Iraq in the 2008-2009 period, but that this was despite the policies of the USG, not because of them.

    I’m sure you are right about that. I’m sure even that one can be still ruder about US policy, and say that they were actively opposed to Maliki’s policies, in that period.

    The question I had in my mind, when you say that al-Maliki failed, is: do you think that failure is definitive? Or, if al-Maliki succeeds in getting his government together, as the US increasingly recedes from Iraq, would he not go back to the policies of 2008-9?

    By the way, have you got anything to say about Wikileaks on Iraq? I haven’t looked seriously, though I’m reading a collection of messages emanating from the US embassy in Baghdad on the al-Akhbar site.

    Second By the way, congratulations on the book!

  4. Reidar Visser said

    Alex, yes I agree with that. When Maliki did something positive in the 2008-2009 period in terms of restoring the credibility of the centralised state, Washington immediately got very concerned that he was getting too strong. Let me link that to your last question: So far, the Baghdad cables haven’t been particularly thrilling, save for some of the details. In one of them, Hill in late 2009 expressed his consternation at Ayad al-Samarraie, the “Sunni speaker” promoted by the USG earlier that year, for having a relationship to the Iranian revolutionary guards. Of course, the reason the USG had promoted Samarraie was precisely that they were worried about Maliki’s nationalism.

    With regard to “failure”, I’m using that term since what Maliki is doing today is so clearly antithetical to what he was attempting in early 2009. Back then he really tried to cobble together some kind of “political majority” coalition based on the vision of a strongly centralised state by cooperating with Sunnis and secularists. After the March 2010 elections he no longer had the numbers he needed and the result is reliance on regional forces (the Iranian hand behind the Sadrist change of mind) as well as separatist ones (the Kurds). It is of course not inconceivable that he will once more go back to his erstwhile nationalism at some point in the future, but that is still looking a long way off right now.

  5. Jason said

    The Bush Team started with too rosy a view of the ability of Iraqis to quickly form a cohesive democracy, while Biden famously wanted to partition it to avoid another Yugoslavia. Were these opposite views reflected in the policy on the ground after the Bush/Obama transition? Did the Biden view contribute to failure to recognize progress being made and retrenchment of ethno-sectarian deals?

  6. Reidar Visser said

    Precisely. I wrote something about that in July 2009, here:
    Of course, Iran was already desperately trying to pressure Maliki away from his nationalist ideas, but it received ample assistance from the Obama administration. It would however be wrong to put all of the blame on Obama: For example, many of Hill’s analytical misjudgements were inherited from Crocker.

  7. bks said

    Jason: “too rosy a view”? What is startling about the past eight years is that there has not been one exculpatory finding with respect to the dangerous delusions of Bush and friends. Colin Powell’s speech at the UN will go down in infamy, as will Bush’s single duplicitous press conference in advance of the invasion and occupation. Biden may be an idiot, but I see no reason to conflate his post facto attempt to find a solution with the homicidal lunacy of the Bush administration.


    p.s. Congratulations and good luck with the book, Reidar.

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Bks, thanks. I have elaborated on the Biden involvement in the latest developments here:

    That is not meant to exonerate Bush of course.

  9. Mohammed said

    Hi Reidar:

    Congratulations on your book. Well deserved and long overdue given your incredible knowledge base.

    But if I may be so bold to ask regarding your post in Foreign Affairs; how do you define power sharing since you seemed to already have concluded that the new government will be devoid of power sharing? I thought you were against the concept of a unity government in the first place.


  10. Reidar Visser said

    Mohammed, many thanks! Generally, I am not enthusiastic about power-sharing, but my point if that if you call it power-sharing it should at least be real power-sharing. The USG was talking about blocking power for Iraqiyya and some kind of checks and balances; I see none of that so far. I see a lot of power for Maliki but not much in the way of sharing.

  11. amagi said

    Good article, Reidar. (And congratulations on the book, by the way!) I’d like to look ahead just a bit, since you now accept the marginalization of Iraqiyya as essentially a given. When the dust settles and we have a situation where Maliki reigns as PM with his power largely (or completely) unchecked, what do you think his priorities will be? How will the new government act? I understand that the answer is essentially, ‘very much as the old one did,’ but I would like some specific predictions, if you have any.

  12. Reidar Visser said

    Amagi thanks so much for that. This is something I’ll write more about shortly, but as said before there are two main scenarios: Either Maliki will liberate himself from his main coalition partners once more (Kurds, Sadrists and maybe ISCI), or he’ll be overpowered by them. So far, what I’m hearing from the coalition talks about Shahristani being under pressure and ISCI/Badr people like Bayan Jabr vying for ministries suggests Maliki at this point is not quite where he was in 2008 in terms of ability & confidence to go it alone.

  13. Kermanshahi said

    If Maliki once again backstabs his allies, he’ll never get the Prime Minister post again, unless he abolishes elections. There’s no way he’ll ever win a majority, so in 4 or 5 years time he’ll find himself in the same position as he did this year, only than he won’t be able to get the benefit of the doubt.

    BTW, you can’t really compare the government formation with the 2008-2009 Maliki going Saddam, period. Since he needs everyone to approve the governmetn first, so he can’t start screwing over his allies just yet even if he’s planning to.

  14. Reidar Visser said

    Maliki doesn’t need “everyone”. He needs 163, and the fact that Nujayfi et al. are participating means that in theory at least he has more choice and greater leverage vis-a-vis the Kurds and the Sadrists than he had one month ago. Whether he intends to use it at this point in a different matter, though.

  15. IMARK said

    Warm congratulations on your book which I hope will be printed in Arabic and made available to Iraqis only to be surprised by the fact that an outsider and Norwegian has articulated their concerns and wishes so well!
    On the immediate future path of Iraqi politics, I think it is inevitable that controversial legislations regarding Oil, Kerkuk, budget, etc. will have the Maliky block, most of Iraqiyya, Sadrists and independents joining together to make an overwhelming majority in pursuance of Iraqi nationalist course.

  16. Alan said

    Reidar – a bit late here, but on the Wikileaks thing and Washington’s oppostion to Maliki’s “nationalism”, one thing I have noticed from the cables is the US appearing to adopt in 2009 as their primary strategy a policy of exposing Iranian activities in order to undermine their influence in Iraq. I imagine there must have been a bit of this going on for some time, but it does seem to promote a nationalist disposition.

  17. Reidar Visser said

    Alan, I disagree with that. In most of the Hill cables there is also the notion of an “inevitable” Shiite premiership (see for example the “Great Game” one) which is precisely the sectarian, anti-nationalist posture that Iran wanted him to adopt.

  18. Alan said

    Reidar – but do you not think the rather sanguine attitude the US seems to be taking toward Iranian influence in Iraq is at least in part because of a growing confidence that the Iraqis, in particular the Shia, are not likely to let themselves fall under Iranian “control”? And that the US have been feeding that? I guess it isn’t “nationalist” as you say, in that within Iraq the US takes a sectarian view, but the cables seem to show, to some extent, that the US thinks it can pull that off without relinquishing too much to Iran.

  19. Reidar Visser said

    The cables just confirm the hapless disorientation of the USG in the question of the relationship between the Iraqi Shiites and Iran. Crocker used to tell us that the Iraqi nationalism of the Shiites were demonstrated by their record of fighting Iran in the 1980s and yet he went on to base his diplomatic links with Iraq’s Shiites on the minority that fought on the Iranian side in the war. Hill didn’t understand that by incessantly reiterating the idea of a “Shiite premier” he was undermining whatever hopes others in the State Department may have had about Iraqi Shiites forming a bulwark against Iran.

  20. Alan said

    …..which could have been achieved via an Iraqiyya/SOL coalition.

    OK, thanks Reidar. I guess it brings it back to the question of whether the US has something cooking with Iran really (I suspect they may have).

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