It would have been tempting to do a year-end summary of Iraqi politics. However, in terms of achievements on the part of Iraqi politicians, there really isn’t that much to write about. In late January, Maliki moved a little on exports from the northern oilfields, thereby strengthening his alliance with the Kurds. The Arab Spring came and went but Iraq just did not seem to care: Much of the first part of 2011 was actually spent quarrelling about the exact number of deputies to the largely ceremonial presidential office. Eventually, three deputies were agreed and approved by parliament; one of them promptly resigned. In July, in a positive move, most ministers of state were dismissed from the cabinet, at least theoretically enabling a better consolidation of the sprawling cabinet. By August, the potential for a more compact coalition with an interest in extending the US presence beyond 2011 actually seemed to exist. But it fell apart again as soon as it had come into existence as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Kurds began quarrelling about the oil law, with the secular Iraqiyya party somewhat surprisingly opting to support the confederalist position of the Kurds. By late October it was clear that there would be no prolonged US military presence; simultaneously, some Sunni-majority governorates became so exasperated with Maliki and his renewed anti-Baathism campaign that they began demanding federalism for their own areas on the Kurdish pattern. The US forces finally withdrew in December; this was followed by further steps on the part of Maliki to legally pursue Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and sack Vice Premier Saleh al-Mutlak (both from the Iraqiyya party), plunging the country into a more serious political crisis than at any point since he first came to power in 2006. Anything else? The word count is at no more than 350.
Paul Bremer to the rescue. Yes, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. After having reportedly repostured to painting landscapes in 2004, Bremer is now talking again. And writing as well, specifically in The Wall Street Journal.
At the beginning of his op-ed, Bremer declares, “For millennia, leaders in Mesopotamia have survived by making fine calculations about power.” Presumably Bremer sees himself as part of that tradition, because “fine calculations” certainly appeared to be one of his favourite pastimes during his tenure as viceroy of Iraq. In his memoirs, he recounts how at one point he dismissed a gathering of seven Iraqis as “unrepresentative” because it contained only one Sunni Arab. According to Bremer, “representativeness” would have meant a perfect proportional reflection of the ethno-sectarian demographic balance of the population (i.e. around 1.4 Sunni Arabs in this case). In another instance, Bremer nixed the inclusion of an able Christian leader in his governing council because the Christian quota would have thereby become too big according to his own mathematics.
Eight years later, Bremer still does not seem to realise how his fine calculations actually had a detrimental effect on Iraqi politics and society. He bombastically declares, “the year after the American-led coalition overthrew Saddam’s dictatorship in 2003, al Qaeda in Iraq revealed a cynical plan to kill and maim Shiites to spark a sectarian war. It almost worked. Only President George W. Bush’s courageous decision to surge additional troops in early 2007 saved the country.” Many Iraqis would say it was Bremer’s own focus on sectarian identities when he put together the governing council in 2003 that was the real culprit. They would also add that the “saviour” was not Bush’s surge but Iraqis themselves who began working together across sectarian lines as they discovered just how flawed the constitution they had adopted with American support in 2005 was.
At times, Bremer just cannot seem to make up his mind whether we should cry or be happy about the new Iraq. It is almost touching how he enlists modernisation theory methodology that was in the vogue in the 1950s to count telephones as an indicator of how wonderful everything is in the post-2003 democratic era! But eventually he does find an answer: Everything is fine, except “al Qaeda and Iranian terrorists still active in Iraq”.
Perhaps the most substantially interesting piece of information in the Bremer op-ed is the suggestion that “quiet diplomacy had secured the agreement of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani not to oppose a continued American presence [beyond 2011]”. Back in 2008, National Security Council types would tell us the same thing: Sistani supposedly wanted a long-term military pact with the Americans; only the evil Sadrists opposed it. As is well known, Maliki crushed the Sadrists that year and went on to dictate strict time limits for the SOFA concluded with the Americans. In other words, the Sistani factor never seemed to come into play. Perhaps because it was never based on anything more than some ambiguous statement by his son, Muhammad Rida?
More fundamentally, Bremer’s musings on these topics are typical of a prevalent trend in US policy-making circles in which Iraqi Shiites are seen as profoundly anti-Iranian across the board. That thesis is based on good scholarship by Yitzhak Nakash which rightly identifies anti-Iranian trends in parts of the Iraqi Shiite community. But it also contains unfortunate generalisations in which the Shiites are posited as a monolithic community. In fact, the Shiites that were propelled to political prominence by Bremer and other Americans after 2003 happened to be the minority with particularly close ties to Iran.
As for the current situation, Bremer correctly diagnoses a state of crisis in Iraqi politics.“Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, issued an arrest warrant for the country’s vice president, a Sunni, who then fled to the northern Kurdish area.” And unsurprisingly, the cure prescribed by Bremer is more US intelligence and military intervention: “We should also seek ways to extend our contacts with the Iraqi military, with the eventual goal of returning at least a cadre of U.S. forces to Iraq. Training Iraqi forces outside Iraq, in the U.S. or elsewhere, could be a useful step.”
“Sunnis” and “Shiites”. Clearly, Bremer is at it again. His op-ed is an unspoken mea culpa second only to that of another former Iraq ambassador, Chris Hill and constitutes a much less effective neo-conservative criticism of the Iraq policies of the Obama administration than that previously put forward by Charles Krauthammer. Put simply, Mr. Bremer, you’ve got the wrong calculator: With analytical tools like that, there really is no point in going back.
Let’s settle for the more modest new year’s wish that one year from now there actually exists a recognisable Iraq to write about.