Paul Pillar

Iraqi Political Culture on Display

The word from Baghdad late yesterday that Iraqi politicians had, after eight months of post-election deadlock, arrived at an agreement that will allow incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to remain in office has probably generated sighs of relief in a lot of places, especially Washington. But the reported accord demonstrates far less about what Iraqi democracy has achieved than about its continued woeful shortcomings. There is no hint of acceptance and understanding of such democratic concepts as a loyal opposition and the possibility of alternation in office. Instead, there has been the kind of apportionment of posts and power that has little to do with the popular will and more to do with distrust among politicians who see the least risk in getting everyone into a single tent, where everybody can warily watch everybody else. The key concession evidently was by Iraqiya bloc leader Ayad Allawi, who gave up his claim to the prime minister's office in return for his bloc filling the post of parliamentary speaker as well as the leadership of a newly created National Council for Strategic Policy. Something that can be called a government is being formed, but at the price of unwieldiness.

There are sure to be significant disagreements over specific powers and responsibilities, particularly of the new and ill-defined council. There also is likely to be continued governmental ineffectiveness overall, with an absence of bold initiatives to tackle Iraq's many and severe problems. This result is not derived only from the insecurity that also continues in Iraq, punctuated by an upsurge in terrorist bombings. It is not to be blamed on anything that U.S. troops failed to do or did inadequately. It is due in the first instance to the narrow demands of Iraqi politicians unaccustomed to behaving like liberal democrats. It is due more fundamentally to the still unresolved questions about how the different Iraqi communities are to live with one another, and particularly about the role of Sunni Arabs in a new Iraqi political order.

All of this is a reminder of how very far the Iraqis have yet to come in developing political habits of the sort required to make a democracy work and work smoothly. It also is a reminder of how wrong former President Bush was in dismissing as ethnocentric prejudice any skepticism about how well and how quickly Iraqis could build a successful democracy.