Baghdad's Long, Cold Winter

Iraq's long, hot summer is over and its leaders have a deal to form a government. But getting things done won't get much easier.

The most disconcerting thing about Baghdad these days is just how happy the politicians are. Although an actual government is still not in place, Iraqi political leaders across the spectrum are positively gleeful, and that should make us worried.

Late last month, while Americans were recovering from Thanksgiving and charging, credit cards first, into the winter shopping season, Iraq’s re-elected President, Jalal Talabani, asked Nuri al-Maliki to take the first crack at forming a government. Maliki now has until Christmas to do so. Maliki secured that honor after over nine months of political deadlock by agreeing to preside over what amounts to a national unity government. He struck deals with the Kurdish parties, the Sadrists, and even the secular-but-Sunni-dominated Iraqiya party to bring them into the government. The only significant party that may be left out is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which had once been a powerhouse among Iraq’s Shia, only to have their star wane as the Sadrists’ has waxed. (This only makes the situation worse as ISCI has played an extremely constructive role in recent years, while the Sadrists, with their goal of pursuing a “Hezbollah model,” are political poison for Iraq.)

The problem is that all of Iraq’s best and brightest politicians and political analysts—as well as the keener observers in the U.S. embassy and military—recognize that the government that is likely to take office late next month is going to have a great deal of difficulty doing anything. The Iraqis went for an all-inclusive government because they could not sort out their political divisions. But forming one simply means bringing all of those differences inside the government, where they are likely to prevent it from actually governing. Prolonged gridlock, political bickering and the potential for a worsening spiral as some leaders try to skirt the system to accomplish their own personal agendas—and others see that as efforts to subvert Iraq’s democracy or even establish a new dictatorship—is the most likely condition for Iraq’s future, just as it was for Iraq’s recent past. For the Iraqi people, it means little likelihood that this government will be able to overcome its bureaucratic, political and technical failings to provide basic services, restart Iraq’s economy, stamp out corruption and organized crime, reconcile Iraq’s suspicious factions, or find a permanent solution to the lingering terrorism and militia problems.

The reason for the giddiness among so many of Iraq’s political elite has almost nothing to do with that, and that too is part of the problem. Even though the pie has not yet been divvied up, and the Iraqis have constructed a typically convoluted “points” system to determine who will get which executive and ministerial posts, most of Iraq’s politicians now know that they will be getting something. Each will get his or her ministry or agency, which means power and prestige for them and patronage (meaning graft and lots and lots of sinecures) for their supporters.

This would be bad enough on its own, but it has the potential to exacerbate the likely problems stemming from Iraq’s overly inclusive new government. The one threat that both thoughtful Iraqis and outsiders can point to as a potential check on abuses of power by members of the government, and a potential goad to strike deals and get things done, is the threat of a vote of no confidence that would bring down the government. But we’ve seen this movie before: In 2008­–2009, there were endless efforts to organize a vote of no confidence against the first Maliki government, but they all came to naught. One reason for that was American opposition, which may or may not continue to be the case in the future (and may or may not matter depending on how preciptiously the Obama administration draws down American forces and resources in Iraq).

However, there were other reasons as well, and these remain and they remain very powerful. The first is that in Iraq’s fragmented and immature political systems, for a cabinet member, turning on the prime minister and actually standing up in parliament and voting no confidence means giving up your ministry—your patronage network, what you need to keep your supporters happy—with no guarantee of getting it back. That is extremely dangerous for any Iraqi politician. Indeed, it only makes sense if he (or she) can guarantee that he (or she) will secure the same or a better position in the successor government. But forming a new government requires all of the other parties to agree on the division of roles in that new government, which requires untangling the same Gordian knot that produced Iraq’s political deadlock and government formation crises to begin with.