It’s been over four months since Iraq’s national elections on March 7 and still there is no sign that the various parties are enough in agreement to form a new government. Given the fragility of Iraq’s nascent democracy, and the importance of this particular transition—which will set precedents for decades to come—the United States and the Iraqis have good reason to be patient. If we want a government bad, we can get one bad, but that won’t serve anyone’s interests.
Unfortunately, there are also dangers in allowing this process to drag on. The Iraqi people have suffered for too long and they desperately need a government able to administer the country, rebuild its infrastructure and economy, and forge political compromises among the different factions to put the threat of a renewed civil war permanently to rest. Moreover, the longer that the politicking over government formation drags on, the greater the risk that the various militias and other thugs associated with many of the political parties will try to take matters into their own hands—breaking the deadlock by assassination, intimidation or even massacre. Nothing could propel Iraq back into civil war faster.
So far, the United States has chosen to try to nudge the Iraqis along, urging them to address the matter, suggesting potential solutions, but refusing to push them for any particular solution. Washington’s approach has been driven by a reasonable concern that a heavy-handed U.S. effort would likely cause a backlash against both whichever candidate we chose and the United States itself.
The patience of the American approach has been admirable so far, but the danger is that there is simply no forcing event out there on the calendar that could bring the current impasse to an end. And if there is not something that can do so, it may be the case that there needs to be someone to do so instead. As the former occupying power and the nation that has shouldered the responsibility for creating a stable new Iraqi government by dint of our having been the country that toppled the old one, that someone could only be the United States.
It isn’t yet time to put this approach into action, but it is time to start thinking about how we would do so. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan will begin in a few weeks. It seems unlikely that the Iraqis will have a government formed either before or during Ramadan. The Iraqi politicians will continue to negotiate during Ramadan, and it is possible that we will have a new government soon after. Moreover, the administration and the U.S. Embassy plan to redouble their current efforts during this period of time, so it would be reasonable to wait at least until mid-September, after the Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
Some Options for Walking on Eggshells
If the Eid passes without an Iraqi government, the United States will have to think about changing its current course of action, to take a more active role in helping them out of their conundrum.1 However, if we are going to do so, we cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. The administration’s concern that the United States not be seen as anointing the next Iraqi government remains valid. So too is it crucial that any greater American involvement be seen as bolstering Iraq’s democratic processes and institutions, not subverting them. Consequently, the best American options lie in stressing what would be best for the Iraqi political system and what would be most consistent with democratic principles.
One last general point needs to be made about all such options: They are best implemented in close conjunction with the United Nations. The UN Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) has emerged as a very effective partner for the U.S. government in the country and is well respected by Iraqis as a neutral but constructive entity. As such, it can help draw the sting from a more active American role by bolstering the argument that this involvement is driven by a desire to see Iraq strengthened in a way that will benefit all Iraqis, and not merely that the United States is trying to pick a new Iraqi government that will serve venal American interests. The more that can be done in partnership with UNAMI, the better.
The Winner Goes First. The first and most obvious course of action that the United States and UNAMI could follow would be to declare that the winner of the March 7 election—i.e., the party that won the most seats in the Iraqi parliament—should be given the first opportunity to form a government. On this and a variety of other points, the Iraqi constitution is ambiguous, and the chief justice of the Iraqi supreme court has issued an opinion that either the electoral coalition that won the most seats or the post-election coalition that secures the most seats could be tapped by the president to try first to form a new government. If this opinion is allowed to become precedent, it means that the election says nothing about which party gets the first shot at forming a government—all that matters is the politicking that follows—creating the potential for endless negotiations after every election. The United States and UN could publicly weigh in against this interpretation, observing that it is a recipe for regular political chaos in Iraq after every election. We could then argue that it would be far preferable for Iraqi democracy if the electoral coalition that won the most votes were to get the first chance to form a government.
Of course, the problem is that, in this case, taking a principled position could mean picking the winner. Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya party won the most seats in the election, beating out Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law (SoL) party 91 to 89. Thus, he would get that first try. Since he there is a good chance that whoever gets tapped to go first will succeed, the result could be that Allawi ends up forming the government.2 Maliki and his partisans would doubtless see this as an American ploy to put Allawi in power cloaked in the garb of trying to protect Iraqi democracy. If the United States decides to pursue this course—which actually would be best in terms of setting the right precedent for Iraqi democracy in the future—it would have to make the case to Maliki and his party that since they insist that Allawi can’t form a government, it would be best for them if he were allowed to try and fail, at which point it would then be the Maliki’s turn to do so.
Respect the Election. A somewhat similar approach the United States could take would be to declare in conjunction with UNAMI that the government should reflect the outcome of the election. Again, this would be a useful precedent to set for Iraqi democracy moving forward, albeit perhaps not so important as clarifying who gets first crack at forming a government. In addition, it probably would not rankle either Allawi’s Iraqiyya or Maliki’s SoL since the thrust of this statement would be that they should form the government jointly given their comparable election results. It would also mean that other parties should not be more prominent than either of them. Indeed, the group that would likely be most unhappy would be the Sadrists, whose prospects for dominating the government would be eliminated. The Sadrists are the most anti-American and pro-Iranian of the various Iraqi parties, so we shouldn’t shed too many tears for them.
The difficulty with this approach is that it would help narrow the problems, but it would not solve them. Declaring that the government should reflect the outcome of the elections means that Allawi’s Iraqiyya and Maliki’s State of Law should form a majoritarian coalition to run the country—one which could be very effective at governing, at least in theory. However, it would not sort out who gets what position, and that is really the nub of the problem with these two men. They deeply dislike each other, and while both are willing to form a government together, both want to be prime minister—the strongest position in the government, by far. So this might be a helpful position for the United States and UN to take, but it probably will require something else to actually resolve the deadlock.
Reform the Constitution. A big reason for the current impasse is the inadequacies of the Iraqi constitution. That document has its good points, but it also has a lot of bad ones, including dangerous ambiguity on a variety of issues related to the election and a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister. Neither was intentional, but both have helped to paralyze the Iraqi political system. Consequently, another track the United States and UN could pursue would be to push for constitutional amendments that would address these problems—both to preclude problems for future elections and make it easier to form a government this time around.