Understanding the bombings and the good news about Iraq

Understanding the bombings and the good news about Iraq

Sunday was another tragic day in Iraq, more than 150 people were killed and another 500 injured in attacks on the Ministries of Justice and Interior in Baghdad. The devastation was another sad reminder of how fragile are the gains bought so dearly by Iraqis and Americans — military and civilian — working every day in that country to consolidate progress toward a secure and representative Iraq.

Those who believe Iraq was “the wrong war,” or that violence and authoritarianism are endemic in a country with such deep sectarian divisions, or those who practice the soft bigotry of low expectations (as President Bush so nicely phrased it in a different context), and believe Muslims incapable of democracy will likely see these attacks as justification for accelerating our disengagement from Iraq. Such a conclusion is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the domestic politics of Iraq in the run up to their January provincial elections.

War is the extension of politics by other means, as Clausewitz teaches, and domestic politics is what these attacks were about. Iraqi security forces are struggling to prevent such attacks. Prime Minister Maliki’s confidence in their ability has always run ahead of their actual performance (as early as 2005 he advocated a security hand over) and he has been party to politicizing their ranks. 

But Maliki is running on a platform of providing security and negotiating the U.S. withdrawal. Anything that calls security into question or precipitates a return by American military forces into Iraq’s cities (from which we had withdrawn on June 30 in accordance with the Strategic Framework Agreement) hurts Maliki’s claim. And it doesn’t just hurt Maliki, it hurts other incumbent politicians, like the Mayor of Baghdad, who also argued for removing blast walls to facilitate movement and commerce and a return to normalcy in the capital.

After the last spectacular attack, against the Foreign Ministry on Aug. 19, Prime Minister Maliki responded in a stridently partisan fashion, blaming Sunni and al Qaeda as one, conducting arrests and crackdowns that have a suspicious political tilt against his political opponents. While the U.S. military spokesman tried to put a good face on the Iraqi government’s reaction, comparing it to the crasser political manipulation of the Aug. 19 bombings, Maliki’s statement in the aftermath speaks for itself:

The cowardly acts of terrorism which occurred today must not weaken the resolution of Iraqis to continue their journey and to fight the followers of the fallen regime, the Baathists and al-Qaeda.”

This, before the government had any reasonable idea of who conducted the attacks. There are numerous political factions that could benefit from delegitimizing the Maliki government’s record, not least rival Shi’ia who excluded him from being their standard bearer in the election.

But the good news is that political pluralism has taken root in Iraqi politics. Maliki couldn’t win the support of a Shi’ia-only slate organizing for the January elections, so he opted to build a cross-sectarian slate. He’s not trying very hard, mind you, as his statement blaming Sunni for Sunday’s bombing shows. But his effort to appeal across sectarian lines was his Hail Mary (so to speak) and shows he believed voters would reward the choice. Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, a Sunni, is likewise tacking beyond sectarianism to broaden his prospective political base. 

This is a hugely important development, seldom seen in fragile societies. Usually, as with the Balkan elections of the early 1990s, politicians prey on voters’ mistrust and trend toward extremes which is why elections in factional societies are so often polarizing and foster an upward spiral of violence.

In the last provincial elections, nearly all incumbents were voted out of office, a strong signal that average Iraqis believed they weren’t doing their jobs. And voters weren’t just “simplifying the map,” moving to the sectarian extreme out of fear: Shi’ia voted out Shi’ia, Sunni voted out Sunni, Kurd voted out Kurd. What Iraqi political elites took from that election is the fundamental commandment of democracy everywhere: Thou Shalt Respect the Voters.

Talking to Iraqi politicians (as I did the past couple of weeks around their country), what is most striking is the extent to which they sound like small-city politicians in our own country. They worry about power outages and sewer systems and the quality of education for youngsters. They’re mad at the central government for not funding activity they consider its responsibility. They rail against corruption — even as many of them practice it — and fear exposure by the free media that is burgeoning. Accountability has come to Iraqi politics, and the politicians know it.

A representative government is struggling to emerge in Iraq. It may not succeed in bridging the sectarian tensions, corruption, and long shadow of decades of authoritarianism that inhibits initiative. In Iraq, strong cultural undercurrents cut against the kinds of behavior that make successful democracies successful. But Iraqis want it, and political elites are responding. This is good news for Iraq and for the advancement of our values in the world.