- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
It seems that the Iraqi Parliament has finally reached an agreement on an election law, after a succession of missed deadlines which jeopardized the scheduled January date and added a few more white hairs to the collective heads of American military planners and diplomats. The law reportedly features the "open list" and multiple district system favored by most American analysts. For more details, check in soon with Reider Visser, who has been following the details of the talks as closely as anyone. The major breakthrough was an agreement on how to handle the hotly contested area of Kirkuk — using the 2009 electoral rolls, with the awesome idea that the election will be rerun in a year if sufficient fraud is discovered. That should make for a whole year’s worth of fun political gamesmanship!
But that aside, the deal getting done is clearly good news — and demonstrates that overall Obama’s Iraqi strategy is going well even if it doesn’t get much attention. The election law deal has obvious implications for Obama’s commitment to withdraw combat forces. The American withdrawal timeline was long ago pegged to the elections, with force levels kept relatively high in order to provide for security during the elections and in the immediate aftermath. If the elections had been postponed, it would have posed a major problem for the withdrawal planning. So from that narrow perspective, getting the elections done in January under any laws was really important – and Obama today affirmed that the deal keeps the withdrawal on schedule. Getting a law which seems to include most of what the U.S. wanted substantively is a bonus.
The long delay in passing the law had costs, of course. The Iraqi Higher Election Commission has already warned repeatedly that it can not guarantee a fair and clean election in January because of the missed deadline for drafting a law. This will throw a shadow of doubt over the proceedings, no doubt. But I expect that with help from the UN and US, the technical issues will get resolved in time for the election. And those costs arguably pale beside the larger point that Iraqis largely reached this deal on their own, without intense American micro-management, under the shadow of a clear commitment to U.S. military withdrawal.
Ambassador Christopher Hill has come under a lot of criticism for not throwing himself into the daily nuts and bolts of Iraqi politics the way his revered predecessor Ryan Crocker did. I hear that US officials got more involved in recent weeks in pushing for an election deal, but still not at anything like the levels of the past. And despite that, the deal got done. That’s an extremely important, positive lesson which needs to be internalized in this new era of reduced American presence and influence. Hill’s less hands-on approach is basically the right one, as much as it bothers those nostalgiac for the old ways. The U.S. should not be as actively involved in the details of Iraqi politics as in the past, because its influence and resources are declining, and Iraqi politics carry on well enough without American micro-management. Not everything happens as the U.S. would like, and there’s not nearly as much progress on a range of political issues as American analysts would hope, but what else is new? As the U.S. moves towards withdrawal, without Iraq really unravelling, this kind of development is exactly what needs to happen.