Iraqi elections: Don’t intervene — yet

Iraqi elections: Don’t intervene — yet

Here is a comment from Saif Abdul-Rahman, former chief of staff for the Iraqi ministry of industry, and more recently an advisor to the Iraqi vice president. I ran into him last week in Tampa, just before I had dinner with a retired Iraqi major general and some other folks, and asked him to contribute a comment on the current political situation in Iraq, in which hundreds of Sunni candidates have been excluded. He thinks the United States government should keep its powder dry so it can intervene at the crucial point after the election, when the new government is formed. 

By Saifaldin D. Abdul-Rahman

Special to Best Defense

The issue of candidates being excluded from election roles in Iraq has captured the Iraqi political scene for the last week or so. It has also captivated administration folks here in Washington, who by allowing Vice President Biden to visit Iraq are throwing their weight in on the subject. VP Biden made positive public statements by saying that the Iraqis will handle the issue. Privately, VP Biden should keep to the same message. There needs to be a calculation made by the US in weighing whether or not it is in the interests of the United States to intervene. I would argue in this particular situation the short-term and long-term costs would outweigh any gains made by any US involvement in this issue.

My argument is based on the supposition that this issue will not break the political process nor irreparably damage it. The candidates that have been excluded don’t necessarily have a chance at winning a seat in an election. Some may try to argue that this would disenfranchise the Sunnis and may lead to a boycott, something I seriously doubt. The Sunnis learned their lesson from the 2005 boycott and will not repeat that mistake again because of the costs they paid in doing so. Today, there is not one credible call for a boycott of the elections, nor will there be because it just will not work; even if candidates were excluded the major parties are still there and people would still vote for them undermining the whole idea of a boycott. The only real candidate to be excluded is Saleh Al-Mutlaq, who was losing support in recent days and was only able to reinvigorate his party by teaming up with Ayad Allawi. In doing so he has actually damaged Allawi, who was hoping to garner Shia votes in the South.

Based on the aforementioned suppositions, lets do a cost /benefit analysis about getting involved:

  • The US intervenes: If the US and UN intervene and bring pressure to bear on Iraq’s political establishment, we may succeed in reversing part of the order and therefore get some candidates reinstated; adversely we would reinforce a rallying call by Shia sectarian coalitions who have accused the United States of bringing back the Baath Party or its cohorts. This harms us in the short term because the rallying call will reinvigorate a stagnating political platform of the Shia Islamists. In the medium term, by reinvigorating that campaign it will cause a government to be elected with a sectarian Shia majority and that government will be very unhappy about the US intervention on this matter. And in the long term, it will set back efforts to encourage grassroots nationalist parties, by strengthening the already well-funded Baathists and having the adverse effect of strengthening the sectarian parties, therefore lessening the opportunities of real nationalist Sunni and Shia grassroots efforts to be established.
  • The US does not intervene: If the US does not intervene, it will not significantly impact any political party, even Allawi’s (there is quiet talk that Allawi benefited from Mutlaq’s exclusion because it helps him with the voters of the Southern provinces, and because it leaves him completely in charge of their joint political party). We have already presupposed that this is not a structural problem for Iraq’s political process and it will not harm it significantly. And, as I said, the candidates being excluded are not significant and therefore the outcome of the elections will not be impacted significantly by the exclusions. 

What is most important about the second point above is that by not getting involved the US retains leverage over the parties when it comes time to actually create the government, which is more important than wasting energy and resources now. That leverage will be increased by the US reminding parties that we did not intervene before the elections and that the legitimacy of the government will be in doubt if there is not a broad representation of Iraq’s political and ethnic groupings. The aforementioned argument will not be available if we intervene now, and the elections result in a resounding victory for the sectarian coalitions and they decide to create a majoritarian government excluding the Sunnis, therefore undermining the principal purpose of our intervention.