The urgency of the Iraqi elections: a morning with Tareq al-Hashemi
I spent almost two hours this morning at a small roundtable with about half a dozen other analysts and Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who came to Washington D.C. to meet with Vice President Biden, President Obama (who dropped in for a substantial "unscheduled" private conversation) and other U.S. officials. Hashemi kindly agreed to let ...
I spent almost two hours this morning at a small roundtable with about half a dozen other analysts and Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who came to Washington D.C. to meet with Vice President Biden, President Obama (who dropped in for a substantial "unscheduled" private conversation) and other U.S. officials. Hashemi kindly agreed to let me write about his remarks at the roundtable, and the wider context of a visit which has received relatively little attention here. His extended remarks presented the upcoming March 7 Parliamentary elections as essential to delivering on the desperate hopes of the Iraqi people for meaningful change…. even as he tried to avoid discussing what might happen if they did not. And he combined appreciation of the Obama administration’s approach to Iraq with a yearning for the U.S. to do more to resolve Iraq’s political impasse.
A main topic of discussion, as one might expect, was the upcoming election and the crisis surrounding the disqualification of candidates by Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi’s Accountability and Justice (De-Baathification) Committee. Along with the usual complaints, Hashemi singled out the timing of the committee’s moves as particularly egregious: why did a committee formed by Parliament two years ago wait until less than two months before the election to act? He wondered if the elections were being targeted by those who did not want them to succeed, though he declined to speculate aloud on who might hold such hidden agendas. He left little doubt that he thought that the disqualifications could significantly depress Sunni turnout and deeply compromise the legitimacy of the election — and expressed hope that a solution would be found quickly, even as the opening of the campaign season rapidly approaches.
Hashemi argued that the Iraqi people want and need the upcoming elections to deliver fundamental change. Only a new government, he insisted, one selected by fair and transparent and inclusive elections, could meet the challenges which the current government has failed to overcome. He was 100% sure that such a new government would do better at addressing the many structural and political problems facing Iraq. But when pressed by several of us in the room, he seemed loathe to speculate about what would happen if the elections did not produce such change, just another government which looks a lot like the current one. He insisted that this was just not possible given the deep desire among Iraqis for real change. But at the same time, his concerns about the deBaathification disqualifications and worries that some elements might prefer a failed election suggest that in fact he thinks that it’s quite possible indeed for the elections to not produce meaningful change. It’s not even clear, frankly, what plausible electoral outcomes would count as meaningful change — would a victory by Maliki’s list would be taken as "failure"?
Hashemi of course declined to speculate about who would win the elections. But most likely, the largest vote-winner will need to form a coalition — and preferably an inclusive, national grand coalition. But everyone in the room remembered the painful aftermath of the last Parliamentary elections, as forming a government took many long months of negotiation amidst a rapid descent into sectarian civil war. And everyone is painfully aware of the deep divisions which remain along sectarian lines and the unresolved issues dividing Baghdad and the KRG such as Kirkuk, the disputed territories, the hydrocarbons law, and so forth. Hashemi seemed surprisingly hopeful that a new government would be formed more quickly this time, since all had learned from the 2006 experience and there have been many discussions already among the major blocs. I wonder. Given the intensity of the unresolved issues, and his own complaints about the inability of the Iraqis to resolve their divisions on their own, why should we expect coalition talks in the aftermath of the election to go so smoothly?
Which brings me to the question which probably most interests Americans: what should the U.S. do about this situation? Hashemi seemed torn over the appropriate level of U.S. involvement in the Iraqi political process. He expressed overall appreciation at the Obama administration’s approach: Biden’s clear call for transparent and inclusive elections, the U.S. commitment to the SOFA and its withdrawal timeline, the consistent U.S. refusal to intervene in Iraqi internal affairs, the administration’s attention to Iraqi refugees, and the move to broaden the Iraqi-American relationship beyond security. But at the same time, he seemed to urgently want the U.S. to do more, publicly and privately, to help resolve the Iraqi political impasse and to prevent the deterioration of security. Iraqis could not meet these challenges alone, he warned, and needed the U.S. to help them overcome the problem. Hashemi’s appeal for more of an American role is something you commonly hear from Iraqi leaders in private — but that doesn’t necessarily make it right.
My own view of this, as regular readers know, is that the U.S. should play a minimal role in these issues because the Iraqis will only reach their own lasting agreements if they can’t rely on the U.S. to do it for them. This is a genuinely fine line to walk: the U.S. should be involved diplomatically to resolve political conflicts which clearly affect U.S. interests, but it needs to do so without either inflaming an Iraqi nationalist backlash or re-creating debilitating political dependencies. Such appeals are likely reflected in the administration’s increasingly visible role of late — i.e. Biden’s visit, Obama’s meetings with a succession of Iraqi leaders in Washington, and statements by CENTCOM Commander David Petraeus and Ambassador Chris Hill’s criticizing the disqualifications — combined with their relentless repetition that they are not intervening in Iraqi internal affairs or modifying the commitment to withdrawal. It’s telling that when the U.S. does publicly intervene, Iraqi leaders tend to just dismiss the advice or to pull the sovereignty card. Still, active and engaged diplomacy could help. One area where the U.S. and the international community as a whole could and should certainly step up is to insist on scrupulous electoral monitoring. One area where it absolutely should not waver is in its clear commitment to the SOFA and the withdrawal timeline.