Terms of Engagement

Bad Politics Is Better Than No Politics

Why Iraq's bloody democracy isn't so terrible.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Remember Iraq? That war we used to have? Most of us have moved on to the savage melodrama of Afghanistan — but not U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who just returned from his fourth trip to Baghdad since taking office (and his 17th since the war began, as he reminds anyone within earshot). I was with Biden on his first vice-presidential trip there, also over the July 4th holiday, and news reports from this one sounded eerily familiar — Biden swearing in new citizens among American troops in one of Saddam’s gaudy palaces, exhorting Iraqis to heed the stirring lessons of American democracy and pluralism, and privately playing the go-between among political leaders who can’t distinguish between compromise and surrender. My first thought was: This country has all four wheels stuck in the mud. But my second thought was: Yes, but unlike in Afghanistan, it’s them, not us, behind the wheel. And that’s good for Iraq, and good for the United States.

We talk a lot about leverage in these countries: about where we have it and how we can use it. The United States has about as much leverage in Afghanistan as it can have anywhere, because American soldiers defend the government and American taxpayers fund much of its budget. And yet the laws of physics barely seem to apply when American generals or policymakers try to convert that leverage into the changes they seek. President Hamid Karzai has to show the Afghan people that he stands behind the war effort there — but he says that he’s tempted to join the Taliban. Karzai has to take a stand against corruption — but he lets his half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, run roughshod over the people of Kandahar, undermining his own legitimacy. All the leverage in the world cannot make Karzai act against his own perceived self-interest.

In Iraq, by contrast, where American troops are drawing down and giving way to the country’s own security forces, the moment of maximum leverage has long passed. American diplomats cannot choose Iraq’s political leaders, cannot compel compromise on tough issues, and cannot end the increasingly perilous stalemate among the major political blocs. When President BarackObama asked him last year to take on the Iraq portfolio, Biden said that he would be traveling there as often as every six weeks. In fact, he has visited only twice since last September. Given limited American influence, Biden seems content to operate like a tow truck, arriving on the scene only when Iraqi politicians have driven themselves into a ditch.

That doesn’t mean the current stalemate in Iraq, or rather the current manifestation of the semipermanent stalemate, isn’t potentially very grave — it is, if only because no one is addressing the problems that are currently pitting Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds against one another. The national election in March left four party coalitions with substantial representation in the 325-seat parliament, but none with anything close to a majority. Iraqiyya, led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former prime minister, won 91 seats, and State of Law, led by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, won 89. The Iraqi National Alliance (INA), dominated by followers of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, came in third, and a Kurdish coalition was fourth. Two months ago, State of Law and the INA agreed to form an alliance, but the Sadrists refused to accept Maliki — who routed their militia in 2008 — as prime minister, while Maliki refused to accept the Sadrist candidate. Negotiations between the two broke off just as Biden reached Baghdad.

Obama administration officials view the INA as Iran’s stalking horse in Iraq, and want to see Iraqiyya, which represents moderate Sunnis as well as Shiites, play a major role in the new government; they were delighted to see that Maliki would now have to negotiate with Allawi. Iraqiyya officials want to see Washington openly take their side. Still, Biden was careful to remain publicly neutral. "We did not tell them what to do," a senior administration official told me; Biden acted as "a sounding board and go-between."

But though the lyrics may have been noncommittal, the tune was unmistakable. When I asked about a scenario in which Allawi would take Iraq’s presidency and accept Maliki as prime minister, while the Kurdish parties, which currently have the presidency, take the speakership instead, this official said, "All of this was discussed without him saying you should do this or that."

The leverage that Biden — and Christopher Hill, the departing U.S. ambassador in Iraq — have to exercise is less like the force majeure that Gen. David Petraeus has at his disposal in Afghanistan and more like what American negotiators deploy elsewhere in the Middle East, where the United States serves as an honest broker between parties who don’t trust each other. It’s a pretty flimsy instrument, as Obama’s failure to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make significant concessions to the Palestinians demonstrates.

But experience in Afghanistan, and for that matter Iraq, shows that we overrate the usefulness of military power in shaping political goals. Even with a massive military presence in Iraq, the United States was unable to induce political leaders to compromise on the sharing of oil resources, the decentralization of power, or the drawing of borders between Kurdistan and central Iraq. Playing the honest broker requires dexterity and self-restraint, virtues that American diplomats rarely had to cultivate in the hegemonic era now passing.

Brute-force leverage is not only overrated but undesirable, because it requires a vacuum in the host country. Iraq is no longer a vacuum. And the United States can afford to play a diminished role there, as it cannot in Afghanistan, because Iraq has a politics, and Afghanistan, where Karzai holds all the reins of power, does not. Iraq’s factions are still killing each other (albeit at a sharply reduced pace), but they are also talking to and making deals with each other. Indeed, whatever progress Iraq has made in recent years has been made through its political system. On de-Baathification, on the conduct of elections, and on the contested electoral count itself, Iraqi leaders seem to follow their worst instincts into zero-sum conflict, then just barely save themselves through political compromise.

This scarcely makes the U.S. role irrelevant; several experts I talked to noted that all parties will look to American officials to guarantee the ultimate agreement-guarantees that could require some kind of American military role beyond 2011, when all troops are now scheduled to depart.

There is no reason to feel confident that the current round of horse-trading will end peacefully, or anytime soon, but at least there is precedent for the avoidance of calamity. And expert commentary on Iraq has taken a very slight turn for the positive in recent months. A brief issued in early July by Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute of Peace was titled "Iraq Is Spinning Its Wheels, But in the Right Direction." Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution recently noted that the political stalemate has not led to growing sectarian violence, which he termed "an extremely positive development," though he added that "there is plenty of time for the frustration to build."

In Iraq, optimism has almost always proved premature. And yet today there seems to be grounds for, if not optimism, then at least patience. Politics takes a long time to take root; it means learning to accept the legitimacy of public opinion, the possibility of losing, the need to reach across partisan or ethnic lines. It means, in short, learning to disagree peacefully. These habits develop slowly. Iraq has had an independent government for five years; before that, all it knew was despotism. So yes, politics there looks, and is, very ugly, but the only way to develop democracy is to practice it. At least the Obama administration has allowed Iraqi leaders to make their own mistakes — not that they’ve had much of a choice in the matter.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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