The Middle East Channel

What Should the U.S. Do About Iraq’s Political Stalemate?

In his speech announcing the impending end of the combat mission in Iraq last week, President Barack Obama proudly emphasized America’s adherence to the timeline for withdrawal from Iraq and the transition to a civilian-led mission in the country. But the political stalemate in Baghdad suggests that more is needed. It is now five months ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In his speech announcing the impending end of the combat mission in Iraq last week, President Barack Obama proudly emphasized America’s adherence to the timeline for withdrawal from Iraq and the transition to a civilian-led mission in the country. But the political stalemate in Baghdad suggests that more is needed. It is now five months since parliamentary elections in Iraq produced a fragmented result, with the largest number of parliamentary seats going to a Sunni-backed list led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi but almost as many seats and the most personal preference votes going to incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Neither Maliki nor Allawi has been able to assemble a parliamentary majority, much less the two-thirds needed first to elect the President. 

This poses a dilemma for Washington. The extended political vacuum has not yet paralyzed day-to-day administration in Iraq, but it makes legislation impossible, creates a sense of drift for extremists to exploit and invites interference from the country’s rough neighborhood. The Americans have a lot at stake as they draw down to 50,000 troops by Sept. 1. Should they try to mediate the political stalemate, running the risk of giving the government a "Made in the USA label"? Or should they leave the Iraqis to find their own solution? The answer may lie in the relatively unknown but important Strategic Framework Agreement that Baghdad requested of Washington as they negotiated the drawdown back in 2008. 

The administration has tried to maintain a studied distance from the process of government formation, out of sensitivity to Iraqi nationalist sentiments and a desire to allow Iraqis to forge their own destiny. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has correctly and repeatedly called on Iraqis to form an inclusive and representative government without delay. Vice President Joseph Biden has similarly called for Iraqis to form an inclusive coalition, urging Iraqis to not allow external actors — even Washington — to dictate the outcome. This formula, suggesting broad parameters rather than backing any particular solution, means a government that does not wholly exclude any of Iraq’s major communities and does not drift too close to Iran.  

This is fine as far as it goes, and largely in line with Iraqi intentions, but has not been enough.  After several rounds of attempted alliance-making, the process now appears to be back at square one, with the contenders unwilling to yield. This is despite increased behind-the-scenes pressure from a recent National Security Council delegation and a reinforced U.S. diplomatic team on the ground. Egos are one reason for the stand-off, as neither Allawi nor Maliki is willing to cede his claim on victory. But more fundamentally many Iraqis fear that the current, admittedly imperfect, system of representative democracy may not outlast the U.S. military presence in the country. Addressing this unease through demonstrating long-term American commitment could indirectly help to break the deadlock.

Any Iraqi politician who thinks that their country risks returning to autocracy would not want to be out of power when the U.S. military exits at the end of 2011. Iraq’s recent history is so traumatic and the level of mistrust so great that an external underwriter for the deals struck to form the new government, and perhaps the political system itself, could be the catalyst now required. The U.S., even with its declining presence, is the only actor positioned to allay each of the major communities’ existential fears and provide a warrantee for the new government. The U.S. could commit its best efforts to the Shia that free and fair elections will continue, to the Sunni that they will not be excluded from power even if the election arithmetic permits it, and to the Kurds that their claims to territory will be kept on the agenda and resolved without the use of force. 

For the time being, the 50,000 U.S. troops still provide some check on Iran’s influence in Iraq as well as insurance against the unlikely events of a military coup or the outbreak of Arab-Kurdish conflict in Iraq’s volatile north. But with these troops scheduled to withdraw, the U.S. should focus on putting substance in the new paradigm of a civilian-led mission by looking for complementary diplomatic tools to guarantee the continuation of Iraq’s nascent democracy. It is far more important to get this right than to get a government right away.

The United States has in the past extended implicit guarantees to help end conflicts and maintain stability in other countries. Washington witnessed the signing of the Dayton accords that ended the war in Bosnia and joined the Peace Implementation Council, thus underwriting the Dayton constitution. In order not to arouse understandable Iraqi concerns on sovereignty, the approach in Iraq would necessarily be more subtle. Instead, ways have to be found to condition things Iraqis want from the U.S. on Iraqi maintenance of a representative democracy that satisfies the existential concerns of all the major communities. 

There is such a mechanism available.  It is based on a bi-lateral U.S.-Iraqi agreement which was an Iraqi idea and which Iraqis requested of the U.S. during the 2008 troop drawdown negotiations. The Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) aims to lay the foundation for a long-term U.S.-Iraqi relationship in the economic, cultural, political, and security arenas. Iraqis value the SFA as a means for attracting badly needed U.S. private investment and know-how. A common refrain heard among political leaders in Baghdad is, "Yes, the U.S. is abiding by the agreement to withdraw its forces, but why isn’t America doing more to implement the SFA?" 

At a strategic level, the SFA has the potential to provide Iraq with the partner it needs to regain its full regional and international standing. Iraqis want an early focus of the SFA to be U.S. assistance in getting out from under hated Saddam-era U.N. Security Council obligations, especially U.S. diplomatic help in resolving disputes over Iraq’s maritime border with Kuwait (vital for Iraqi oil exports through the Persian Gulf). In the broader region, the neighbors have little interest in the emergence of a strong Iraq.  A long-term relationship with the world’s superpower offers Iraq a means to regain its status as a regional player.   

The U.S. need not pick a winner in Iraq’s government formation imbroglio, or even commit itself to mediating the dispute between Allawi and Maliki. More importantly, it should let it be known that the strategic partnership Iraqis have sought requires the existence of a strategic partner in Baghdad. That strategic partner must be a broad, representative government that fully reflects the March election results, which means that it must find prominent places for the two big electoral winners: Maliki and Allawi. With such a government in place, Washington should be prepared to back the continuation of basic representative democracy in Iraq through whole hearted implementation of the SFA, including the lifting of Iraq’s Security Council obligations as soon as possible. Such assurances could reduce the existential mistrust that hinders government formation and help ensure the core U.S. interest of a democratic Iraq able to stand on its own feet in a troubled region. 

Daniel Serwer is Vice President for Centers of Innovation and Sean Kane is program officer for Iraq at the United States Institute of Peace.

Daniel Serwer is a professor of conflict management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He blogs at and tweets @DanielSerwer.

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