Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

A Step In the Right Direction

Iraq's progress may seem fitful, but its achievements of the past few years have been remarkable.

By John D. Negroponte was U.S. deputy secretary of state from 2007 to 2009.
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An Iraqi man reads a newspaper featuring a front-page story on Nuri al-Maliki's second term as prime minister in Baghdad on November 25, 2010. Maliki was awarded a second term as Iraq's premier, signalling an end may finally be in sight to the country's eight month impasse following a general election in March. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

On Dec. 21, Iraq formed a new government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. One might be tempted to say that after nine months of jockeying for position between the various factions and parties, it was high time. But looking back at all that has transpired since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the fact that Iraq's freely elected parliament has sworn in a new Iraqi cabinet is indeed a remarkable achievement.

This is the fifth government this beleaguered country has had in slightly less than eight years. First, there was the occupation authority assisted by an Iraqi Governing Council; that was followed by an interim government, then a transitional government, and finally two successive governments led by Maliki. Interspersed between the last three governments have been three general elections and a national referendum to adopt a new constitution.

On Dec. 21, Iraq formed a new government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. One might be tempted to say that after nine months of jockeying for position between the various factions and parties, it was high time. But looking back at all that has transpired since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the fact that Iraq’s freely elected parliament has sworn in a new Iraqi cabinet is indeed a remarkable achievement.

This is the fifth government this beleaguered country has had in slightly less than eight years. First, there was the occupation authority assisted by an Iraqi Governing Council; that was followed by an interim government, then a transitional government, and finally two successive governments led by Maliki. Interspersed between the last three governments have been three general elections and a national referendum to adopt a new constitution.

The situation in Iraq could have been much worse. The three successive elections since 2005 could have been marred by violence and fraud, but they were in fact both peaceful and free from tampering. Iraq could have plunged into full-fledged civil war in the wake of the sectarian violence that occurred in 2006; instead it pulled back from the brink and continued on the path of democratic development first laid out by the Coalition Provisional Authority and later by the new Iraqi Constitution. Instead of deciding who governs through the barrel of a gun, the people of Iraq have largely resolved this question through peaceful, democratic means.

The government that will soon be coming to power is a coalition comprising the country’s major factions, including both Sunni and Shiite blocs in parliament. This does not by any means guarantee Iraq’s peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future. But it does mean the country has a chance to attain a freer and better life than anyone had reason to expect a decade ago.

Important tasks lie ahead. Foremost among them is the nurturing of a spirit of communal tolerance and understanding that can help ensure political disputes aren’t resolved by violence. Another related challenge is the continued strengthening of Iraq’s national institutions, including the Army and the police force. When I arrived in 2004, there was one battalion in the entire Iraqi Army. Today, there are about 200. In total, Iraqi security forces now number roughly 500,000 people, and their capabilities are steadily improving. Their consolidation and professionalization should continue on a strictly nonpartisan, nonsectarian basis.

As Iraq’s basic political and security institutions grow in stability, confidence, and stature, they will be better able to work on achieving sustained economic growth, which has suffered from the instability of recent years. Iraq is far from realizing its economic potential: Trade and investment languish, while the oil sector is but a fraction of full potential. Now that some of the most difficult political and security obstacles have been hurdled, it would not be surprising to see the people and government of Iraq turn more attention to developing and carrying out an economic growth agenda that is long overdue. This would benefit not only the Iraqi nation itself but also the international community as a whole. Although the U.S. military profile in Iraq will likely end in December 2011, America’s interest in a peaceful and prosperous Iraq will no doubt endure long beyond that time. And having a functioning, if imperfect, government is a step in the right direction.

John D. Negroponte is a James R. Schlesinger distinguished professor at the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He was U.S. deputy secretary of state from 2007 to 2009, and he was the first ever director of national intelligence from 2005 to 2007.

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