Nobody Can Help Iraq Anymore
The country has another new prime minister nominee—but no new hopes of success.
Raise your hand if you were aware that there was a new Iraqi prime minister-designate. No, not the guy who was nominated in mid-March or the guy before him. The new, new one. For those keeping score at home (which at this point is almost no one): On April 9, Iraqi President Barham Salih tapped Mustafa al-Kadhimi to be the country’s next prime minister. The incumbent, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, resigned in late November but continues to lead a caretaker government. The man initially chosen to succeed him, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, could not form a government and then came Adnan al-Zurfi, who was also unable to garner enough support to form a government, resulting in Kadhimi’s nomination.
America’s newspapers of record in turn published what now seem to be perfunctory articles about the maybe new Iraqi prime minister that read a lot like so many previous articles about all the other Iraqi prime minister-designates dating back to the invasion of Iraq. Like his predecessors, Kadhimi apparently can balance between the United States and Iran and is a person of integrity who can elicit political support from different factions. But such testimonials, in typical fashion, are followed by caveats about the significant shortcomings of Iraq’s political system that will likely make it difficult for the prime minister-designate to form a government and subsequently govern. The articles generally close with a fingers-crossed quality. It is a formula that journalists in the field and their editors at home seem to have perfected.
The person nominated is always the big story, but the far more consequential issue that these articles and commentaries often merely allude to is Iraq’s political institutions. Even the most casual observers of Iraq know that the country’s problems are significant, complex, and seemingly unresolvable. No one knows how to fix them, despite years of trying, so everyone in Washington who ever cared about Iraq seems now to be advocating for the United States to head for the exits. That is clearly the Trump administration’s policy. Yet sooner or later—most likely the former—it’s inevitable that the White House will have to confront all the ramifications of Iraq’s collapse.
It has become clear in recent years that both institutions and character matter. A country can have democratic institutions, but if leaders do not embrace the norms and principles of democracy, the system can be compromised, even fatally. Similarly, a politician can be high-minded but nevertheless operate in a system with perverse institutions that makes it hard to overcome political pathologies baked into the political order. The latter seems to be Kadhimi’s predicament. Both Iraqis and Americans have testified to his competence: He is not a member of any of Iraq’s political parties, and as director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, he is said to have overseen its depoliticization and professionalization. These are pluses, but it seems almost certain that Iraq’s political institutions will undermine Kadhimi’s ability to govern.
This does not mean that Iraqis who have suffered so much for so long are fated to live under a rotten government. Their current mess demonstrates, however, that even the worst political systems can be stable enough to persist in perpetuity. Without getting into all the nitty-gritty details, Iraq’s post-invasion politics resemble a system of spoils with its attendant corruption and zero oversight, and most politicians and political parties are complicit. It does not help matters that Iraq’s more powerful neighbor, Iran, benefits from the political dysfunction that renders Baghdad weak.
These problems are so resonant that even Moqtada al-Sadr—Remember him? Leader of the Mahdi Army? America’s bête noir in Baghdad?—was able to rehabilitate his political career as a nationalist (despite his on again-off again ties to Iran) and anti-corruption crusader. More significant than Sadr’s return, however, was the wave of protests that broke out in October 2019. A large cross-section of Iraqis turned out in the streets, not specifically because they did not like the job Abdul-Mahdi was doing but rather because they understood how Iraq’s perverse political system was destroying any hope they had of a more prosperous and decent future.
These protesters sought a complete overhaul of the political order. In the argot of the so-called Arab Spring almost a decade ago, Iraqis “demand[ed] the end of the regime”—regime meaning the political system, not just the leaders of that system. That the Arab uprisings proved to be a false dawn does not diminish the fact that Iraq’s political institutions and the social order that reinforces the system need to be overturned before Iraqis have any real chance of achieving their goals.
This is something left best to Iraqis, however. For many years, the United States has been pushing and prodding Iraq’s leaders to do the right thing for their people, but the system America helped set up incentivizes Iraqi politicians in Baghdad to mostly do what is in their own parochial interests at the expense of others. The sectarian nature of the party system is particularly debilitating and puts fragmentary pressure on the country. Fighting for, hoarding, and distributing resources to a favored constituency is the definition of politics, but in Iraq’s system, sectarian differences and subsequent differences within these groups are reflected across the government. One can sit across from five officials in an Iraqi ministry and all five have different loyalties and are pursuing different agendas. The record of failure is so clear that it is striking that there is anyone at all advocating intensive U.S. engagement with Iraq’s political actors in the same Sisyphean effort to get them to make better decisions.
The Trump administration has clearly come to the conclusion that getting involved in Iraqi politics is a waste of energy. The U.S. position on the selection of Iraqi prime minister has accordingly become an exercise in minimalism—the person is acceptable so long as they are an “Iraqi nationalist,” meaning the person is not on Iran’s payroll. Kadhimi passed the test—but that does not diminish the current trajectory of U.S. policy toward Iraq, which (finally) places the burden on Iraqis to figure their situation out for themselves. That is going to upset some of them, especially Sunnis who want to be allies of the United States, but they have no choice but to accept their new reality.
Washington’s stance may prove strategically wise. No doubt the Islamic State will remain a threat in Iraq, which is why the United States and NATO will want to keep a relatively small counterterrorism training mission in Baghdad, but otherwise America’s lack of interest will force Iraq’s leaders to make substantial changes or face the wrath of angry Iraqis who continue to demand the regime’s end. If somehow Iraq’s political class muddles through, the country’s cumulative problems will at least be the responsibility of Iran. And those problems are just getting worse with the combination of the coronavirus pandemic that has depressed global demand for oil and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. There does not seem to be a way for Iraq’s budget numbers to work, portending the country’s further collapse.
It is a terrible situation for Iraqis, but there are very few in the United States who want to invest the time and resources into Iraq, especially now with COVID-19 ravaging Americans’ health and Congress spending trillions of dollars just to keep the economy afloat. It may very well be that Kadhimi is as competent as advertised, but he will not save Iraq. The political system is too rotten, Americans are too distracted, and Iran likes Iraq just the way it is.
Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook