Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution has been one of the long-time American commentators on Iraq. He recently wrote a piece for The National Interest journal entitled “The Battle for Baghdad". In it he argues that Iraqis, left to their own devices will destroy the gains made in Iraq since the Surge. He warns that the older political parties that took over after the 2003 invasion are still clinging to power, and are willing to bring down Iraqi democracy to maintain their positions. According to Pollack the only thing standing in the way of this happening is the United States. Even that is endangered because of the moves of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Like most of his think tank counterparts, Pollack is arguing for a long-term American diplomatic and military presence in Iraq to act as peacekeepers and mediators. Without them Pollack believes that Iraqis will only think about their own short-term interests to the detriment of the country.
Pollack begins with two conversations he had with Iraq politicians after the January 2009 provincial elections. The first was with a group that was opposed to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They started off assuring Pollack that they had enough supporters for a no confidence vote against the Prime Minister in parliament, but in the end they admitted that Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council opposed this idea because it would go against the recent balloting that was in Maliki’s favor. The absence of Hakim’s support was considered a deal breaker. This represents one dynamic of the post sectarian war status quo in Iraq where many of the disputes are now political, and groups abide by the broad rules of the constitution and electoral system. On the other hand, Pollack met with a group of Dawa officials who were sure that Maliki would win in the 2010 parliamentary vote after his victory in 2009. They said the Prime Minister would run on services and security, and blame his opponents for any setbacks, something that’s actually happened recently. On the other hand when these politicians were asked about Maliki creating extra-judicial bodies and going outside standard procedures in the government they attempted to dodge the issues by saying that this was necessary because Iraq’s bureaucracy didn’t work and different political parties controlled the ministries and often didn’t listen to Maliki. This represented the other side of Iraq’s system where many believe that the Prime Minister is acting like leaders of the past and centralizing all authority around himself, which could intentionally or not lead to autocratic rule. To Pollack, this is the ying and the yang of Iraq. On the one hand democracy is taking root however precariously, on the other hand, there are plenty of forces in the country that threaten it.
There are two other issues that Pollack worries about. One is that Iraqi nationalism is making a comeback. This is helping to heal some of the wounds between Sunnis and Shiites created during the sectarian war. On the other hand, Iraqi nationalism is often interpreted as being solely Arab in character and anti-Kurdish. Maliki is playing on this by attempting to militarily confront the Kurds across the disputed territories in the north. There have been several times this has almost turned into shooting, only averted by the presence of U.S. forces. Pollack wonders if Maliki actually resents this outside interference, because he may want a confrontation with the Kurds so that he can rally the Arab public around him. Second, are the old Iraqi parties that have ruled Iraq since the 2005 elections. While he doesn’t name them, he is implying the Supreme Council, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the Iraqi Accordance Front, all of which either controlled their own militia or had contacts with the insurgency, and used these armed factions to gain political power. Pollack believes that these groups are trying to cling to power, and will do whatever it takes to do so. In the 2010 election for example, they are pushing for a closed list voting system where the electorate only gets to pick from coalitions instead of individuals because this gives party bosses, rather than the public, control over the politicians and government. Pollack thinks both of these are threats to stability and democracy, because Maliki and the old guard parties are only thinking about their own personal gain rather than the future of the country.
Pollack’s solution to all of these problems is a long-term American presence in Iraq. According to him, the U.S. needs to stay to provide support to the government and mediate conflicts. Only the U.S. he writes can help solve the problems between Baghdad and Kurdistan over disputed areas like Kirkuk and federalism. The U.S. needs to make sure that Iraqi prisoners and the Sons of Iraq are treated well. The U.S. needs to push the government to protect minorities. The U.S. needs to pressure Baghdad to increase its capacity and improve the bureaucracy. The Americans need to make sure that party bosses don’t take over the elections, and push for a closed list voting system. The U.S. needs to deal with Maliki’s attempt to centralize power, and corruption. In a nutshell, Pollack believes the U.S. is the only party in Iraq that will think about Iraq. The main lever of influence the U.S. has to achieve this laundry list of items is aid. U.S. advisors still partner with Iraqi units, the security forces are dependent upon the Americans for maintenance and supply, the Iraqi government has U.S. advisors throughout, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams are essential parts of the rebuilding provinces out in the governorates, and the U.S. still provides a large amount of economic aid and advice. All of this assistance needs to be made conditional based upon Baghdad’s compliance with the long list of reforms listed above. This is something many other American think tank writers have argued for over the last few years.
There is one major impediment to overcome to actually achieving this according to Pollack, Prime Minister Maliki. The Prime Minister seems to have an inflated sense of the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces and is playing politics with the U.S. presence. Maliki thinks that the Iraqi forces are going to be ready sooner rather than later so he wants to cut many of the public ties with the U.S. like joint patrols with U.S. forces and the blast walls in Baghdad. More importantly he is pushing for a referendum on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to coincide with the 2010 parliamentary vote. This will give Maliki a powerful tool to run on so he can portray himself as the leader that got the Americans to leave Iraq. He can also use it against his opposition since many support a longer stay for U.S. forces to protect against Maliki’s excesses. If the Iraqi public votes down the SOFA, a definite possibility, than Pollack is afraid U.S. influence will end that election day. A main priority then should be Washington lobbying Maliki to move the referendum to some other time.
Therein lies a major problem with Pollack and others who take this line of argument for a long-term U.S. role in Iraq. There is no real reason for Maliki to change the referendum date because holding it the same time as national balloting will benefit him the most. He has already given up many forms of American military assistance since the June 30, 2009 withdrawal from Iraq’s cities, and that is the greatest piece of leverage the U.S. holds. Iraqi domestic politics is a much greater force now than U.S. influence. The White House therefore, could make all kinds of assistance conditional, and the Iraqis might still not listen. Iraq may turn out to be the prodigal son for the United States, but Pollack and others can’t seem to let go. Ultimately, they seem afraid of Iraqis running their own affairs. Pollack in “The Battle for Baghdad” just happens to be the most explicit in voicing this opinion.
Biddle, Stephen, “Reversal in Iraq,” Center for Preventative Action Council on Foreign Relations, May 2009
Cordesman, Anthony, “Iraq: A Time To Stay?” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 7/30/09
DPA, “Al-Maliki courts Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders,” 8/11/09
Nagl, John and Burton, Brian, “After the Fire: Shaping the Future U.S. Relationship with Iraq,” Center for a New American Security, June 2009
Nordland, Rod, “Bombs Hurt Maliki Case That Iraq Can Guard Itself,” New York Times, 8/21/09
Pollack, Kenneth, “The Battle for Baghdad,” The National Interest, September/October 2009