by Michael Rubin
It’s both easy and cheap to blame former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and many of his political allies (including his presumed successor Haider al-Abadi) for the miserable state Iraq finds itself in today, or for the lack of political resolution.
Was Maliki, and is the Da’wa Party, sectarian? Certainly, although like any of Iraq’s political movements, Da’wa members range the gambit from closed-minded and reactionary to tolerant and relatively progressive. Then, again, it’s hard to identify any political movement in Iraq that isn’t sectarian. (One of the ironies of the Kurds is that while they are willing to make deals with both Arab Sunnis and Shi‘ites, the crude anti-Shi‘ite bias on a popular level is not something that reflects well on Kurdish society).
To suggest that Shi‘ite militiamen have infiltrated the military is accurate; to say that Sunni professionals—even in the special forces and elite units—weren’t as sectarian is nonsense. It takes two to tango, and the behavior of so many former Sunni officers to enable ISIS in its early days validates the suspicions that so many Iraqi officials hold regarding their loyalty to the post-2003 system.
Were members of Da’wa corrupt? Again, yes. Years of war and sanctions transformed Iraq from one of the least corrupt Arab countries in the 1970s to one of the world’s most corrupt countries today. That the United States dumped tens of billions of dollars into “reconstruction” and “development” simply poured fuel on the fire. But I’d be hard-pressed to name any current party and, indeed, any Iraqi politician who has not succumbed to temptation. Part of the problem is that Iraqis have not addressed in any legal sense what constitutes conflict of interest. Then again, they are not alone in this: Note all the former military officers and U.S. officials who have gone into some shady business dealings with the Kurds or central government in Baghdad. Rather than differentiate between corrupt and honest, many Iraqis differentiate between those with their finger in the till that hurt people versus those who do business without misusing police or taking lives.
Iraq also faces any number of structural problems: the bureaucracy could be reduced by a factor of ten; there are unresolved questions regarding the oil law, even if unresolved questions over the nature of federalism have been overtaken by events. Tension continues to boil over whether decisions should be taken at the center, or whether decisions—and the expenditure of budgets—is better concentrated at the governorate or even district or sub-district level. I have made no secret of the fact that Iraq would be much better off with administrative federalism, something I have heard both Sunnis and Shi‘ites propose.
The real problem facing Iraq—and the reason why no amount of military reform or imposed political quotas will succeed—is that the Arab Sunni community is leaderless. Like them or hate them, the Shi‘ite community has established political parties like Da’wa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and, if political infighting grows too great, the clerical hierarchy will use their offices to kick the Shi‘ite politicians into gear. The Kurdistan Regional Government is far from democratic, but its parties are well established: Kurds may resent their political leadership, but they do not doubt it.
The Iraqi Sunni Arab community has no real leadership. There is no religious structure among Iraqi Sunni Arabs (or Sunnis in general) that approximates what exists in Najaf. Those assisting the U.S. military and diplomats new to the Iraq issue often talk about the importance of tribes, but there is hardly a tribe in Iraq whose leadership is uncontested. Former President Saddam Hussein—and, indeed, almost every leader before him–promoted rivals to tribal sheikhs in order to better control the tribes. The result is often a mess. Make a Dulaim minister of defense? Don’t count on assuaging the Dulaim because chances are few will recognize the individual as legitimate, or will criticize him as coming from the wrong sub-clan.
Many Sunnis have won high office through elections. Usama Nujayfi was speaker of parliament before elections earlier this year, and his brother Athil Nujayfi was governor of Mosul until driven out by ISIS. The sentiment among so many Sunni Arabs was good riddance, as both moved on (or were sent packing) from their posts. Most Sunnis responded to Salim al-Juburi’s nomination to be the new speaker of parliament with a shrug of their shoulders.
Saddam Hussein was a Baathist. Baathism was not simply Arab socialism; it was (and still is) an ethnic and sectarian chauvinist party modeled on those that existed during World War II. While there may have been token Shi‘ite Baathists here and there (see, for example, Ayad Allawi) or Kurds (see, for example, former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan), Saddam believed that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs should lead Iraq, and that he should lead those Sunni Arabs. He repressed Shi‘ites and Kurds but also murdered any Iraqi Sunni Arab who might challenge him or even become capable of doing so, whether or not they had any such intention. Shi‘ites might be repressed, but they used their time to organize under Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (1935-1980). Ditto the Kurds, under Mullah Mustafa Barzani (1903-1979). Sunnis had no such luxury so long as the Baathist were in charge. When Saddam Hussein fell, they were the only community who had to start from scratch.
Many military analysts appear bitter Nouri al-Maliki didn’t follow the advice of Gen. David Petraeus whose strategy was militarily effective in the short term, but corrosive in the long-term by convincing Sunnis that they could win through violence what they could not through the ballot box. They—and many diplomats encouraged by the whispers of some of Iraq’s Sunni neighbors—whisper that the United States should simply empower Sunni generals to correct the mistakes of the past decade. No such solution, however, can work until Iraq’s Arab Sunnis determine who they want to follow and, as importantly, who from within their own sectarian community they will be willing to reject. So long as they turn to unrepentant Baathists following former Saddam deputy Izzat al-Ibrahim who want to oust the entire government and return Iraq to its pre-2003 order, they will fail. Ditto if they open the door to groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS, figuring they can always close it again or collect rewards for stepping back from the brink.
It would be nice not to address Iraqi politics through a sectarian lens, but it’s also unrealistic given the current ethnic and sectarian organization of political parties. But given reality, rather than try to recommend empowering Sunnis on a national level—including those who might use their military positions to turn on the state they supposedly represent—with a wave of a magic wand, it’s time to recognize that the Sunnis’ national political leadership needs to be built from the bottom up. That’s all the more reason to support administrative federalism so that those living in al-Anbar, Mosul, Samarra, or Tikrit can spend the money at the local sub-district level and locals can learn who has the capacity to govern, and who is unable to manage or is too corrupt to do so effectively.
But so long as the community leadership is imposed from above, only one thing is certain: it will have no legitimacy, and it will fail.
Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. This article was first published on CNN.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.