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The Gamble, Six Years Later

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This is a guest post by Jonathon Whooley, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Florida currently lecturing at San Francisco State University. 

As the rumors, machinations, and punditry weigh in on the current strife in Iraq, many of us who have been avidly observing the consistently deteriorating progress of the Government of Iraq (GOI) have been sadly waiting for all of the old arguments about the state of the country to return: ancestral hatreds, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), terrorism, etc. It was with no surprise and much fanfare therefor that the latest bloodletting and domestic strife.

Over the last five years since Thomas E. Ricks authored his prescient work The Gamble (2009) many Middle East observers have been waiting to see whether stakes that the Us government in its Petraeus-era policy of community policing would work or, if the Iraqi central government, seeking no greater goal than elevating its own status, would ultimately fall apart. While no fan of the American intervention in Iraq in 2003, and far and away dubious about current calls for American intervention in Iraq, one is left slightly agape at the limited historical recall of the punditry and the dramatic steps taken by the GOI that have led to the current state of affairs in the country. Ricks’ argument, that the progress of Iraqi stability and security was fundamentally rooted in an argument toward the Iraqi populace that with legitimate elections, relative security, and the sharing of natural resources, an uneven but faintly credible construction of government in Iraq was possible, this concept was oddly ignored by most leading pundits and policy makers in recent days.

Instead of focusing on the propping of Sunni leaders in Anbar to balance the eccentricities of Shia led governmental structures in Baghdad, current leaders seem much more willing to give the Maliki regime carte blanche in running internal domestic affairs with a blanket guarantee of future American military support. Thus, the argument to Sunni leaders during the Anbar Awakening, or whatever one would refer to as the policy of bulwarking local leaders in Iraq’s Northwest and west in the aftermath of the 2006 ‘Surge’, was simple: pay your dues, participate in democracy and a credible power-sharing structure will allow for some small modicum of political redress. Therefore in the current context, it is not that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was potent, it is not even that they were successful in galvanizing public support. It was this initial gamble, of placing dispersed power in the hands of partisan actors in Sunni controlled territories and the GOI with an ethnic bent was a long term policy. Ricks himself seems somewhat dubious of this prospect, as do the American military officials he interviews, Col. Mike Galloucis commenting “We’ve made a lot of deals with shady guys…It’s working but is it sustainable?”

Sustainability is the key term here. The only way to make a power-sharing structure sustainable is to provide a limited but foundational reliance on transitions of power and the importance of accepting and allowing for electoral success to bring power to groups or parties beyond the ones initially placed in control by the colonizer. The Maliki government has not followed these guidelines, and thus, there is little efficacy in running in future elections for Sunni, or Kurdish for that matter, leaders in Iraq. Two major elections have come and gone with the Maliki regime remaining in power. The first was the nullification of election results in late March of 2010 by the Maliki government. Nouri Al-Maliki seeking to retain his post as Prime Minister in defiance of the electoral results of that year dismissed his challenger, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and with no credible explanation, beyond the predictable association of foreign intervention, the CIA, and broad-based electoral fraud.

The second, more recent election in Iraq saw the forced, as argued by some, displacement and victimization of Iraqis from Western and Southern Iraq, and the broad-based elimination of voting rights for most Iraqis in Western Iraq. Beyond this forced displacement of potential Iraqi voters, the police actions by the Maliki government in Fallujah in late February of 2014, has created a system that appears to resemble a Shia domination of power, with little efficacy in polling, elections, or the due process of political order.

So, while it may be convenient to know view this current ISIS driven bloodletting through the prism of ancient hatreds, or the ‘they just can’t get their act together’ prism we so often ascribe to the Middle East, I would humbly argue that this is a time to encourage the role of diplomacy in engaging and resurrecting the institutions that will allow Iraq to remove itself from this morass. However, it is the blank check granted to the Maliki government that got us here, and all the opining over potentially pulling of another Anbar Awakening and flipping large swaths of Western Iraq seems to be predicated upon the idea that Iraqis, like Americans will ignore their own recent history. No, the time for confidence measures is passed.

This has to be allowed to play out, as frightening as having Muslims in charge anywhere may be to the US. ISIS, as large as it is, is only 8,000 strong. They cannot take and hold territory, nor do they represent a literal military threat. What they do represent in actuality is an ideological and practical threat to the Iraqi government. Ideological in that they seek to supplant the Shia control of Sunni held territories, territories that were not given adequate political redress in previous elections. This is the problem, access to power sharing mechanisms, not simply some vaguely stated and oft repeated issues of religious difference. ISIS is gaining power because of frustration, but they cannot actually deliver on the promise of better governance, being relatively small and dogmatic. An Iraqi government dedicated to the principle of even and representative government would succeed in creating some unity. First, Maliki steps down, then new elections, this means chaos temporarily, but stability over the long term. Although, at this stage, credibility is what is being debated here, some restoration of the political order is a first, but nascent step.

Practically, there are now 500k displaced in Iraq, this is a massive aid and human rights issue. If you want to help, we should be doing what we should have been doing all along, effect change in the institutions we have set up by imposing conditions on the support that the US gives. And this should not include a boots on the ground invasion as some are advocating for, and others are warning against. It should be that Maliki cannot run a sham government and still sustain the large amount of US assistance he is given. Although, given the current situation in Egypt, it appears sham elections are entirely the new/old/perennial game of the US. It is time to make foreign policy decisions based on something larger than temporary stability. There has to be some principle, or perhaps stated differently a better argument, about why the current political/military situation is better for the people of a given country than another.

Author: Laura Sjoberg

Laura Sjoberg (Ph.D., University of Southern California, 2004; J.D., Boston College, 2007) is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her main research interests focus on gender in international security: feminist war theorizing, women's violence in global politics, gendered significations of militarism, and queer theorizing of security. She recently published Gendering Global Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2013) and is just finishing work on a book called Rape Among Women (New York University Press).