The State of Play in Baghdad and Biden's Bad Idea
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna
Iraq has receded from our headlines and our thoughts, largely due to the vastly improved security situation and the lack of U.S. combat deaths. So when it does make the headlines and op-ed pages, it means that something bad has happened: spectacular, synchronized bombings of high-profile government targets and, most recently, the extended political struggles surrounding the upcoming national parliamentary elections. The latest development to generate concern is the potential exclusion of 511 parliamentary candidates due to their alleged connections to the constitutionally-outlawed Ba’ath party. The process of de-Ba'athification, which had largely come to a standstill in recent years, has been divisive and marked by a lack of transparency. Historically, there have also been objections to the manner in which rank and position were used as prima facie evidence for vetting, as opposed to the actions, misdeeds, and crimes conducted by the Ba’athist regime and its members. In an authoritarian, police state that dominated all facets of life, many people within the formal party structure did not engage in wrongdoing.
The latest episode is marked by a similar lack of transparency, unclear standards for vetting, and dubious timing, which would indicate that political motivations are the driving factor in the current de-Ba’athification efforts. This could result in the disqualification of a major Sunni political figure, Saleh al-Mutlak, and other political figures from the more secular and nationalist parties. While the list of excluded candidates includes Kurds and Shia and cannot be said to be purely sectarian, the high-profile targeting of al-Mutlak and other prominent Sunnis such as the current minister of defense, ‘Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim, along with the virulent anti-Ba’athist rhetoric that has characterized the recent controversy have given an impression that these actions are intended to curb the nature of Sunni and nationalist engagement in the political process.
In a hasty and ill-conceived response to all this, Vice President Biden has scheduled a visit to Baghdad in an attempt to display the level of U.S. concern about current trends and to mediate some sort of compromise solution.
It goes without saying that those accused of active participation in the repression and political violence of the previous regime should not be allowed an active role in Iraq’s political life, but these over-broad efforts will have an impact in terms of polarizing the political climate and radicalizing electoral rhetoric. It will also have a chilling effect on the emergence of viable cross-sectarian politics, which to this point have only emerged on matters of tactical convergence focused largely on opposition to Kurdish goals. Despite the institutional interests of the major political players in a legitimate and untainted election, the current climate has taken on a life of its own and made it very difficult for prominent Shia politicians to forcefully object to the exclusions due to fears that they will be tarred by rival Shia as weak on revanchists intent on reconstituting Ba’athist power in Baghdad. It should not be forgotten that the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made political overtures to al-Mutlak following the January 2009 provincial elections and appeared to outpace the appetite of his core Shia constituency.
While these developments are certainly troubling, Iraq is not on the cusp of a new broad-based insurgency−the localized nature of much of the Sunni insurgency and the lack of top-down command structures made the insurgency difficult to combat, but also creates serious collective action problems for reconstitution of a broad-based insurgency. Not to be underestimated is the fact that the Iraqi security forces are a much more credible presence at this juncture, and the Sunni turn to politics is deep and has incorporated many previous actors directly engaged in the insurgency or one step removed. A Sunni boycott is also not in the cards; in fact, some of al-Mutlak’s rival Sunni leaders are likely secretly pleased that he might be sidelined.
But such developments cannot be understood solely as the expected ramifications of political campaigning in a society that only recently underwent a brutal sectarian bloodletting. Because these actions narrow the spectrum of acceptable political participation, they run the risk of hardening attitudes and limiting the possibilities for reaching some sort of widely-agreed upon social compact, something that has eluded the Iraqi political class and imperils the long-term sustainability of the improved security situation. Remarking on this state of affairs, I recently wrote that “the foundations of the state remain incomplete, fragile and weak. Iraq may not have the luxury of decades to produce a workable settlement, and the continuing inability to resolve the core disputes over power, resources and territory may in fact be a harbinger of impending disaster.”
For these reasons, the disqualification of candidates by the Supreme National Committee for Accountability and Justice (AJC), the successor to the highly controversial Higher National De-Ba’athification Commission, is deeply problematic. I will comment more fully on the legal questions raised by the current controversy in a separate post, but there are serious issues as to the legal status of this particular vetting body. Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tarek al-Hashemi has declared it “legally unqualified to debaathificate,” and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani has asked for an advisory opinion on the legal status of the AJC, indicating one possible route to defuse the situation.
While I have previously expressed some concern about the lack of clear direction in U.S. Iraq policy, Biden’s scheduled visit to Baghdad is heavy-handed and intrusive. By traveling to Baghdad and interceding in what is now a legal matter, Biden will further politicize the issue and make U.S. involvement a key component of the current dispute. This is unfortunate because the SOFA and the clear commitment on the part of the United States to withdraw from Iraq have largely de-politicized the continuing American presence and created space for Iraqi politics. While the United States should certainly work quietly along with the United Nations in trying to broker a compromise, by interceding in this manner the issue will now become a question of Iraqi sovereignty and render compromise difficult, particularly during this period prior to national elections. By publicly involving the United States at this juncture Biden also runs the risk of appearing to interfere in judicial matters that should be beyond the reach of political pressure. Again, this will complicate the decision-making process for the Iraqi appellate body charged with reviewing the de-Ba’athification decisions. Finally, this public posture runs the risk of creating an impression of ineffectiveness if Biden’s mission is unable to change the course of current events.