Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Rising Maturity of Nouri al-Maliki

Posted in Iraq by Dan on August 19, 2009
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is increasingly showing his leadership credentials

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is showing his leadership credentials at a time when the future of his country hangs in the balance.

Lets rewind our clocks back to the year 2005…a tumultuous time when the United States took complete control over Iraqi politics, including Iraq’s domestic security, economic reconstruction, political reconciliation, and outreach to neighboring countries.  The year was the beginning of a rising Sunni insurgency, challenging the very fabrics of the American mission a mere two years after the removal of Saddam Hussein from Baghdad.  Ethnic tribes, many of whom were concerned about their personal safety in a society with dwindling resources, started to squabble amongst themselves for the food, water, and influence necessary to survive…eventually laying the groundwork for the devastating wave of sectarian warfare that would soon follow.

The Al’Qaeda terrorist organization, already making its presence known throughout every corner of the Muslim world, was successfully shifting resources and manpower to the deserts of Iraq…embarking on a wave of violence aimed exclusively towards Shias in the Southern portion of the country.  Hundreds upon hundreds of Shia men, women, and children lay victim to the suicide-attacks and car-bombings of Al’Qaeda operatives, only to force the Shia community to declare their unending support to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army for a sense of protection.  The result is something Americans and Iraqis alike are continuing to experience four years later:  a fragile Iraqi state susceptible to cataclysmic cycles of shootings, bombings, beheadings, and kidnappings.

Wow, the year 2005 was turbulent indeed.  Yet, while each violent development outlined above helps students and scholars evaluate America’s successes and failures during the Iraqi campaign, these same security issues neglect to discuss Washington’s influential role in Iraq’s diplomatic sphere.  Although thousands of Iraqis have died at the hands of Islamic terrorists and insurgents, and despite the unfortunate loss of 4,500 American servicemen, the modern analyst too often devotes research towards the military dimension…all the while failing to recognize the many other responsibilities Washington was forced to undertake during this same time period.

As was quite obvious in the media’s coverage of the war, the civil violence of 2005-2007 routinely overshadowed the coalition’s efforts to negotiate and manage the diplomatic affairs of the Iraqi state.  This should come as a surprise, considering the fact that the internal affairs of Iraq have been largely dictated and controlled by foreign powers since March of 2003 (issues that range from cross-border security between Syria and Iraq, as well as the Iraqi Government’s attempts to forge new relationships with Middle Eastern powers).

You may be asking why I am digressing from the typical military-security paradigm that so many scholars have repeated and overplayed?  With so many lives lost and with so much taxpayer money spent on stabilizing Baghdad from sectarian warfare (recent estimates are in the trillions of dollars), what does U.S.-controlled diplomacy have anything to do with Iraq’s future as a sovereign state?  The answer is relatively straightforward:  the prevalence of diplomacy is an accurate demonstration of a nation’s success.  Though a long time coming, Iraq seems to be gradually shifting into the right corner of this spectrum.

Despite six years of bloodbath on the streets, and six years of a weak central government in Iraq, it appears that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is finally taking steps to both improve and legitimatize Iraq’s stance in the international community. Once seen an installed-puppet of the U.S. occupation, Maliki is successfully re-making his image: not only transforming himself into a national leader, but building his credentials at the same time.  In contrast to his past security policies, many of which were perceived as alienating the Sunni and Kurdish populations, Mr. Maliki is slowly but surely uniting his fellow Iraqis- Sunni, Shia, and Kurd- under the powerful banner of nationalism.

About a week ago, I would have been skeptical of this assertion.  The acceleration of suicide-bombings that occurred days after America’s withdrawal from major urban centers gave me reason to doubt the Iraqi security forces’ continued success on the ground.   I have often engaged in pessimism regarding Iraq’s future survival as a member of the nation-state club.  In previous blogs, I have consistently feared the worst once U.S. troops fully complied with the joint U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement…a document that kicks out American soldiers from Iraqi soil by the end of 2011.  The infiltration of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Iraqi politics is one of my main concerns.  In fact, I still believe that Iranian and Saudi agents will seep deep into Iraq in order to promote their own national interests, in addition to weakening each other.  However, while such worries are still embedded in my mind, their strength has mitigated somewhat in the last few days.

To the celebration of ordinary Iraqis, Prime Minister Maliki is taking the lead on Iraq’s domestic politics…showing the United States that Iraqis themselves are finally able to take firm control over their own affairs.  As Mr. Maliki explains to the press on a potential Baghdad-Damascus security arrangement, “it is not the duty of the American delegation to negotiate on the behalf of Iraq…it is the Iraqi government that will directly negotiate on security with Syria.”

For a politician who was often construed as an American patron in the past, this statement may come as a complete bombshell to academics, policymakers, and President Obama’s own Middle East team.  Yet, it is a shock that we should all be grateful for.

Of course, this type of rhetoric has its downfalls.  Some people have gone so far as to label Mr. Maliki as a potentially dangerous nationalist, choosing to participate in the same anti-western language as Saddam Hussein in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  As Qassim Abdul-Zahra of the Associated Press comments in his most recent piece, Maliki’s “remarks underscored emerging strains in the relationship between the Iraqis and the Americans as the balance of power shifts with the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011.”

To the dismay of Abdul-Zahra, his conclusion is a microcosm for those who do not truly understand the political game, not to mention the improved circumstances within Iraq’s provinces.  American officials should be shouting with glee at Mr. Maliki’s declaration, for they demonstrate to the world his sincerity in moving Iraq back into the society of modern-day nation-states.  Perhaps America’s services have run out.  Perhaps our country’s influence in Iraq has spread too thin.  More importantly, perhaps the Iraqi population is recuperating quicker than expected.  If this is the case, mothers and fathers will be happy to discover the safe return of their sons and daughters from the deserts of a foreign land at a much faster pace.

Based solely on Mr. Maliki’s language, it appears that the tremendous sacrifice donated by Washington (in lives, treasure, and political capital) will indeed pay off at the end of this difficult, yet crucial, endeavor.  Iraqis of all ethnicities and tribes are fervently working together in the hopes of converting their state into a stronger, more democratic and prosperous sovereign-entity.  In the sporadic world of international politics and security, progressing towards a better tomorrow is the only true constant.  In the end, isn’t this precisely what the United States hoped to achieve at the very beginning of this campaign?

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Qassim Abdul-Zahra of the Associated Press contributed to this blog.  His full article can be accessed at:  http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090812/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_iraq_169;_ylt=AkEAHKhBxy3CuBrqMfJi_Cf6SpZ4

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