Reidar Visser talked this morning at the Middle East Institute about issues raised in his recent book, A Responsible End?: The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010. Reidar is a vigorous anti-sectarian who blames the U.S. in large part for what he regards as the catastrophic importation of ethnic and sectarian politics, and consequent power-sharing, into Iraq. Everyone I know who follows Iraq reads his Iraq and Gulf Analysis blog, which is full of interesting detail, and well worth reading even if you don’t share all the premises.
Reidar sees the current transition in Iraq as properly one from power sharing to a more majoritarian system, in accordance with the constitution’s elimination of the “presidency council” (a consociational device that made a Sunni and a Shia vice presidents to a Kurdish president). The trouble, as he sees it, is that both Iran and the U.S. have acted to preserve power sharing on sectarian and ethnic grounds. The Iranians have backed a virtually all-Shia coalition as the foundation stone of the new government, which prevents Iraqi nationalism from dominating the political scene, and the Americans have pushed for power sharing that includes not only Sunni but also Kurds, a proposition with which most Iraqis seem to agree.
Reidar doubts that the U.S.-backed National Council for Strategic Policies, or whatever the proposed new council headed by Iyad Allawi is called, will prove effective. Such an extra-constitutional power-sharing mechanism is unlikely to have any real clout and will only frustrate Allawi. He and his Iraqiya coalition would be better off in opposition.
What Reidar would have preferred is a tight Allawi/Maliki Iraqi nationalist alliance with a relatively slim majority and no Kurdish participation. This would have been a stronger and more coherent government than what we are likely to get from a Maliki-led coalition that incorporates all four of the major vote-winning coalitions, plus some smaller groups.
The Americans insisted on inclusion of the Kurds, which immediately brings in ethnic and sectarian division of positions and requires a far larger and more unwieldy cabinet, in order to accommodate all the ethnic and sectarian players. Reidar even suggested that someone should challenge the legality of Jalal Talabani’s re-election to the presidency, on grounds that the constitution requires a law to be passed specifying the procedures for election of the president. He also suggested that the Kurds would have to put up with further delay imposed by Maliki in deciding whether Kirkuk and other disputed territories are part of Kurdistan. They will do so, he suggested, because they want their monthly subsidies from Baghdad to continue.
It is hard for me to picture how leaving the Kurds out of the next Maliki government would be good from the perspective of U.S. interests in Iraq’s and the region’s stability. But at least one recent study suggests power sharing is not particularly helpful in preventing violence in societies emerging from conflict.
However that may be, Reidar is unrealistic it seems to me in believing that the mutual distaste between Allawi and Maliki could have been overcome in formation of a compact and more effective government. Indeed, it may poison even a power sharing arrangement.