Day: January 10, 2011

From the mundane to the mundane

Made it to Baghdad without much adventure.  Fourteen hour flight to Kuwait, four hour layover, Gryphon charter into Baghdad.  No really good stories to tell from this trip.  There is that moment when they turn off all the cabin lights–presumably to make it really hard for someone on the ground to see the aircraft–that a hush falls over the passengers and everyone waits calmly but expectantly for the wheels to touch down.  And I’ll have to remember that United doesn’t want you to use the lounge in Kuwait on arrival, only on departure.  Nice way to treat passengers who’ve just endured 14 hours on one of your aluminum cans!

Of course what you really want is for the trip in from the airport to be as dull as possible.  Ours was, though we managed to get lost on the complicated and unmarked military side for 20 minutes before finding our way to the exit.  From there to the first Green Zone checkpoint is no more than 10 minutes, after which there is a series of pro forma checkpoints whose purpose is perfectly unclear.  One soldier wanted to see the Interior Ministry paper work for the PSD (personal security detail).  I’m not complaining.  As trips into war zones go, this one was close to perfect.

The big problem is that my cell phone isn’t working.  I had T-mobile turn on international service last week and was assured everything would be fine.  Not fine.  It didn’t work in Kuwait and isn’t working here in Baghdad–it seems to know there is a signal out there but isn’t interested in having me use it.  Bless the internet access where I am staying (note how I don’t say where that is), even if it is extraordinarily slow.

But what I’ve really got to focus on now is the Iraqis, and how we may be able to use the next few days to help them move ahead.  The Iraqis call the government a “national partnership” that includes all the significant political blocks.  They hope that means the use of politics rather than violence to settle conflict.  They readily acknowledge the need to improve services, fight corruption, resolve Arab/Kurdish issues (Kirkuk and the disputed internal boundaries in general) and settle relations with their neighbors, by which Iraqis mean ending the neighbors’ interference in Iraq and gaining some measure of respect for Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  The Iraqis are also anxious, at least with Americans, to emphasize human rights, especially protection of their small Christian population, which has been under attack.

The real trick here is not about what the Iraqis say they want but about operationalizing their objectives, moving (as Qubad Talabani put it at a USIP meeting last week) from politics to policies and working out the mechanics of governing effectively.  Iraq has lots of oil, but no oil policy, lots of agricultural potential but no agricultural policy, lots of security problems but no effective security policy.

Of course part of the problem is that this national partnership does not entirely trust its leader, Prime Minister Maliki.  Some think the Parliament should be the main check on his power, or maybe the cabinet (that’s an odd idea in my view–ministers who nominally work for him should restrain him?).  Others are looking to an Iyad Allawi-led, still-to-be-created National Council for Strategic Policies, whose mandate and powers will be a real test of whether we’ve got a partnership or not.  Another test, as Sean Kane pointed out at the USIP event, is how lustration of former Ba’athists is handled:  will the new Justice and Accountability Board find a better solution than the notorious de-Ba’athification Commission, which went overboard so far as to prevent Saleh Mutlaq–now a deputy prime minister–from running in the March elections?

It is not only Saleh Mutlaq in the new government–there are also Moqtada al Sadr’s people, who come from the other end of the religio-political spectrum, and who in turn find themselves in a government with (mostly secular) Kurds who want a long-term strategic relationship with the U.S.  The Kurds of course like a Federal Iraq and wouldn’t be unhappy to see at least one more regional government formed, an idea that is anathema to others in the government even if some Anbaris are beginning to think about it.  In policy terms, there are dozens of these contradictions within the government, and a lot of fractious pressures also from outside.

I suspect, but I’ll find out for sure this week, that Maliki views this fractious government as suiting his purposes well.  None of its many components will be anxious to leave it,  because it would not be clear whether they could get back in if Maliki falls.  The majority is so large that Maliki can afford to lose the votes of one or another coalition on any given issue–in practice, his majority will be one of what the Europeans call “variable geometry.” Maliki is the linchpin for this game of variable geometry, a role he managed to play very well in the previous government.

So this may not be the prettiest of governments, and it is likely to have more than its share of crises over specific issues, but can it find ways forward that begin to exploit Iraq’s extraordinary endowments of people, resources and geography?  Often national reconciliation is regarded as the prerequisite.  It may sometimes more likely be the result.  Can Iraqis find practical things they can do together–whether it is divide oil revenue, delegate more powers to the provinces or deliver more electricity–that bring tangible benefits and enable people to look past their differences to a better future?

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