There are two ways to look at the political alliances ahead of January’s parliamentary elections in Iraq: these alliances either spell the entrenchment of identity politics, or they may represent the last gasp of identity politics. I favor the later the view, and, reassuringly it seems, so does the new U.S. ambassador in Baghdad.
Now it is not a common-place occurrence to find the minions of Foggy Bottom—the lair of the ‘Evil Empire’ as neocons deem it—doing the right thing. Sure, Secretary Hillary Clinton is viewed by some on the left of U.S. politics as a closet neocon, and whatever positive changes coming out of her new dominion could be chalked up to initiatives of her undertaking. But I keep getting the sense that credit is solely owed for the new way of handling things in Baghdad to Ambassador Christopher Hill, who assumed his duties just a few months ago.
Hill got a lot of bad reviews when he first came to his assignment, and I am guilty of having hopped onto the naysayer bandwagon at the time. The argument had it that he was a Holbrooke crony (Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was a critic of the positive expectations of a ‘new’, democratic Iraq), had turned rogue against the Bush administration during his stint negotiating with North Korea, was an avid neocon-basher, and had no experience working in the Middle East. That last accusation—an accurate one—seems to be the cornerstone of his career’s redemption: having no pre-conceived notions about what the Middle East is and what limited its development, he seems to have signed on to the possibility that democracy could indeed flourish in Iraq.
And he seems to be doing that by doing very little. Hill is allowing Iraqi politics to develop with minimal meddling, which is now exposing him to a lot of anger from the meddlesome types who are part of the U.S. mission in Iraq. Hill is now being accused of everything from “being lazy” to “he’s allowing the Iranians to take over.” Leading the smear campaign it seems, if the Iraqi political class is to be believed, are the top political advisors to the U.S. military there. These advisors serve as General Ray Odierno’s go-to gurus on Iraqi politics, and they have been feeding their Iraqi contacts a steady stream of vitriol against Hill. The acrimony has also been fed to the usual suspects in the U.S. media and blogosphere who act as conduits to military brass gripe; Odierno’s advisors are out to draw first blood in DC policy circles.
I hope Mr. Hill spends more time battling the other wanna-be stewards of his mutinous ship rather than charging at the big waves rippling through Iraqi politics. He seems to have recognized, accidently or deftly, that big changes are afoot in Iraq -- changes that shall eventually work towards shaping a better ally for the United States.
Iraqi political players have two choices to make: stick with what used to work in the past, or gamble on the trends that seem to be changing the motivations of the Iraqi voter. What the big players suffer from is: are all complicit in how badly the government runs. Iraq, after all, is being steered by a coalition government that taints its many actors with mismanagement and corruption. One set of politicians is betting on identity politics: they cannot run on efficiency, ditto for integrity, so they must run on identity. Things have developed to a stage where it would be crass for Shias to pit themselves against Sunnis and vice versa, so the identity politicians of both groups will opt for stand-in bogeymen: the Shias will rail against the creep of Ba’athism (read Sunnis) back into power, while the Sunnis will warn of Iranian (read Shia) hegemony. They cannot talk about accomplishments in providing electricity, the sorest need in Iraqi popular discourse, so they must construct narratives about false enemies.
Another set of politicians is betting that the future belongs to those who hold themselves above the sectarian din. The forerunner of this group is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who should be commended for breaking ranks with the dominant identity-based Shia coalition that first propelled him to power and stature. Sure, he did so after failing to secure a guarantee from it about keeping his job post-elections, but the narrative he is going to run on is patriotism, rather than myopic sectarianism; he too cannot run on efficiency and integrity, but his fallback rhetoric is positive, rather than malicious. This changes the game in fundamental ways; what Maliki is starting in the Shia camp will echo immediately in the Sunni camp, and eventually find itself expressed in the Kurdish camp too.
This will be a years-long process, so it is lamentable that true secular democrats are not available in force and funding to mount a challenge at this stage. But their time will come as the trend deepens; if their moment is not to be at these next elections, their chances will improve in the electoral round after that. Maliki is an Islamist, but wants to market his secular credentials. This will not be enough for a number of Iraqis who do not want to vote for Islamists under any guises; their fall-back candidates will likely be Ayad Allawi and Saleh al-Mutlag in lieu of real democrats. Allawi and Mutlag’s sole saving grace is that they are secular, but they far from being democratic: they are the chief proponents of neo-Ba’athism, that is the rehabilitation of Ba’athists into Iraqi politics. For these next elections, they are place-holders for the anti-Islamist vote, but in another cycle they may be eclipsed by a democratic opposition.
The positive trends discussed above will need time to mature. But the fact that they are in the works means that things are heading the right way in Iraq. They are doing so with minimal U.S. meddling --as exhibited by Mr. Hill -- as they should be. The U.S. should not be playing favorites in this game; the Iranians and Saudis are doing so, rumored to be spending tens of millions of dollars, but they are thankfully and effectively canceling each other out. One of the biggest accusations against the concept of a democratic revolution in Iraq is that it can be imposed by the Americans. Fine, the Americans cleared away the poisonous legacy of the Saddam years to allow this new sprout to flourish. Like the date tree of Iraq, the country’s iconic symbol, once the sprout takes, it requires minimal attention, its roots shooting downwards to soak up the ample reserves of ground water. If vigilance is required, it should be directed against those who wish to uproot the sprout, or bioengineer it to look something like the weird growths that pass for government in much of the Middle East. A tree grows in Baghdad -- let it be.