Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Last Gasp?

Steven Meyer


April 17, 2006

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made a quick, surprise visit to Baghdad. Their goal was to light a fire under Iraqi leaders, who have been quarreling ever since last December's much heralded election, to form a government of "unity and national reconciliation." Both secretaries were tough, direct, and insistent that progress in Iraq depends on the ability of Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders to put their differences behind them.

This is a huge gamble for both the Bush and the Blair administrations. The plea to form a unity government comes at the end of a long string of reverses in Iraq, and Washington and London desperately need something they can call a victory. The Bush administration is facing declining poll numbers as the November midterm elections approach and Prime Minister Blair is expected to step aside soon in favor of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Blair does not want to hand Brown a government increasingly under siege.

But perhaps most important for the long-term viability of Anglo-American policy in Iraq is whether the formation of an Iraqi government will make any substantial difference for the major issues facing the country. There are three underlying problems.

First, the political dynamic—reflected in the new Iraqi constitution—has moved strongly against a unified, national state. The interests of the three basic constituent groups are paramount and the political process has devolved much of the power, legitimacy, and authority to the Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish areas at the expense of a strong, unified state. This is quite consistent with the decentralizing pattern that emerged throughout the world after the Cold War and it will be virtually impossible to reverse it.

Second, the insurgency is growing and now takes many more lives than do attacks on American and other foreign troops. Irrespective of whether the violence can be described as a civil war, it has become increasingly sectarian since the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samara last February. Sectarian revenge killings are on the rise; neighborhoods are being ethnically cleansed; places of worship are bombed frequently; the organs of state—especially security institutions—increasingly have become ethnic tools; and 1.2 million people—mostly professionals—have left Iraq since the beginning of the war. The violence has moved well beyond attacks on foreign troops by disgruntled Baathists and foreign terrorists. It has become a multi-pronged insurgency that undermines any hope of economic recovery, severely complicates security operations, and makes political compromise increasingly difficult to attain.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the Bush administration has made assumptions about the level of and expectations for Iraqi democracy that have been all but impossible to attain. The administration's image of democracy reflects a mature western system of institutions and procedures at a national level that have no salience in Iraq. Stable, mature democracy is much more than voting—indeed, voting in an unstable society can lead to a false sense of security and actually reinforce instability. Democracy flourishes when there is a prosperous middle class, economic development, civil society, political compromise, acceptance of the rules of the game, and physical security. None of these now exists in Iraq.

Last month in a nationally televised press conference, President Bush said that American troops would not come home and the Iraq issue would not be resolved until well after he had left office. This is tacit acknowledgment that the administration is very near the end of its rope in Iraq.

—Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Science
    National Defense University

    (The views expressed here are those of the author alone.)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”