Muddling could make for a better Iraq

December 16, 2005|By ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN

WASHINGTON -- Iraqi and U.S. officials caution that it may take up to several months after the Iraqi election results to agree on a new government. Even if the period is much shorter, simply dividing up titles in the executive, legislature, and government will not necessarily indicate who actually has power or the capability to use it.

The coalitions of Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish and nationalist factions that emerge during this process may tell far more about the future than actual voting strength or numbers of legislators. Even then, however, coalitions may shift from issue to issue, and may take on a very different form once the government is formed and begins to operate.

The choices of prime minister and of the key ministers - defense, interior, oil and finance - may well do more to define power in practice than the elections. And legislative alliances may define how the constitution is completed, amended and interpreted.

The critical areas for political decision-making and the choice of leaders will be:

Whether the Defense Ministry continues under Sunni leadership and to emphasize a truly national army and one that is sensitive to Sunni concerns.

Whether the Interior Ministry is brought under control and moves away from its recent tendency to tolerate or carry out Shiite attempts to regain areas of its original territory and becomes effective in creating truly national special security and police forces.

Whether the Oil Ministry has professional leadership and moves forward decisively to renovate oil and gas facilities and carry out exploration and development of a kind that will ease the tension between factions.

Whether the Finance Ministry gets leadership that can actually manage resources and the budget, bring overspending in other ministries under control and deal with the necessary compromises over how to handle oil and other state revenues and taxation.

The period after the election is much more likely to be an exercise in political power than one in law, particularly because the constitution can initially be amended by a simple majority vote.

If power is exercised in a moderate and inclusive way, Iraq may well move forward as a unified state. If power becomes polarized, or is used at the expense of Sunnis or "nationalists," the result could be paralysis, division or civil war.

The debate over the constitution opened virtually every key issue in Iraqi politics and created a process in which the constitution needs to be completed and can only be amended by simple majority for a relatively short period. The new government will also inherit a budget deficit, the need to take over management of more of the aid process and immediate issues over the control of oil revenues.

More important, it will inherit an insurgency and a climate in which suicide attacks on Shiites and Kurds have been increasingly mixed with attacks on Sunnis by Shiite military and special Iraqi security forces.

The more extreme Islamist insurgents face a critical time window in which they must do everything possible to provoke the Shiites and Kurds, prevent compromise and move toward a civil war, or at least paralysis and disintegration of the political process.

But this also is the time when Shiites who want to dominate Iraq must act politically or through their own efforts to stem violence and when Kurds who want nationhood also must act.

The good news is that many more Iraqi forces will come on line at the same time and that a successful political process probably will be supported by a successful military and police effort. The two do go in tandem, however, and a failed or noninclusive political process could divide the Iraqi armed forces or polarize them against the Sunnis.

One must be very careful about assuming that Iraq's new government must solve every issue at once or that it must find all of the answers soon after a government is formed. Compromise, delay and deferral are excellent political solutions; so are half-measures and cosmetic actions. Governments muddle through because political realities force them to and because "muddling" is far more stable and uniting than acting with clarity and efficiency.

It is important to note that there are few real deadlines and many areas where muddling through and ambiguity will work or buy time. With good political leadership, finding workable approaches should not be daunting, much less impossible. Iraqi public opinion polls also indicate that Iraqis will not insist on final solutions, but only ask for a good beginning.

The key to success obviously will be pragmatism, inclusiveness and compromise. It will be far more important for the new government to avoid divisive mistakes than to have dramatic successes. Post-election Iraq will be a close-run thing and everything will depend on the quality of Iraq's new leaders.

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