The Magazine

Hope and Change in Iraq

The elections show a functioning democracy, if they can keep it.

Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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But Shiites and Sunnis could work incremental deals. Public largesse could probably be increased for Sunnis. Not much, though, since Iraq still has very little cash in relation to the country’s needs and the price of oil. Giving the Sunnis too much—considering that they are vastly better off than southern Shiites, parts of whose region look as if they just exited the Stone Age—would likely be political death for a Shiite politician. But small deals might be enough to keep Sunni elders content, if not thrilled. As Iraq’s oil and gas revenues rise, as they will one of these days, that stress is likely to ease, and incremental gains could become substantial. And as odd as it might sound, Chalabi the patrician is more likely to help the process of Sunni-Shiite reconciliation than most other senior Shiite politicians, many of whose families were truly savaged by the Baath. Chalabi is an old-school Iraqi. He can wax (ahistorically) poetic about Iraq in the 1950s, before the Hashemite monarchy fell. That’s a good thing. He has memories of Sunnis and Shiites in happier times, the movers and shakers of Iraq gathered around his father’s dining room table and swimming pool. Like all patricians, he sees the world through families and a socially and intellectually complex matrix that does not discriminate rigorously by creed. Chalabi is never one to waste a political opportunity, but he is also a man of profound sentiment. His sentiments encompass Sunnis. With Shiite politicians, that is not always the case. 


The issue really is Sunni expectations. The March 7 elections raised them. Allawi did his side no favors by often suggesting that things could change dramatically under his leadership. The next few months will be telling as politicians come down to earth after the campaign. If the Sunnis can live with the fact that a democratic Iraq will always disappoint their clannish aspirations for political preeminence and a right to live off state subsidies, then Iraq’s future is pretty bright. The Americans really ought to have one overwhelming goal: hang around. Not in large numbers. The drawdown of U.S. troops is a good idea. But we should view Iraq the same way we viewed postwar Germany, France, and Italy. The presence of American troops was the ultimate guarantor that those countries would not slip back into dictatorship. 

Washington shouldn’t choose sides in Iraq, and it shouldn’t intervene in Iraqi politics except in extremis. But we do want to be there, in the background, as we were in Europe. Even Shiite politicians who vociferously oppose an American troop presence can privately suggest a more nuanced view. As the journalist Tom Ricks has suggested, American combat troops could be given a more anodyne label—stabilization forces, a support presence. Our training mission with the Iraqi Army and police is going to take years. Needless to say, most Sunnis will be thrilled. The problem will be with the Shia. We’ve not played Shiite politics brilliantly (as the stupid war against Chalabi demonstrates). But a constructive, unobtrusive U.S. presence is doable if the Obama administration handles the issue deftly. 

If the White House really is worried that Iraq could become an Iranian satrapy, that’s another reason for a small but potent U.S. military force to stay there. Iraqi democracy is a big deal. The American left and right, which have dismissed its evolution and belittled the American achievement in giving it birth, are stuck in the past, in an unchanging Middle East that never existed. What’s happened in Iraq since 2003—and what’s happened in Iran since last June 12—really ought to plant the possibility that the Islamic Middle East isn’t a hopeless case. Some change there just might be progress. Accepting this will cause indigestion for those who’ve been unalterably attached to the image of post-Saddam Iraq as “the biggest strategic failure in American history” and who’ve denounced the pointlessness of promoting democracy “through the barrel of a gun.” Unfortunately, Barack Obama once belonged to this group. But as president he has proven flexible in foreign affairs. With him, as with Iraq after another successful election—freer and more competitive than any election in the history of the Middle East—there are reasons to hope.



Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 



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