Could a Mandela Save Iraq?

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So scant has the Iraqi government's progress been toward reversing the country's negative slide that senior U.S. officials are reportedly now expressing doubts that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki can get the job done. But how likely is it that anyone else could do better? There's no longer anything on the event horizon to suggest any prospect of imminent turnaround. Previously, U.S. officials could reinforce the Bush Administration's "stay the course" message by pointing to forthcoming handovers of power or elections, the creation of a national unity government or the killing of the terrorist Zarqawi as potential watershed moments. But all those milestones have long been passed, and still the insurgency rages, sectarian killings are at an all-time high, reconstruction remains hobbled by the security situation and a slide toward civil war threatens to tear the country apart. In July alone, Iraq lost more civilians than the U.S. did on 9/11 — then, that grim feat was repeated in August.

The U.S. certainly has its own plan for turning things around in Iraq; the problem is finding an Iraqi leader willing or able to implement it. Washington recognizes that defeating the insurgency requires political concessions to the Sunni community, in which the insurgency is deeply rooted — the latest Pentagon polling reportedly finds that three-quarters of the Sunni population back the insurgents. That's why the U.S. has pressed Maliki to offer amnesty to insurgents, to cede more political authority to Sunnis and, most urgently, to rein in the Shi'ite militias that terrorize Sunni communities in retaliation for insurgent atrocities. Four months into his term, Maliki has done little to implement that program.

The problem is not, however, managerial. Those crying out for an Iraqi Mandela to reconcile sectarian foes in pursuit of the greater good — or even an Iraqi Mubarak, the benign authoritarian leader of Egypt who enforces stability with an iron hand — may not have noticed that the forces unleashed and empowered by the U.S. invasion and its democratic aftermath render both options unlikely.

Iraq's ethnic and religious breakdown would actually require more than one Mandela to hold the country together. But leaders reaching out across sectarian and ethnic lines have not fared well in Iraqi democracy. The secular democrats were heavily defeated in the first post-Saddam election, and were further marginalized in the second as Iraqis voted almost exclusively on religious and ethnic lines.

Maliki governs at the head of a coalition of Shi'ite religious parties friendly with Iran, deeply mistrustful of U.S. intentions and with scant interest in following Washington's advice on accommodating the Sunnis, whom they see as the backbone of the old regime under which the Shi'ites suffered. Those parties also happen to command the very Shi'ite militias that the U.S. wants disbanded. The assessment that Maliki is unlikely to do what the U.S. asks of him is probably correct. But there's little reason to expect that any other elected or electable leader in the current democratic arrangement will fare any better.

The poor prospects for an elected government's producing results has some U.S. officials reportedly suggesting that "Iraq might be better off under a traditional Middle Eastern strongman." Such a leader would not be constrained by the demands of an elected legislature, but would rely on the power of his security forces to impose his will on the society. But Iraq's security forces are still largely dependent on U.S. supervision, logistical and air support, and direct intervention when the going gets tough. A strongman regime in Iraq whose authority depended on U.S. military backing would be unlikely to either placate or subdue the Sunni insurgency and the Shi'ite militias.

Despite its "stay the course" message, the Bush Administration may be quietly preparing a change of course, based on the work of a White House-sanctioned bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed up former Secretary of State James Baker III and former House International Relations Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton. Although that group has given no indication of what it will recommend following months of intensive interviews with hundreds of Iraqi and U.S. officials — and it will report only after November's election — it is not constrained by the domestic political limits on the Bush Administration. And the fact that its deliberations on Iraq policy will include high-level meetings with officials from both Iran and Syria suggests that the group may have recognized that stabilizing Iraq will require agreements with some of the regimes the President had hoped would be swept away in his "new Middle East."