Washington pundits and officials in the Bush Administration who want to goose the government into action are fond of saying the Iraqi leaders just aren't taking a firm hold of the reins. Meanwhile, Iraqi politicians chafe when American officials complain about their incompetence or selfishness or laziness. They bridle over one of major flaws of the U.S. occupation: American condescension. No one wants to be told they can't run their own country. The fact is, no one has run their country well in the last four years; there is plenty of blame to go around.
Since L. Paul Bremer handed over authority, the Iraqi government has done a terrible job of, well, governing. The thin bench of Iraqi politicians is made up mostly of rich exiles like the Pentagon-backed Ahmed Chalabi, Iran-funded Islamists and, well, just straight up crooks. There has yet to emerge an Iraqi prime minister who stayed in Iraq while Saddam was in power. First there was the U.S.-backed Ayad Allawi, who was widely perceived among Iraqis as a CIA patsy and whose defense minister oversaw the disappearance of more than $1 billion during his eight-month tenure. Then the earnest but lackluster Ibrahim al Jaafari who managed to bring Sunnis into the constitutional debate but stood by as sectarian militias infiltrated the police force. Now Nouri al-Malaki faces pressure to defang his most significant political backer, Moqtada al Sadr.
But its not like the U.S.-led coalition has done any better. (It was Bremer, after all, who did irreparable damage by disbanding the Iraqi Army and bungling the post-war reconstruction.) Operation Together Forward, which was announced with great fanfare in June 2006, was totally ineffective at quelling the sectarian killings. The Iraqi police training has been a case study in inefficiency, poor planning and the U.S. government's consistent reluctance to invest the money and resources needed into any task in Iraq.
Is there a bright side? The Iraqi government is weak by design. The portfolios of the government were handed out like so many pieces of cake. Yet, beyond all expectations, the parliament, however ineffectual, has actually maintained a coalition government in place. And while the government's structure makes it impossible for one person or party to ride roughshod over everyone else, that means decisions are made by a painfully slow process of consensus which may give them a better chance of sticking. For his part, Maliki has tried to project strength: rushing Saddam Hussein to execution and directing mildly harsh words in the general direction of Moqtada al Sadr.
While showing up at Parliament everyday and sharing a Twix with your enemy might appear to be a waste of time, it may provide a release valve to keep the tensions in the rest of the country from totally boiling over. But, unless the politicians get down and do some work, the pressures will become overpowering. There will come a time when good attendance will not be enough. And that time may come very soon.