Iraq Outlook - Not the fairy tale version
Analyst Ian Bremmer looks at the horizon and sees a short game --and a house of cards. [Translation from L'Orient-Le Jour]
The Iraqi Government: A Potemkin village
By Ian Bremmer*
Now that the results of Iraq’s elections are known, forming the new government is more crucial than ever. An encouraging sign is that all the parties seem to have accepted the results. But the big question concerning the country remains the same: will the Shi’a, the Sunni and the Kurds line up behind an effective central authority?
In the short term, we have good reason to think that the three most powerful major political groupings will do so. But would the new government be able to administer all of the country? It seems that the answer to the question is “no”. This is why we can easily believe that a year from now, Iraq will be a place with more instability than today.
Once formed, the new Iraqi government will be somewhat viable in the short term. The Shi’a have an obvious interest in supporting the central government. They believe that because of their demographic strength, a representative democracy guarantees them the right to govern and to protect themselves against Sunni attacks and demands.
As to the Sunnis, they will also support the government, at least at the outset, because it is their only chance to obtain what they consider to be their rightful share of power, resources and revenue. The Kurds will accept an agreement because they believe that the new Constitution will guarantee their right to control the lion's share of the oil wealth deposited beneath their lands. They also do not wish to assume the responsibility for more chaos in Baghdad.
But there is another reason which will prevent the three communities from acting immediately to torpedo federal authority: The central government has neither the judicial nor the economic means to challenge local power. All three Iraqi factions have significant interest in backing a central government having merely an operational façade, its powers being severely limited.
Over the long term, the federal government will push Iraq to a sectarian stampede for power and money. Article 11 of the new Constitution stipulates that “anything which is not inscribed as an exclusive power of the federal government is the responsibility of the regions”. This formulation only opposes the central government to the regions in a battle for political dominance.
Similarly, under current law, soldiers do not answer to the Baghdad government but to regional éminences grises. The Iraqi Constitution also guarantees to local governments the right to pocket income deriving form newly-discovered oilfields falling under their jurisdiction. In fact, although the central government has the power to collect revenue generated by existing fields, there exists no law which would prevent local officials from modernizing oil installations and then declaring them new.
The consequences of this state of affairs can barely be calculated. Oil accounts for approximately 98% of Iraqi export revenue. It is the central nerve of the Iraqi economy and the source of revenue needed by the central government to build durable institutions. Even with a great deal of international economic assistance, foreign money for reconstruction will run out the moment the central Iraqi government becomes operational. In sum, the national government is going to find itself deprived of authority and the means necessary to govern the country.
Because of the growing violence between Shi’a and Sunnis, the Iraqi government will soon offer only the façade of effectiveness. Moreover, at least so far, the Kurds are keeping a low profile. They are enjoying the relative economic prosperity and their institutions are becoming increasingly strengthened. So, for the moment, they have no reason to challenge the status quo. But this stability will face new challenges in 2006.
The gubernatorial elections next November may incite Kurdish candidates to propose opposing programs. Some of them will go as far as making populist calls for independence to obtain an electoral advantage. At the same time, cooler heads will fight to postpone the 2007 referendum, which could divide opinion on the status of the oil city of Kirkuk.
In fact, friction caused by campaign rhetoric could fuel existing resentment between the Shi’a and Sunni communities. It is a very dangerous thing if the sectarian politics of the new Iraq benefits those who make the greatest number of promises to their electors, to the detriment of the central government and other elements of the country. Discussion on possible Constitutional amendments meant to mollify angry Sunnis and to disarm the insurrection may also provoke hostilities between the two camps.
Even more worrisome is that when the Shi’a, the Sunnis and/or the Kurks decide that their elected leaders haven’t produced the promised protections and advantages, they will go beyond simple political considerations to promote their interests. Some Shi’a will decide to form militias while Sunnis may join the insurgency. As to the Kurds, some of them may become the standard-bearers for independence.
When things reach this point, the future of an independent Iraq will be place in doubt. Any separatist movement initiated by the Kurds will involve Turkey in Iraqi politics. At the same time, the protection offered by the US Army to Iraqi officials will vanish with the desire for a pullout. Iran will then not fail to fill the security vacuum.
In short, the Iraqi government will appear to be operational for nearly all of 2006. But it will be exploited to serve the competing interests of the different political factions to the maximum extent possible. The weakness of the central government, the continuing insurrectional violence, the growing Iranian influence on Baghdad and in the south of the country made possible by the power of Shi’a leaders and the natural progression of sectarian politics lead me to believe that the new Iraq will be considerably less stable by the end of the year.
* Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, the political risk consultancy. Bremmer's research focuses on US foreign policy, states in transition, and global political risk. His five books include Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States (Cambridge University Press, 1993), which became the standard college text on the post-Soviet states.rs
Bremmer received his PhD in political science from Stanford University in 1994. He has held research and faculty positions at Columbia University (where he presently teaches), the EastWest Institute, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the World Policy Institute, where he has served as Senior Fellow since 1997. He lives in New York.