This is the new modus operandi of government in Iraq: four power centers, each with widely disparate goals, are tasked with running a country. Each nexus has the power to veto whatever proposal conflicts with its vision, and each is in turn composed of sub-committees whereby individual members also wield veto authority, which may be exercised for reasons that vary from ideological hairsplitting to pettiness and spite.
To make sense of this model, let us solve a problem: picking the next interior minister. We can start with the seven member council of the Shia parliamentary block, the United Iraqi Alliance, since it has already been resolved that this ministry will fall to them. A certain name is proposed by the Sadrist faction that is automatically rejected by their rivals, the Hakim family. The reverse is also true. Thus, there are two factions within the UIA with veto authority. Eventually, they pool a bunch of names, and the least controversial one is agreed upon—pending further investigation, or better put, finding out who that candidate eventually answers to.
The last name they had agreed on made it all the way towards an imminent vote in parliament on Sunday, but was pulled back at the last moment by the UIA bloc itself over objections that the candidate may have been a prominent Ba'athist under Saddam. More specifically, the Hakims felt that this candidate was too close to their other rivals, the Daawa Party. But before making it to parliament, there were other hoops to jump through: the first being the possibility of an American objection. The American Embassy in Baghdad, under the stewardship of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, keeps insisting that they are not interfering in what is called the "Iraqi political process." That claim is patently false, for Khalilzad was very "hands-on" in picking Maliki's cabinet and seemingly vetoed several choices. Now, in picking ministers for the security portfolios, the Americans actually provided Maliki with a list of candidates, all of which immediately became suspect to the Islamists as those who would do America's bidding rather than their own.
What's more, the buck does not stop at Khalilzad, for he has to contend with other lists of favorite clients who answer to Meghan O'Sullivan, the White House's top adviser on Iraq, as well as to a resurgent Foggy Bottom. On the American side, the Embassy, the White House and the State Department can veto each other's picks for the top jobs.
That brings us up to five sides—two Iraqi factions and three American ones—that can stall the process, and to that we need to add the Sunni bloc (two heavyweights with veto bragging rights) and the Kurds (another two) for a grand total of nine. Oh, wait, I forgot those power-grubbing apparatchiks in Grand Ayatollah Sistani's office; they also have veto authority. Oops, and nothing can get through if the Iranian Revolutionary Guard leadership does not "okay" matters. And now that the Syrians have one of their own smack in the middle of things—that man being Maliki himself—then one cannot rule out whatever misgivings they have on the topic. You get the idea.
Back to choosing an interior minister. The Sunnis, who are tasked with coming up with names for the defense portfolio, want to shift law and order from interior to defense. At issue is the all important category of police commandos, whom they want to transform into National Guard units under their own bureaucracy. The Sunnis do not want an interior minister who can actually do the job of reining in all the rogue elements of Islamist militias, Mafiosi and crooks operating under his aegis. They want someone who will fail so that they can act as his foil. They believe that the country can afford to burn a little longer if it means that their strategic goal of hoarding powers disproportionate to their numbers is met.
And in case anyone suggests otherwise, one can cite the very recent statements of Iraq's newly-minted Vice President Tareq Al-Hashimi (another wonder of Iraq's "unity government") who called upon the "honorable resistance" to keep killing Americans until the Sunni politicians such as himself can negotiate a final settlement.
So how is one to make sense of all these conflicting agendas, and their ability to veto each other? This process, called "consensus," was employed in managing the various factions of the Iraqi opposition to the Saddam regime, and bringing them under one tent. It continued after liberation, through the occupation, and after two important elections. Theoretically, it hinges on the idea that Iraq is in such a delicate situation, that no side can be shunned from the table. But this system only works if there is a capable deal-maker: somebody who works out the formula by which each side compromises a little for the process to move forward through a "lose some, win some" strategy. What Iraq has today are accommodators such as Khalilzad and Maliki; those who think they can turn everyone into winners, and it simply isn't working.
There is also a sense among the Iraqi political class that most of the portfolios filled so far reflect ineptitude. Procedural matters as simple as issuing identification badges for new ministers to enter the Green Zone, where cabinet meetings are held, have been stymied. Maliki is instinctively running his own office like the Leninist organizational credo of the Daawa Party to whom he belongs: secrecy and keeping it in the family. American officials dealing with him are already issuing alarms and preparing to distance themselves from an approaching managerial train wreck. And yet, Baghdad burns. Soon, the flames will lap up at the security gates of the Green Zone. It is no longer a case where the biased media fails to report the "good news" out of Iraq: on the contrary, they are not catching up with the horrible battering being taken by Iraq's middle class as foreign reporters, as well as their Iraqi stringers, are confined to ever narrowing beats. As a measure of how bad things are, there are fatwas in effect in large swaths of western Baghdad banning salads because—according to the jihadists—cucumbers are male and tomatoes are female, and never shall the two meet without adult supervision. This is not science fiction, it is happening in real time, and don't be surprised when a terrorized population actually pays heed. Moreover, the once stable south of Iraq is verging on a collapse as Shia factions and gangs battle it out, with Iranian connivance.
Yes, it is that bad, and no amount of "happy talk" will change it. But this war ceased to be a "feel good" endeavor a long time ago; it should be fought because losing is not an option. Can the world afford the precedent of a superpower being humbled by someone like Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi, and does anyone really think that Zarqawi and his ilk will end it right then and there as America retreats in defeat? No, Iraq must be made to work.
Meanwhile, President Bush keeps seeing "milestones" and "turning points" in Iraq—probably because he is being led around in circles. Coming up is the realization that the current political set-up where entrenched foes cancel each other out is no substitute for serious leadership that can get things done, and fast. Let us only hope that the badly-frayed Iraqi state can outlast Maliki's cabinet, and Khalilzad's myriad "accommodations."
This article appeared in The New York Sun on June 6, 2006.