December 12, 2008
In his book entitled Blueprint for Action, my colleague Tom Barnett wrote:
“The Bush Administration’s decision to lay a Big Bang on the Middle East (my preferred term for the purposeful shock applied to that region’s calcified system of authoritarian rule) began ruthlessly with the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s terrible regime and then segued into our own terrible mismanagement of the occupation. But as the world has witnessed since the Iraqi elections in January 2005, the powerful demonstration effect of growing political freedom in Iraq, however brutally achieved by force, triggers an undeniable ripple effect throughout the region as a whole.”
Tom penned that paragraph nearly three years ago. Since then, our company, Enterra Solutions, has become entrenched in economic development in northern Iraq and that is just one of the consequences of the “Big Bang.” Conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer recently published a commentary on some of the political fallout of the Big Bang [“Milestone in Baghdad,” 5 December 2008]. The objective of his column was to remind us that, when so much bad news is filling the headlines, there is still good news to be found. He wrote:
“The barbarism in Mumbai and the economic crisis at home have largely overshadowed an otherwise singular event: the ratification of military and strategic cooperation agreements between Iraq and the United States. They must not pass unnoted. They were certainly noted by Iran, which fought fiercely to undermine the agreements. Tehran understood how a formal U.S.-Iraqi alliance endorsed by a broad Iraqi consensus expressed in a freely elected parliament changes the strategic balance in the region. For the United States, this represents the single most important geopolitical advance in the region since Henry Kissinger turned Egypt from a Soviet client into an American ally. If we don’t blow it with too hasty a withdrawal from Iraq, we will have turned a chronically destabilizing enemy state at the epicenter of the Arab Middle East into an ally.”
Krauthammer, who endorsed John McCain for president, is reporting good news for his readers, but he also wrote his column with the Obama team in mind. A major theme of Obama’s campaign was getting the United States out of Iraq and Krauthammer wants to make sure the new President doesn’t do that precipitously. Krauthammer, however, doesn’t dwell on that point; rather, he wants to focus on Iraq’s nascent democracy.
“Also largely overlooked at home was the sheer wonder of the procedure that produced Iraq’s consent: classic legislative maneuvering with no more than a tussle or two — tame by international standards (see YouTube: “Best Taiwanese Parliament Fights of All Time!“) — over the most fundamental issues of national identity and direction. The only significant opposition bloc was the Sadrists, a mere 30 seats out of 275. The ostensibly pro-Iranian religious Shiite parties resisted Tehran’s pressure and championed the agreement. As did the Kurds. The Sunnis put up the greatest fight. But their concern was that America would be withdrawing too soon, leaving them subject to overbearing and perhaps even vengeful Shiite dominance. The Sunnis, who only a few years ago had boycotted provincial elections, bargained with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, trying to exploit his personal stake in agreements he himself had negotiated. They did not achieve their maximum objectives. But they did get formal legislative commitments for future consideration of their grievances, from amnesty to further relaxation of the de-Baathification laws. That any of this democratic give-and-take should be happening in a peaceful parliament just two years after Iraq’s descent into sectarian hell is in itself astonishing. Nor is the setting of a withdrawal date terribly troubling. The deadline is almost entirely symbolic. U.S. troops must be out by Dec. 31, 2011 — the weekend before the Iowa caucuses, which, because God is merciful, will arrive again only in the very fullness of time. Moreover, that date is not just distant but flexible. By treaty, it can be amended. If conditions on the ground warrant, it will be.”
Although the security agreement was hammered out between the Bush and al-Maliki administrations, the Obama administration will be a primary beneficiary of the agreement. With a withdrawal date set, the new President can claim his part in having helped pushed the process along to establish a timeline for extracting U.S. forces; but, at the same time, he can use the breathing space it provides to make sure that the withdrawal goes well. That’s important because, as Krauthammer notes, “the war is not over.” If Iraq’s democracy is to succeed and its economy to grow, security must be firmly established.
“As Gen. David Petraeus repeatedly insists, our (belated) successes in Iraq are still fragile. There has already been an uptick in terror bombings, which will undoubtedly continue as what’s left of al-Qaeda, the Sadrist militias and the Iranian-controlled ‘special groups’ try to disrupt January’s provincial elections. The more long-term danger is that Iraq’s reborn central government becomes too strong and, by military or parliamentary coup, the current democratic arrangements are dismantled by a renewed dictatorship that abrogates the alliance with the United States. Such disasters are possible. But if our drawdown is conducted with the same acumen as was the surge, not probable.”
Although Krauthammer doesn’t refer to it as the Big Bang, he clearly sees what is happening in Iraq as a “purposeful shock applied to that region’s calcified system of authoritarian rule.” He concluded:
“A self-sustaining, democratic and pro-American Iraq is within our reach. It would have two hugely important effects in the region. First, it would constitute a major defeat for Tehran, the putative winner of the Iraq war, according to the smart set. Iran’s client, Moqtada al-Sadr, still hiding in Iran, was visibly marginalized in parliament — after being militarily humiliated in Basra and Baghdad by the new Iraqi security forces. Moreover, the major religious Shiite parties were the ones that negotiated, promoted and assured passage of the strategic alliance with the United States, against the most determined Iranian opposition. Second is the regional effect of the new political entity on display in Baghdad — a flawed yet functioning democratic polity with unprecedented free speech, free elections and freely competing parliamentary factions. For this to happen in the most important Arab country besides Egypt can, over time (over generational time, the time scale of the war on terror), alter the evolution of Arab society. It constitutes our best hope for the kind of fundamental political-cultural change in the Arab sphere that alone will bring about the defeat of Islamic extremism. After all, newly sovereign Iraq is today more engaged in the fight against Arab radicalism than any country on earth, save the United States — with which, mirabile dictu, it has now thrown in its lot.”
Of course there is a lot more that has to happen in Iraq besides “free elections and freely competing parliamentary factions” in order for Iraq to become a peaceful and prosperous state. As I wrote in the post entitled Development and Corruption in Iraq, government and business leaders must operate in a transparent and trusted way. If they don’t, they won’t be able to attract the necessary foreign direct investment to create a sustainable and diverse economy. [As a side note, I was pleased that portions of that particular post were referenced yesterday in the Iraq Oil Report (thanks to my friend Critt Jarvis for providing me that information).] Krauthammer is correct in pointing out that we should not prematurely celebrate how far Iraq has come in so short a time. Iraqis still live in a volatile neighborhood but every step forward helps bring them closer to a safer and more prosperous future.