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Biden, US Policy in Iraq and the Concept of Muhasasa

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

6 July 2009

On 27 February this year, President Barack Obama held one of the best speeches on Iraq delivered by a US senior official for a long time. Obama congratulated the Iraqis for having resisted the forces of partition, and while he noted the need for political reconciliation, he pretty much refrained from imposing his own interpretation of what the relevant problems were and how they should be solved. As such, the statement was in harmony with the better parts of his speech in Cairo in June, in which he went out of his way to make it clear that he had no intentions of framing America’s relationship with the Muslim world as a monologue where only the values of one side receive attention.

However, after the reappearance of Joe Biden on the Iraqi stage this weekend – this time as vice-president of the United States and special envoy charged with facilitating national reconciliation in Iraq – there is considerable danger that both the optimism among Iraqis from Obama’s first speech as well as the substantial progress towards a more mature form of politics seen during the January local elections may be reversed. Biden’s brief public remarks as well as those offered by high-level US officials in conjunction with the visit all suggest that while Iraq itself may be maturing, US policy in Iraq is not. Conceptually, Washington seems stuck in language dating from 2007, and it consistently adheres to a public discourse on Iraq that features old and stale categories of analysis. At worst, the choice of words by US leaders could help resuscitate the very sectarian forces that are cited by Washington as its main concern.

Perhaps this development should not come as too much of a surprise. After all, for Obama, the Camp Lejeune speech in February represented something of an exception to his general approach to Iraq. In other contexts, his comments relating to national reconciliation in Iraq have been surprisingly off the mark, and often framed in such outdated language that they have been directly at odds with his declared ambition to be on talking terms with the Middle East.

For example, just weeks after the promising speech at LeJeune, in remarks to CBS News on 29 March, Obama commented that “there’s still work to be done on the political side to resolve differences between the various sectarian groups around issues like oil, around issues like provincial elections.” Whereas this statement may seem innocent and even bland at first, in reality it contains a grave error concerning the relationship between oil and ethno-sectarian identity. Frequently misconstrued in the West as a problem of revenue-sharing between three ethno-sectarian groups, the oil issue in Iraq is in fact not so much about revenue distribution but rather about the right to sign contracts with foreign companies – where the two biggest Kurdish parties are facing off against everyone else. Most Iraqis south or Kurdistan would in fact probably balk at notions such as a “Shiite quota” or a “Sunni quota” for oil, and seem to agree that Iraq’s oil revenues should be distributed according to a strict per-capita formula, equally across the entire country. Both Sunnis and Shiites stand to benefit from this, because almost all the oil is located in the far south in Basra, which in the past has shown itself to be equally sceptical to domination by outsiders from central Iraq, be they Shiites or Sunnis. In other words, oil in Iraq is not an issue that needs agrement between  “sectarian groups” as per Obama's suggestion.

More recently, Obama has reiterated similar ideas. At a press conference in June he complained, “I haven’t seen as much political progress in Iraq, negotiations between the Sunni, the Shia, and the Kurds, as I would like to see.” He went on to suggest “the bigger challenge is going to be, can the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds resolve some of these major political issues having to do with federalism, having to do with boundaries, having to do with how oil revenues are shared.” Again, many of these observations are empirically problematic. Yes, there are boundary issues between the Kurds and the Arabs, but Sunnis and Shiites, on top of their consensus as regards oil-revenue sharing, are now mostly in agreement on federalism. The main cleavage during the last local elections was between centralists (including Sunni Islamists, Shiite Islamists, secularists) and decentralists (Kurds and a few Shiite Islamists). The decentralists lost badly, and it is generally expected that in the future – absent any foreign intervention – there will be widespread support among both Sunnis and Shiites for a more centralised state structure in Iraq south of Kurdistan. (The one big issue that does have a certain sectarian component, the integration of the largely Sunni “Sons of Iraq” militias into the Iraqi security forces, was not mentioned by Obama in this context. However, its overall significance diminishes dramatically as soon as one realises that the main cleavage is not between Sunnis and Shiites and that the Sunnis of Iraq at any rate are more than “Sons of Iraq” militia members and often have other, non-sectarian, priorities.)

Re-enter Joe Biden. Before he was elected vice-president, Biden had been among the foremost American exponents of the theory that the key to peace in Iraq is some kind of grand compromise between its three main ethno-sectarian communities. Back then, he had developed this argument to a territorial solution in which federalism was supposed to be the key instrument for structuring the new Iraqi political system. His plan to territorialise the process of national reconciliation in this way was roundly condemned in Iraq south of Kurdistan, and gradually met with criticism in Washington too. But whereas little has been heard about the first iteration of the “Biden plan” since Obama was elected president, Biden himself has gradually reverted to the spotlight on Iraq issues. This time, he appears to be promoting a non-territorial variant of the same theory of a tripartite grand compromise.

During Obama’s visit to Iraq in April, Biden commented, “One of the things the president has said from the beginning is in addition to us drawing down troops, it was necessary for there to be further political accommodation between the Sunnis, Shia, and the Kurds”. This weekend, as Biden himself visited Iraq, he declared that his goal was to “re-establish contact with each of the leaders among the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites”. As if to underline the idea that this effort of diplomacy was a benevolent act on the part of the United States designed to rescue a country otherwise doomed to disintegration, high-level US officials (some say Biden himself) evoked Humpty Dumpty to describe the current state of affairs: “There also wasn't any appetite to put Humpty Dumpty back together again if, by the action of people in Iraq, it fell apart”, a clear analogy between the country of Iraq and the clumsy, fragile and egg-like character of the old rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Is this how the US views Iraq?

The modified and non-territorial version of the Biden plan has an impact on the situation in Iraq in several ways. Firstly, it serves to reiterate the misleading idea that the problem in Iraq is basically between three mutually hostile and internally monolithic groups (who but for the “help” of the United States would have parted ways long time ago). This approach is so sociologically problematic that few academics bother to take it seriously anymore (intra-communal divisions, inter-sectarian alliances, mixed social backgrounds, endurance of Iraqi nationalism etc.) But when Washington keeps repeating it, it could easily feed back into the Iraqi conflict. When Obama wants to enhance national reconciliation “between” three groups, and when Biden wants to talk to “each of the leaders” of the three, American diplomacy becomes structured in such a way that it will eventually bring to the fore again those very tripartite structures it supposedly is designed to combat.

For example, with this paradigm, secularism becomes virtually impossible in Iraq, because America only wants to conduct serious talks with those leaders that appeal to ethnic and sectarian sentiments, and will craft a “grand bargain” on this basis. Also, ethno-sectarian cleavages, which Iraqi leaders sought to transcend during the 2009 local elections, are once more reified and get back on the agenda simply because Iraqis are reminded about them in a powerful way. In fact, each time Biden and Obama keep repeating these ideas about the need for political compromise “between Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds” on issues like “oil revenue-sharing”, they make it more and more likely that the 2010 parliamentary elections will become a rerun of 2005, with sectarian loyalties centre stage. Conversely, those “new forces” that bravely emerged during the recent local elections will feel discouraged. And certainly if any reconciliation is forced on the Iraqis now, prior to the 2010 elections, and with the current dysfunctional and unrepresentative parliament as a framework, the net effect will be to divest the non-sectarian forces of Iraq of powerful arguments in the upcoming elections campaign. Those forces want to give the Iraqi public a unique chance to openly discuss the fundamental features of the Iraqi political system – in other words, the opposite of some kind of backroom compromise between sectarian leaders under American chairmanship.

The non-territorial variant of the Biden plan has a name in Arabic: muhasasa, or the sharing of quotas – in this case between ethno-sectarian groups. According to this logic, Iraqi politics is structured on the basis of the relationships between the three biggest ethno-sectarian groups, and a sharing formula is used as point of departure for a grand political compromise. What Biden and Obama don’t seem to understand is that most Iraqis detest this psychological sort of partition just as much as they hated the territorial variant that was advocated in the name of ethno-sectarian federalism in 2007. This hatred is abundantly clear from the discourse of Iraqis who are critical of the political system adopted in 2005. Here muhasasa is portrayed as a weakness of Iraqi politics which was introduced by returning Iraqi exiles and Paul Bremer in 2003, and which has since festered and grown into a fundamental problem that prevents professionalism and esprit de corps from taking root in the Iraqi state. But while American observers applaud Iraqi intellectuals (including many Shiites) who warn about increasing authoritarianism in the Iraqi state as well as growing Iranian influences, they seem to turn a blind eye to those same intellectuals when they criticise the concept of muhasasa. On this subject there is simply a total breakdown of communication between Iraqis and Americans.

Criticising muhasasa (above, portrayed as a monster) and Iranian influence (below, a red carpet for Ahmadinejad painted by the blood of Iraqis) as problems of the “new Iraq”. Caricatures by Salman Abad who was threatened with arrest after he and members of the Iraqi Constitutional Party (a secular party which includes many Shiites) had exhibited his drawings in Karbala.

There is a regional dimension to this too. Lately, there had been positive signs that Iraqis were in the process of overcoming muhasasa. Maliki’s performance in the January local elections was generally ascribed to his vocal defence of national and centralist values, with a promise to work for constitutional reform in the future. The Iraqi constitution itself opens for a more majoritarian political system from 2010 onwards, because the tripartite presidency – the clearest expression of formal muhasasa within the 2005 constitution and one of the greatest obstacles towards the formation of viable cabinets – simply expires at the end of the first parliamentary cycle. But despite these positive tendencies, there are also unfortunate pushes in the opposite direction, from those who attempt to remind the Iraqis about their sub-identities as Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. The first and very predictable move came from the east, from Iran. Having witnessed Maliki’s success and the failure of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in the local elections, Tehran is now busy trying to rebrand the all-Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) as a supposedly nationalist alliance; however even people in the Daawa party have publicly declared that this is an attempt by Iran to once more unify the Shiite parties on a single sectarian platform. More surprising is this latest push from the west, probably with different intentions, but with exactly the same impact: Just like Iran, Biden came to Baghdad to talk about “Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis” at a time Iraqis were struggling to transcend these categories.

If Obama wishes to be sincere to his own promise of greater respect for the Arab and the Muslim worlds, he needs to understand that Iraqis will reject both territorial and psychological variants of a partition approach. The best thing he and his administration can do is probably to talk as little as possible about “Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds” in the future. Rather than trying to force some kind of grand compromise using ideas that clearly belong to the past and leverage Washington no longer possesses (Maliki has already rejected Biden’s offer twice), the US should simply spend its energies helping the Iraqis facilitate the required compromises themselves. The next parliamentary elections in 2010 could become the transformative moment which Iraq did not get back in 2005; the US could do its part simply by trying to make those elections free and fair in the widest possible sense, and by generally refraining from reproducing notions of tripartite reconciliation that only play into the hands of the sectarian forces of the past.


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