Issues Before Identity in Iraq

During the first months of the Obama administration, Iraqis watching the appointments of Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell and Dennis Ross would call me and ask, “Who will be Iraq’s special envoy?” After six months of a stance perceived by many Iraqis as “hands off,” the administration appears to have realized that political engagement is most important when a military presence is waning. Yet recent comments by Vice President Biden suggest that U.S. officials’ mind-set toward Iraq could do as much harm as good.

While visiting Iraq this month, Biden spoke of a need to broker a grand bargain between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and to resolve disputes between “the different confessional groups.” He made clear that he — and, presumably, the United States — saw Iraq’s challenges and solutions largely in terms of sectarian or ethnic groups. Discussing Iraq’s problems in such terms pushes Iraqis back toward the boxes they have been trying to leave behind — and undermines incipient movement away from the dominance of sectarian political identities toward issues-based politics.

To many Iraqis, such language is familiar. The failure in security from 2004 well into 2007 crystallized sectarian and ethnic identities; Sunni extremists and Shiite militias identified both their targets and those they protected on sectarian grounds. But this language is also increasingly outdated. Security improvements over the past two years have created space for Iraqis to begin moving away from seeing themselves and their problems in such terms. Indeed, in the provincial elections held in January, issues seemed to matter to voters at least as much as identities.

Encouraging this movement toward issues-based politics is arguably the most important component of a strategy to help Iraqis solve their most intractable problems. Too often, differences among Iraqis are portrayed as feuds between primordial rivals, grounded in irrational and emotional stances. Some of the staunchest opponents of the 2007 “surge” strategy argued that Iraqis were destined to kill one another — and that U.S. presence and policy were minor actors in an otherwise predetermined script.

The current tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government are frequently presented simplistically as manifestations of historical animosities between Arabs and Kurds. Certainly, cultural factors do matter, and Iraq’s long history — including, of course, Saddam Hussein’s brutal efforts to eradicate the Kurds — shapes the nature of the problems and the lens through which they are viewed.

But the reality is that Iraq’s most difficult problems are primarily about substantive issues. Iraqis and their leaders are divided on fundamental questions about the nature of the state — specifically, whether the locus of power should be in Baghdad or in the provinces. Should Iraq be a more traditional Arab state, where power is centralized in the capital? Or should the regions and the provinces — i.e., the KRG — have substantial authorities and autonomy?

This debate is at the heart of what many describe as a Kurdish-Arab conflict. For example, conflicts about the elusive oil law — which Biden will use as a benchmark for gauging progress toward reconciliation — are not really about whether the Shiite government shares Iraq’s wealth with its Sunni and Kurdish minorities. The problems stem from conflicting views about who has the right to develop Iraq’s natural resources — Baghdad, or the regions and provinces? Who has the right to set the terms for international investment and sign contracts to develop Iraq’s oil fields — Baghdad, or the regions and provinces? The disputed territories of Kirkuk and the surrounding areas add another dimension to “Kurd-Arab” tensions, but even those disputes would be easier to resolve were there more clarity over the appropriate roles and future of regional security forces and the Iraqi army.

Discussion of these substantive issues is nascent; it is also clouded with emotion and somewhat superficial understandings of concepts such as decentralization and federalism. Federalism is still the “F-word” in Iraq, even among those who lobby for more authority, resources and responsibilities for the provincial councils. Only within a political system where substance has some hope of being separated from identities are such conflicts likely to be resolved over time. Unfortunately, in the run-up to Iraq’s national elections in early 2010, many forces — including Iran — are pushing Iraqis toward reestablishing the familiar sectarian and ethnic-based alliances that until recently have dominated the political system. A government coming into power in 2010 based on such alliances stands a lesser chance of smoothing Iraq’s differences, particularly given that many of the power-sharing mechanisms that have forced compromise and consensus over the past few years lapse when the next government takes office.

With Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visiting Washington this week, the Obama team has surely given much thought to how to talk about Iraq. Aspirations of a “quick political fix” and a speedy U.S. departure should be superseded by more realistic ambitions for a plodding but upward trajectory, buttressed by American political assistance and an expanding bilateral nonmilitary relationship. In private talks, the Obama administration should support the emergence of issues-based politics and electoral alliances — and the public message should not relegate Iraqis and their challenges to simple sectarian or ethnic actors. Whether Iraqis come to celebrate or lament the appointment of their own envoy in Vice President Biden in part depends on it.

Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She was special assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2004 to 2007.