The last time Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, visited the White House, in December 2011, it was on a hopeful note. President Obama and he had just ended the eight-year U.S. military occupation, aiming to turn the page and establish a normal relationship between two sovereign nations.
But Mr. Maliki didn’t hold up his end of the partnership. Mr. Obama praised his guest as “the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq,” only to see Mr. Maliki return to Baghdad and begin an authoritarian crackdown against Sunni Arab political leaders — members of the power-sharing government backed by the United States.
The political crisis Mr. Maliki triggered has endured, undermining years of American efforts to integrate Sunni Arabs into the Iraqi political process. Tensions have worsened as the civil war in neighboring Syria has turned into a sectarian, regional proxy war. The instability has breathed new life into Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, rejuvenating the coffers and confidence of militants, and eroding the cooperation of tribal leaders, which was crucial during the American “surge” of 2007.
Violence in Iraq has risen to levels not seen since 2008, now approaching 1,000 fatalities a month; Al Qaeda in Iraq has gained strength; the threat of a Shiite militia comeback has increased; and fear of a return to cycles of sectarian retribution is high.
In the midst of this storm, Mr. Maliki is scheduled to return to the White House this week, seeking security assistance from the United States. Combating terrorism is a mutual interest. But as Mr. Maliki prepares to seek a third term in 2014, Mr. Obama should insist that he adhere to democratic norms as a condition of American aid.
Since he secured a second term in 2010, Mr. Maliki has become increasingly entrenched, owing to a systematic campaign of consolidating power and purging the security forces of non-loyalists. Having come to office as a compromise between more powerful political forces, the will to survive has defined Mr. Maliki’s governing doctrine. For him, nationalism and sectarianism are not so much ideologies as tools to achieve his political interests.
Yet as troubling as he is, Mr. Maliki is not at the root of Iraq’s ills. Indeed, should he be ousted in next year’s elections, it would neither alter the primacy of survivalism in Iraqi political life nor the narrow and self-serving ways in which Iraq’s political class defines its interests. The instinct to survive above all else is the inheritance of a state of broken institutions, a politics of fear, and a frayed social fabric with only a thin sense of national cohesion.
Iraqis are traumatized by a decade of death and devastation, and an even longer history of sanctions, war and tyranny. The unwillingness of elites to engage in genuine national reconciliation perpetuates communal distrust and ensures that sectarianism lives on.
Iraq’s poisonous political culture is eroding the democratic institutions established under the occupation. True, a constitution exists, but Iraq isn’t a constitutional state; Parliament passes legislation, but the rule of law is selective; elections are merely a game to divide the spoils between corrupt elites; and the government gets massive profits from oil exports, but fails to provide basic services, while nearly a quarter of Iraqis live in poverty.
An internal balance of power has failed to emerge. Instead, Iraq’s political system favors the prime minister over the legislature, the judiciary and the rest of the political class, and the central government over the regional and provincial governments.
Mr. Obama ought to rethink the balance between American hard and soft power in shaping Iraq’s future. Rather than betting on a Cold War-style relationship focused on security, the United States should take a longer view.
America must help reintegrate Iraq into the regional order. It can help to deepen and broaden Iraq’s international trade, improve its role in regional diplomacy, and help diversify its economy beyond oil, which encourages kleptocratic behavior by elites.
Within Iraq, the American government ought to encourage an electoral process that leads to a more representative government. Electoral districting based on smaller geographical units can empower the Iraqi people, while ensuring that competition over power and resources occurs within rather than between sects. That would allow for coalitions to form across sectarian divides, around mutual interests.
Finally, the United States should be seen as supporting the Iraqi people as a whole, and not favoring any faction or figure. While continuing to condemn terrorism, the United States should also speak out against human rights violations. Too often, Mr. Maliki has misinterpreted American backing for his government as a carte blanche for uncompromising behavior.
Above all, Mr. Obama shouldn’t mistake Iraq for a liberal democracy. At best, it’s a democracy without democrats. Iraqis deserve better.
Ramzy Mardini is an adjunct fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. Emma Sky is a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University.