A New Strongman for Iraq?

There’s been an interesting conversation going on, prompted by this guest post by Gregory Gause, professor of political science at University of Vermont and director of its Middle East Studies Program. In his post Dr. Gause notes that in recent months Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has taken a number of steps which, considered together, appear to be a concerted attempt to position himself as the new strongman of Iraqi politics. The moves include establishing his bona fides as a symbol of Iraqi nationalism by insisting on a date for the withdrawal of U. S. forces, eliminating opposition within Shi’ite politics with his campaign against the Sadrists, taking on the Awakening Councils demonstrating that Iraq will remain Shi’a-controlled, and consolidating his position within his own political coalition.

Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark) replied to the post with a thoughtful commentary noting, among other things, the gap between PM al-Maliki’s intentions and his capabilities:

Maliki’s aggressiveness conceals his precarious political position. State institutions remain rickety, corrupt, and inefficient. His ruling coalition is shaky, despite the return of the IAF to his government, and even the core alliance with the Kurds has come under pressure over Kirkuk (i.e. Barzani’s denunciation of the authoritarianism in Baghdad).

Sam Parker (Iraqologist), posting at abu muqawama, responded with an intriguing post on the delicate political balance in Iraq, a struggle between those who are currently in power and those who would like to be in power, the “Powers That Be” and the “Powers That Aren’t” or the PTB and PTA for short.

It’s natural to conclude from this, as Gause appears to, that Maliki is making a bid to be a strongman. The big problem with this argument, as Abu Aardvark points out, is that 1) the PTA are down but not out and 2) Maliki is not strong enough yet to be a strongman. In other words, the PTB still need each other and Maliki still needs the PTB. The reason they need each other is that there is not yet a real “national” security force that is both strong enough and loyal enough to any one group or person for any one of them to emerge dominant. When it comes to beating down the PTA, the PTB and their armies are unified and all on the same side. But if the PTB try to go after each other, it would be a total bloodbath, especially with the rest of the country not pacified yet. Gause’s strongman theory and the implications he draws from it are correct, if instead of a single strongman you think of the PTB as an emerging authoritarian regime but one that, at least for now, depends on the alliance of the PTB.

I can’t contribute substantively to the commentary on the Iraqi political aspect of this conversation but I believe that from the American viewpoint if PM al-Maliki is trying to position himself as a new strongman in Iraq whether real or illusory it constitutes a problem for the United States. As the leader of the fledgling, highly imperfect democracy in Iraq, the al-Maliki government would be worthy of our support as part of our grand strategy in the War on Terror (remember the War on Terror?). As the strongman of Iraq al-Maliki would just be yet another strongman in a region in which strongman-type governments are the predominant form. We might support him nonetheless as the lesser evil but we’d be running the risk of taking the course that we’ve been criticized for in the past as earning us the enmity of people in the region—supporting repressive regimes. That’s the price of a return to the policy of realism for which some Americans seem to yearn.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.