Iraq’s New Government Must Deliver

For two years, much of the Bush administration’s attention in Iraq has been focused on creating some of the core aspects of democracy. In June 2004, we transferred sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government that governed according to an interim set of laws that Paul Bremer had helped various factions negotiate prior to that date. In January 2005, the famous purple finger elections occurred and Iraqis chose an interim parliament. A government was formed by spring, and a constitution was written that summer and approved by referendum in October. In December, elections for a full-term parliament were held leading to the recent formation of a full-fledged Iraqi government. This summer, the constitution will be reviewed and revised.

But otherwise, we are coming to the end of this fire hydrant dosage of political milestones. And it is about time. What Iraq has had for two straight years is the equivalent of what Americans typically tire of here at home – constant campaigning, electoral posturing, elections followed by bickering. It is time for government to get to work.

Of course, I overstate to make a point. What has occurred in Iraq in the last two years has been remarkable and inspirational – even for someone like myself who is becoming a severe skeptic of how well other things are going on the ground in that country. The economy is largely stagnant, the security situation by far the worst in the broader region, and yet politics and democracy have given hope.

However, just as Hamas’ election in the Palestinian territory a few months ago reminded us that democracy is not just about elections, Iraq’s current situation should convince us that building a new nation is not just about going to the polls and forming coalition governments. In the end, democracies have to protect their peoples, ensure the rights of their minorities, help their economies grow and their peoples prosper, and make sure the next round of elections is at least as serious as the last to be successful. Iraq needs to get on with this agenda.

To put it in a different, and blunter, form: We are badly in need of finding a way to integrate Iraqi’s Sunni Arabs into the country’s politics. Sure, they voted in high numbers last fall; sure, some of their leaders have been cooperating in trying to form a coalition government inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. But a University of Maryland poll in January found that a staggering 90 percent of Sunnis still support attacks against U.S. forces, and nearly half support attacks on their own country’s political leaders and security institutions. This is a group of 5 million embittered people that at present is generating, aiding and abetting insurgents at a greater pace than we are killing and arresting them.

The killing of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi may change this dynamic, but two years’ worth of trends suggest that overall forces are not working in our favor.

So let’s help the Iraqi government get down to work. What is needed, as a starting point, are at least four major types of effort. In addition to these, some level of U.S. forces will surely be needed in Iraq for years, albeit at diminished numbers, to keep training and bucking up Iraqi forces – and to help make sure they do not wind up in civil war against each other. But these four proposals focus on the policy agenda that is often forgotten, the need to build up Iraq’s economy and give its Sunni Arabs a greater stake in the country’s future:

(1) Create jobs. Iraq today is akin to the U.S. of the 1930s. Free market economics, as much as we might like to promote them, do not suffice by themselves. There is such a crisis of confidence, and increasingly of hope, that Iraqis need a shot in the arm just to know they have a stake in the country’s future. With public opinion polls showing only 30 percent of Iraqis confident about the future, and only 20 percent thinking the economy is good, we need to help the Iraqi government provide its citizens a simple dose of positive thinking.

The simplest way to do this, as FDR understood during the Great Depression, is to guarantee a modest-paying job to any Iraqi (except known criminals and terrorists) who wants one for the next five to seven years. The jobs could be in agriculture, as my colleague Ken Pollack has argued; they could also be in urban renewal or sanitation. Actually, they could have people just whitewashing the same fence repeatedly, as long as it gave them a more positive outlook and reduced their likelihood of joining the insurgency. If other donors help, the U.S. price tag for this effort might be $1 billion a year, or less than we spend on military operations in Iraq in a week. If not, the cost would still not rise above $2 billion to $3 billion annually – which we should spend, not as a favor to Iraqis so much as to our own troops.

(2) Rehabilitate low-level former Baathists. Last fall’s referendum on the constitution approved the basic idea that Baathists who did not have blood on their hands could be allowed to rejoin society, retake their old jobs, and have a future in the country. Since most of the 1.5 million ex-Baathists joined because they had to, this makes good sense. But by most accounts the process is languishing. As a result, most Sunni Arab professionals have an uncertain stake in the country’s economy and political system. As long as this situation endures, the economy is deprived of their expertise; they have every reason to leave the country, and those who stay are more inclined to support the insurgency.

(3) Clarify who controls the oil. The Iraqi constitution is unclear on who controls the future oil wealth of Iraq, Baghdad or the provinces. Since oil accounts for two-thirds of the GDP and 95 percent of all export earnings, this issue is crucial. Unfortunately, at present the ambiguity again serves to anger Sunni Arabs and risks exacerbating their anger. (Much of that anger is unwarranted and inappropriate, but that is no reason to give these 5 million people real reasons to be mad.) They sit on less than their “fair share” of Iraq’s oil wealth (the land beneath their homes holds 5 to 10 percent of the country’s estimated oil revenue, yet they constitute 20 percent of the population). Our Kurdish and Shia friends need to be convinced that oil is the common property of all Iraqis, to be shared equally on a per capita basis into perpetuity. There is still room for creativity in how the oil money is allocated – some could be disbursed directly to Iraqi individuals, some to Baghdad, some to the provinces in proportion to their populations. But the principle of equality is essential.

(4) Solve the Kirkuk conundrum. Kirkuk, the northern Iraqi city claimed by Kurds but occupied largely by Sunni Arabs as well as Turkomen at present, is a powder keg. The Kurds think it theirs, and they are probably (mostly) right. But if Sunnis are pushed off their land without adequate funds to build new homes or job programs to help them start new lives elsewhere – or belief that the oil under Kirkuk will be shared in part with them – they will again have legitimate reason to be angry. That anger translates into more recruits for – and support for – the insurgency. This issue reinforces the need for job programs and related efforts that added funds from the United States and other donors can help persuade the new Iraqi government to adopt.

These four issues are big ones. They may not be the only ones in Iraq now, to be sure. But it would be a welcome start to get going on them. So as important as they are, enough of politics, the creation of coalitions, elections, and the Green Zone. Let’s get focused on helping Iraqis govern, and build a nation that really can stand on its own two feet so our GIs can begin to come home.