Simon: Iraqi Political Shuffle Shows U.S. Still ‘Influential’ in Iraq

Steven Simon, an expert on U.S. security policy in the Middle East, who served five years on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, says that the choosing of a new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, "showed how influential the United States can be in Iraq."

April 24, 2006

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Steven Simon, an expert on U.S. security policy in the Middle East, who served five years on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, says that the choosing of a new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, "showed how influential the United States can be in Iraq."

The outgoing prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari "wouldn’t have signed onto the deal, and the other parties wouldn’t have consented to it if it weren’t for the very heavy pressure that the United States was bringing to bear," says Simon, the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies.

Simon says "the coming months are going to be crucial, because, looking at the constitutional flow of events, the parliament, which can now actually deliberate, at least in theory, has got to address itself to amendments or revisions to the existing constitution that are, in an ideal world, supposed to satisfy Sunni concerns and grievances and thereby lash that large minority up to this project of shared or common national purpose."

The Iraqis, after months of seeming inability to get their act together, have now chosen a new prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, who is a close aide of the outgoing prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. What’s the significance of all this?

Well the significance is that they actually have picked someone, and that the factions which were demanding satisfaction have forged a deal where the Sunnis got the Shiites to endorse their guy—

Abdul-Salam al-Mashhadani as parliamentary speaker?

Yes, and the Sunnis swallowed their disgust and backed Maliki. This is politics at work. It’s log-rolling. And as such it’s to be applauded.

There seem to be a couple of issues. I suppose much will depend on who is now chosen to be the interior minister, the minister of defense, and other key jobs like oil minister, right?

Interior and oil are really the key portfolios. And this is of course where it’s going to get very messy, because the interior ministry is already implicated in the management of prisons where torture has taken place. It’s been linked to death squad activity, which has claimed a lot of Sunni lives and has gone a long way towards energizing a Sunni insurgency that depends desperately on the "kindness" of its adversaries to keep it going. I’m being ironical, but you get the point. So who gets the interior ministry is really important and it’s crucial to American interests.

Does the United States have a favorite that it would like to see named? Would it like some outsider or is it a foregone conclusion that it has to be a major Shiite?

I think it’s a foregone conclusion it’ll be somebody from the Dawa party. There’s not much to choose from. The Americans have identified their one favorite in the Shiite hierarchy, and that’s Abu Abdel Mahdi because he’s quite presentable. And not only is he presentable but he has a reputation as a good manager and he’s a nationalist on a number of levels. One of them is that he doesn’t automatically celebrate the United States and everything it does in Iraq. But nevertheless, he is someone whom the United States wants to rely on, and it was partially due to American pressure, I think, that he wound up with one of the deputy president slots. And that was fine, but he’s not going to really have any influence over what happens in the really important arena of domestic security. And whoever is the minister of the interior is going to have 100,000 men that he can deploy for the purposes of furthering sectarian interests. There have been discussions about bringing militia forces into either the army or the interior ministry service, and that really doesn’t bode well for the impartiality of the interior ministry and the kinds of things it’s likely to do in the coming months. And the coming months are going to be crucial, because, looking at the constitutional flow of events, the parliament, which can now actually deliberate, at least in theory, has got to address itself to amendments or revisions to the existing constitution that are, in an ideal world, supposed to satisfy Sunni concerns and grievances, and thereby lash that large minority up to this project of shared or common national purpose.

And that’s going to be tough?

That’s going to be very tough. And the ebb and flow of the constitutional process over the next few months is going to influence and be influenced by sectarian violence.

You would expect, with a new government chosen, there would be some ebbing of sectarian violence. I guess we just have to wait and see on this.

I think you do have to wait and see. My own view is that Maliki is your Jaafari junior. So I don’t see a gust of fresh air and integrity blowing through the corridors of the Iraqi government.

It’s interesting how the Shiites now have this really horrible reputation, whereas when the war started, everyone was very sympathetic to the Shiites and it was the Sunnis who were seen as the bad guys.

Yes. I think that events have shown that two of the many crude stereotypes we Americans had about Iraq were false. The one was that the Shiites, having been liberated from Sunni tyranny, would seek to share power rather than aggrandize themselves. The second crude stereotype was the notion of a monolithic Shiite community. You pointed to the four months of grueling negotiations over who was going to be prime minister from the United Iraqi Alliance list. Well, that was so arduous because the Shiite groupings themselves didn’t agree on who should represent the Shiites as prime minister. Those were divisions that were brewing during the Saddam years and we were just oblivious to them because we didn’t have good intelligence on what was going on in Iraq. And, in fact, we weren’t all that interested in the evolution of Shiite politics in those years,

And I guess the assumption was, as you say, the Shiites would be in the streets doing everything we wanted them to do. And in fact they haven’t. I think the fact that even the Ayatollah Ali Sistani has never met with an American official is fascinating.

Well I’m not sure that that’s precisely true.

Really?

But I think the fact that Sistani has been publicly distant and has carefully maintained an independent posture and has insisted publicly that he has not met with any Americans is important.

From an American policy perspective, what should we expect to happen? There’s a lot of pressure, I suppose, on the White House to try to get some troop movement out of Iraq without saying we’re pulling out. I guess it’s again too soon to tell, right?

You know it’s interesting. Jaafari’s agreement to step aside and make way for an alternative, showed how influential the United States can be in Iraq, because Jaafari wouldn’t have signed onto the deal, and the other parties wouldn’t have consented to it if it weren’t for the very heavy pressure that the United States was bringing to bear. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that with 130,000 troops in country, and an energetic ambassador backed up by the visit of a secretary of state—even though many Iraqis criticized her performance—means that we can still influence events in Iraq; we can’t control events, and at the end of the day our influence may be unavailing, but this episode shows that we’re not without a degree of power in that country. I’m not arguing that that’s one of the world’s great insights, but it’s easy to lose sight of, and that’s why I’m emphasizing it.

If we started pulling troops out would we lose that influence?

I think the troop withdrawals that are being discussed are really very small. There were some who were looking at drawing down below 100,000 by election day, that is to say of the midterm Congressional elections this year. And when I say below 100,000, I mean 99,999. That’s going to depend entirely on the level of violence in the country and I think we should anticipate a very high level of violence because of this constitutional process that’s going to be unfolding. So I don’t think we’re going to be able to get down below 100,000, and the president has now said what I think many anticipated, namely that it was not going to be his administration that would see the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. And this is consistent with historical patterns. If you look at the Soviet, the American, and the British experiences, foreign military interventions are almost never ended by the administrations or regimes that undertook them.

True.

It just doesn’t happen. So, it’ll be up to the next administration to do this. But I focused on the president’s statement just as a way of emphasizing that there will be a substantial troop presence in that country for the next two and a half years.

I guess most American officials have probably never had much to do with Maliki, right? You called him, what, Jaafari lite? Or something like that?

I called him Jaafari junior. No, he’s not well-known. Look, he spent most of his career in Syria. And the fact that he’s prime minister probably viewed by Damascus as good thing, given Syria’s strong stake in Iraq’s future.

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