How the U.S. and the World Can Help
As the Arab Spring drives change across our region, bringing the hope of democracy and reform to millions of Arabs, less attention is being paid to the plight of Iraq and its people. We were the first to transition from dictatorship to democracy, but the outcome in Iraq remains uncertain. Our transition could be a positive agent for progress, and against the forces of extremism, or a dangerous precedent that bodes ill for the region and the international community.
Debate rages in Baghdad and Washington around conditions for a U.S. troop extension beyond the end of this year. While such an extension may be necessary, that alone will not address the fundamental problems festering in Iraq. Those issues present a growing risk to Middle East stability and the world community. The original U.S. troop "surge" was meant to create the atmosphere for national political reconciliation and the rebuilding of Iraq's institutions and infrastructure. But those have yet to happen.
More than eight years after Saddam Hussein's regime was overthrown, basic services are in a woeful state: Most of the country has only a few hours of electricity a day. Blackouts were increasingly common this summer. Oil exports, still Iraq's only source of income, are barely more than they were when Hussein was toppled. The government has squandered the boon of high oil prices and failed to create real and sustainable job growth. Iraq's economy has become an ever more dysfunctional mix of cronyism and mismanagement, with high unemployment and endemic corruption. Transparency International ranks Iraq the world's fourth-most-corrupt country and by far the worst in the Middle East.
The promise of improved security has been empty, with sectarianism on the rise. The Pentagon recently reported an alarming rise in attacks, which it blamed on Iranian-backed militias. The latest report to Congress by the U.S. special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction notes that June was the bloodiest month for U.S. troops since 2008 and concludes that Iraq is more dangerous than it was a year ago. Regrettably, Iraq's nascent security forces are riddled with sectarianism and mixed loyalties; they are barely capable of defending themselves, let alone the rest of the country.
Despite failing to win the most seats in last year's elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki clung to power through a combination of Iranian support and U.S. compliance. He now shows an alarming disregard for democratic principles and the rule of law. Vital independent institutions such as the election commission, the transparency commission and Iraq's central bank have been ordered to report directly to the office of the prime minister. Meanwhile, Maliki refuses to appoint consensus candidates as defense and interior ministers, as per last year's power-sharing agreement.
The government is using blatant dictatorial tactics and intimidation to quell opposition, ignoring the most basic human rights. Human Rights Watch reported in February on secret torture prisons under Maliki's authority. In June, it exposed the government's use of hired thugs to beat, stab and even sexually assault peaceful demonstrators in Baghdad who were complaining about corruption and poor services. These horrors are reminiscent of autocratic responses to demonstrations by failing regimes elsewhere in the region, and a far cry from the freedom and democracy promised in the new Iraq.
Is this really what the United States sacrificed more than 4,000 young men and women, and hundreds of billions of dollars, to build?
The trend of failure is becoming irreversible. Simply put, Iraq's failure would render every U.S. and international policy objective in the Middle East difficult to achieve, if not impossible. From combating terrorism to nuclear containment to energy security to the Middle East peace process, Iraq is at the center. Our country is rapidly becoming a counterweight to all positive efforts to address these issues, instead of the regional role model for democracy, pluralism and a successful economy that it was supposed to be.
It is not too late to reverse course. But the time to act is now. Extending the U.S. troop presence will achieve nothing on its own. More concerted political engagement is required at the highest levels to guarantee the promise of freedom and progress made to the Iraqi people, who have suffered and sacrificed so much and are running out of patience.
It is necessary, and achievable, to insist on full and proper implementation of the power-sharing agreement of 2010, with proper checks and balances to prevent abuse of power, and full formation of the government and its institutions on a nonsectarian basis. Malign regional influences must be counterbalanced. Failing these steps, new elections free from foreign meddling, and with a truly independent judiciary and election commission, may be the only way to rescue Iraq from the abyss. This solution is increasingly called for by Iraqi journalists and political leaders and on the street.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 may indeed have been a war of choice. But losing Iraq in 2011 is a choice that the United States and the rest of the world cannot afford to make.