Iraq Beyond Sectarianism
In advance of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s audience with President Obama tomorrow, Meghan O’Sullivan, the Bush White House’s Iraq director from 2004 to 2007, has some advice to the Obama administration: stop talking about Iraq’s political difficulties in sectarian terms.
A lot was made — both in Iraq and in the United States — of Vice President Biden’s recent admonition to the Iraqis that unless they made progress on sectarian reconciliation, they shouldn’t count on consistent U.S. aid. Some saw it as a necessary bit of pressure; others considered it a contradiction of last year’s Strategic Framework Agreement, a document that spells out the terms for a post-occupation partnership. O’Sullivan, writing in The Washington Post, sees rhetoric that’s frozen in the bad old days of — well, of her tenure as White House Iraq director:
[T]he reality is that Iraq’s most difficult problems are primarily about substantive issues. Iraqis and their leaders are divided on fundamental questions about the nature of the state — specifically, whether the locus of power should be in Baghdad or in the provinces. Should Iraq be a more traditional Arab state, where power is centralized in the capital? Or should the regions and the provinces — i.e., the [Kurdistan Regional Government] — have substantial authorities and autonomy?
She has a point. During the political maneuvering following the provincial elections earlier this year, the sectarian dynamics in Iraq began to scramble for the first time since the political architecture set up by the U.S. occupation inadvertently entrenched a Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish division. It’s not as if Iraq is in a post-sectarian phase yet. But identity questions are no longer the decisive questions about Iraqi politics the way they were when O’Sullivan — generally considered one of the more reality-based of Bush’s Iraq aides — was in the White House. (There’s not a lot of self-reflection in her op-ed about how the Iraq policies she helped shape contributed to the sectarianism she urges the Obama administration to see beyond; but get used to that from former Bush officials.) And with new national elections coming up, it makes sense to treat substantive politics as more important than those identity questions.