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Iraq’s New Government: How Will It Tackle Old Challenges?

November 11, 2010 at 6:18 PM EDT
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Margaret Warner talks to Meghan O'Sullivan of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Feisal Istrabadi of Indiana University about the new Iraqi government and its long to-do list.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn again to Iraq, as Margaret Warner continues our look at the latest developments.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s a new government, but with many old faces in the top jobs. Will it be able to tackle Iraq’s challenges amidst rising violence at home and outside powers, like the U.S. and Iran, angling for influence?

For that, we go to Meghan O’Sullivan, deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan in the last Bush administration. She is now a professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School at Harvard. And Feisal Istrabadi, Iraq’s deputy ambassador to the U.N. between 2004 and 2007, he is now director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University, Bloomington. Thank you both for joining us.

Professor O’Sullivan, beginning with you, such a dramatic day, first a deal on a new government, then a parliamentary walkout by Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister and his Sunni-backed bloc. Is this a serious setback, or is this political gamesmanship?

MEGHAN O’SULLIVAN, former staff member, National Security Council: Good evening, Margaret. Thank you for having me.

This is a serious development, the walkout of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the current leader of Iraqiya, which is the largest — the bloc that won the most seats in the parliamentary election.

It’s serious because it calls into question whether Ayad Allawi himself is going to be involved in this next government. But I would also say it’s a surmountable development. All the elements of a power-sharing deal are there. And nothing happened today that would preclude their finalization. So, I would say serious, but surmountable.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, Mr. Istrabadi?

FEISAL AL-ISTRABADI, former Deputy Iraqi Ambassador to United Nations: Well, largely, I agree with Meghan. I think that what Ayad Allawi was attempting to do, he and about two-thirds of the bloc that he heads, was to underscore that there is an unconsummated part of this deal that he — at least, Dr. Allawi — believes that he has some agreements on legislation which has yet to pass, and that the passage of this list of things that he — of this legislation, I guess, is essential for him to participate fully in the next government.

It should be pointed out that it wasn’t only Ayad Allawi who walked out with 50 some-odd people, almost two-thirds of his bloc. The incoming speaker of Parliament walked out also, Mr. — Dr. al-Nujaifi. This is not an incidental — this wasn’t an incidental event.

MARGARET WARNER: Meghan O’Sullivan, this occurred as senior White House officials were having a background briefing on the phone with reporters and talking about how inclusive this new government is.

Is it, in fact? Is the deal — let’s — if it does go through, is it really inclusive? Is there a meaningful role for all the different parties, in particular for the Sunnis, who felt marginalized?

MEGHAN O’SULLIVAN: Well, I think some of it, as you suggested, remains to be seen.

But, certainly, on the face of it, if this deal does go through as anticipated, it will be a very inclusive government. And that has been a priority for the Iraqis and for the Obama administration, given the fragility of Iraqi society.

But, so often, inclusiveness comes at the expense of effectiveness. The — the most common complaint of Prime Minister Maliki in his previous administration was that he was constrained by the national unity nature of his government, by having people in his cabinet who didn’t share the same political agenda.

So, I think that, while this may be an inclusive government, we still don’t know how workable a government it’s going to be. There are many open questions.

For instance, Ayad Allawi, the position that he is rumored to have accepted is one that is not in the constitution, and its powers are not yet defined.

MARGARET WARNER: This is head of this new sort of strategic council that has yet to be, as you said, defined.

MEGHAN O’SULLIVAN: Exactly, the National Council on Political Strategies. And, presumably, it has some authorization over national security, but, more specifically, over national reconciliation.

But, again, this isn’t anywhere written in the constitution. So, whether or not this is a real and meaningful role for Ayad Allawi is yet to be determined. And that, I think, will really, at the end of the day, speak to Iraqis on whether this is a government of many equals or whether this is a government that is — that has placed a role for Sunnis that has been more marginal than anticipated today.

MARGARET WARNER: Feisal Istrabadi, do you think this government can govern, can hang together and govern?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: No, I do not, because the fact of the matter is, this idea of a government of national unity, if I may say so with all respect, has been a kind of an American bugaboo since 2005, or even — and earlier.

There is no shared agenda between the Kurdish factions. Even the Kurdish factions themselves are not agreed as to what the agenda going forward should be. But there is certainly no shared agenda between the Kurdish factions and the various Shia religious factions that have come together to be the principal supporters of this government, let alone the Iraqiya that we have been talking about.

So, in the absence of a shared sort of vision of where Iraq goes from here, I don’t see how they can govern effectively. I also would question…

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just interrupt, and quickly, because I — before we run out of time, what is this going to mean for the violence we have been seeing on the rise in Iraq, Mr. Istrabadi?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: I don’t see any indications that Nouri al-Maliki has the first idea of what to do about the rising violence.

The violence cannot be dealt with — and we have been saying this for five years — the violence cannot be dealt with merely militarily. There has to be reconciliation amongst the various factions. Nothing in Nouri al-Maliki’s history indicates that he is prepared to undertake such reconciliation.

MARGARET WARNER: Meghan, Meghan O’Sullivan, your view on the prospect of tamping down this violence. Will this be enough to make Sunnis in the streets, essentially, feel included?

MEGHAN O’SULLIVAN: Well, the political project of the last five or six years has been, one, to convince the Sunni minority, from which the insurgency arose, to convince that group of people that they will get more through politics than they will get through violence.

And, if Iraqiya, this party we have been discussing, is — does play a meaningful role in this next government, if Ayad Allawi is able to exercise real powers under this portfolio of national reconciliation, I think you can continue to make the argument that, yes, it’s clear that politics are a better instrument of power than violence.

If it turns out…

MARGARET WARNER: And, following up, Meghan O’Sullivan, the U.S. and Iran in particular tried to influence this outcome quite heavily. Who won out there?

MEGHAN O’SULLIVAN: I think one of the interesting things about this outcome is that it is one that is certainly acceptable to the U.S. administration and I think acceptable to Iran, that, in many cases, Iran was most interested in seeing that Ayad Allawi wasn’t prime minister, and therefore supported the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, for a second term because they perceived he was the one who was most likely to keep out Ayad Allawi from the premiership.

And America, I think, is also happy with this outcome. I think, in general, there’s a tendency to overstate the role of external powers. They play a significant role, but, at the end of the day, I think Iraqis are still in the position where they’re able to make the final call on their politics. You don’t have Iran or America orchestrating this whole thing.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Istrabadi, on that point, who’s going to have more influence?


MARGARET WARNER: Is this good for the U.S.?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: The deal to ensure that the next prime minister of Iraq came from one of the Shia religious parties was struck in Tehran, in the capital of Iran.

It pushed extremely hard for Nouri al-Maliki. And one of the great mysteries of these events is that the United States also pushed extremely hard to undermine Ayad Allawi and to make Nouri al-Maliki prime minister.

In my opinion, Iranian stock is soaring right now in Iraq, and long-term American interests have plummeted.

MARGARET WARNER: Feisal Istrabadi, Meghan O’Sullivan, thank you both.