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The good and bad of Iraq's political deal

By David Ignatius

The news that Iraq has finally formed a new government after eight months of haggling brings to mind an Iraqi proverb that conveys the logic of compromise: "Sometimes you need to sacrifice your beard in order to save your head."

What's good about this deal is that it will produce an inclusive coalition government that will include all the major Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political parties. Everyone is now in the same tent, for once.

What's bad is that the government will continue to be headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose inadequacies as a leader have been well demonstrated over the past four years. The fact that he was Iran's candidate made many Iraqis nervous, as it should. Iraq deserves better.

The American role here was a strange mix of action and inaction: Wary of slipping back into occupying Iraq, the U.S. never declared its own candidate for prime minister -- which basically opened the way for Maliki. That had the weird consequence of putting Washington and Tehran on the same side.

The saving grace in the U.S. strategy was our "rope-a-dope" approach of delaying approval of Maliki unless he agreed to take into his government his main rival, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, whose party actually got more votes in last March's election. The Iranians flailed away for months, hoping to pummel Allawi into submission, but thanks to U.S. support (backed by our most solid ally in Iraq, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani) the Iranians had to settle for a coalition that included Allawi.

It was telling that the final meeting Wednesday in Maliki's office to sign off on the deal had four players: Maliki, Allawi, Barzani and U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffries.

"This government was made in Iraq, it wasn't made anywhere else," Anthony Blinken, the foreign policy aide to Vice President Biden and the White House's point person on Iraq, told me in a phone interview. Blinken has had the difficult task of stroking and prodding Iraq's politicians toward a deal over the past eight months. To the administration's credit, it encouraged U.S. allies such as Barzani to hold out for a coalition agreement that would bring everyone on board.

Like most political deals, this one has all sorts of complicated mini-bargains and codicils. Here's the basic trade-off: In exchange for accepting Maliki as prime minister, Allawi's Iraqiya party will get the post of parliament speaker (Osama al-Najafi was elected to that position today), the chairmanship of a new National Council on Strategic Policy (Allawi will take that post), and probably the foreign ministry (the Iraqiya candidate is Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq).

The Obama administration had explored various ways of bringing Allawi and his Sunni-backed party into the government. Last weekend, Obama called Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and explored whether he might step aside and give the presidency to Allawi, but that didn't fly.

Maliki's critics (and that includes most of the Shiite and Sunni parties) will be reassured that the deal includes provisions to reduce the powers of the prime minister and strengthen those of the cabinet. It's an elaborate system of checks and balances -- not necessarily what's needed in a country that had so much trouble making decisions under the old, less-complicated system. But we'll see.

Given all the bad things that could have happened in Iraq this year (and may yet lie over the horizon), this week's political accord is cause for modest celebration.

By David Ignatius  | November 11, 2010; 1:51 PM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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Thanks for the background.

Can we count this as a modest victory for the Obama administration, and a testimony to the abilities of Joe Biden's staff? What a refreshing improvement over Cheney our new vice-president is!

Posted by: j3hess | November 11, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Joe Biden!! hahahahaha He has been wrong on every major foreign policy position in the past 15 years. What a blowhard!

Posted by: delusional1 | November 11, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

I have a feeling the administration is getting too much credit here. And that's not an insult. It's more a feeling that Iraq is very, very slowly starting to get a handle on democracy. That system of government is messy even in this country, and we've been working on it for over 200 years. Is it possible the 'experts' and media are underestimating the Iraqis? We hear constantly how they are on the verge of collapsing into massive bloodshed and chaos. Yet they keep slowly plugging away and oh-so-slowly making progress on their own.

Posted by: cleveyoung | November 11, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

No question that success will only be determined in say, 20 years time. But a coalition is a lean in the right direction.

Posted by: jhtlag1 | November 11, 2010 8:41 PM | Report abuse

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