I know that most attention to Iraq right now focuses on the very real crisis with Turkey over the PKK. But that doesn't mean that other central issues aren't worth keeping in focus- such as the whole national reconciliation thing. Last week Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki mocked Iraqis calling for national reconciliation and dismissing them as self-interested conspirators. On Friday, he elaborated on his views of the current Iraqi political scene in a very intriguing, and frankly troubling, interview with al-Arabiya (I couldn't find any English-language mentions of it at all via Google News, sorry). The interview did not break any particularly new ground, but it did make one thing very clear: do not expect Maliki to pursue seriously any moves towards national reconciliation, defined in terms of legislation at the national level or agreements with Sunni political parties. The deadlock at the national political level, so clear at the time of the Petraeus-Crocker hearings in September, will not end any time soon. What that means for US strategy is something which I consider well worth publicly debating.
Maliki argued on al-Arabiya that Iraqi national reconciliation has not only already been achieved, it is "strong and stable and not fragile". There is no civil war in Iraq, or even any real sectarian conflict anymore - the sectarian hatreds incited by "some" in the past have been overcome. He made clear that he does not equate national reconciliation with political progress at the national level: "I think that national reconciliation will come about not as some understand it, as a reconciliation with this political party governed by an ideology or a specific mentality." Real national reconciliation, to Maliki, takes place at the local level, when "you can go into the street and meet with a Sunni in Shia areas or with a Shia in Sunni areas, where they live together once again." That, he suggests, has happened. The various Sunni awakenings demonstrate reconciliation at the local level, and their support for his national government. He claims that people who fled mixed Sunni-Shia areas are now returning (or are welcome to do so), and that the people now reject sectarianism in favor of national unity and his government. True, some politicians are still demanding reconciliation, but he dismisses them as "minor political parties" whose tiresome complaints now fall on deaf ears with the people. The attempt to unseat him last year by various political factions? An attempted coup against the political process by those (regrettably mainly Sunnis) who want to return the Baath Party to its monopoly on power.
Leave aside the various dubious claims which he makes, such as the reviving of mixed Sunni-Shia areas or the alleged return of those who fled sectarian cleansing, or the contrast between his claims on behalf of the Sunni tribes and his own much-reported opposition to the Americans working with the Sunni militias. Focus intead on the political implications of what he's saying: this amounts to a public declaration by Maliki that there will be no further efforts to achieve political reconciliation. Don't expect any more national reconciliation in the form of "legislation" or "benchmarks", Maliki is signaling. The "achievements" of the various tribal awakenings absolve the national government of any further responsibility - and, pace the Weekly Standard - are more important than mere legislative agreements anyway.
In other words, Maliki is gleefully hoisting the United States on its own bottom-up reconciliation petard. In order to sell the surge to Congress, the Bush team decided to focus on positive developments at the local level and downgrade the significance of the deadlocked national political process. Evidently, Maliki took notes. It's ironic, in a way which nobody could possibly have seen coming.
Surge advocates have generally made two key claims about the relationship between local progress and the national level. The first was that local security progress would create a political space allowing the national politicians to make a deal. This clearly hasn't happened, and Maliki has just effectively said that it isn't going to. The second was that the Sunnis have decided to switch from a logic of armed resistance to a logic of political participation. Leave aside our ongoing arguments about whether this is an accurate description of Sunni attitudes today - what's relevant here is that Maliki is basically repudiating that one, too. Maliki now seems to feel no reason to make any concessions since he doesn't feel threatened, and indeed is using their local-level accomodation as a political weapon against their national demands. What does this tell Sunnis about the value of political participation rather than violent resistance?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if Maliki refuses to make further concessions and the national political level remains stalled, then it seems likely that Sunnis will become increasingly frustrated and rethink their political strategy. At least that's what would be predicted by, say, Petraeus's counterinsurgency manual, most political science analysis and most Sunni political leaders. There's nothing inevitable about any of this - Iraq is complex and fluid and rapidly changing, and it's not like Maliki's unwillingness to move on national reconciliation is anything new - but it certainly doesn't look promising.
It would be nice if the US could do something about this, but frankly at this point I don't think it can or will. The Petraeus-Crocker team, like the Bush administration and its public supporters, is now fully invested in the theory of a bottom-up reconciliation process. When Maliki claims that this bottom-up reconciliation absolves him of any need to pursue higher-level political reconciliation, the American team is hardly in a position to call him on it. Maybe they even agree with him. The Bush administration seems to really believe that things are now going swimmingly in Iraq, and is unlikely to change course. Even if it wanted to, it clearly has very little leverage over Maliki - can't escalate, won't threaten to withdraw, and can't come up with any alternative to Maliki's rule. If all those Bush phone calls and the deadline of the September Congressional hearings couldn't move him, why would he be more movable now? And most cynically, if the problems don't manifest for another, say, 12 months does the Bush administration even care?
Maliki's interview doesn't really represent a dramatic change in his political strategy, just a slightly more public airing of it. But it does offer a window into where Iraqi politics might be heading over the next stage, and likely tells Sunni politicians and "former" insurgents what to expect. Does Maliki's position tell us what to expect, or is it just a trial balloon? Does the US role in this reflect strategic drift, and my oft-stated concerns about US tactics working against its avowed strategy, or does it lead to an acceptable strategic outcome? Still worth keeping on the front burner.