Easy Scapegoat

Thursday, August 23, 2007

AS THE CLOCK ticks toward a September evaluation of progress in Iraq, President Bush and congressional Democrats opposed to the war appear close to agreement on at least one key point: disappointment with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Returning from a trip to Iraq, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Monday called Mr. Maliki's government "non-functional" and urged the Iraqi parliament to vote it out of office. The next day Mr. Bush acknowledged "a certain level of frustration" and added that if the government didn't meet the demands of Iraqis, "they will replace the government." Mr. Bush retreated a little yesterday, saying Mr. Maliki was "a good guy" whom he supported, but the message was clear. Washington finds the Iraqi government's performance "extremely disappointing," as Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, put it.

The frustration is understandable enough. As American soldiers have fought and died to stabilize Baghdad and other key areas in recent months, the parallel progress toward political reconciliation expected by the White House -- and promised by Mr. Maliki -- has been virtually nonexistent. It's more likely than not that none of the major steps the administration hoped for by Sept. 15 -- a new oil law, constitutional changes, the curtailment of a ban on former Baathists -- will be completed. On the contrary, the divide between Mr. Maliki's Shiite alliance and Sunni parties seems to have grown, and the government's policies, whether in the distribution of reconstruction funds or the management of the police and army, continue to be tinged with sectarianism.

Mr. Maliki, who has scant personal support inside or outside of Iraq, makes an easy scapegoat. Yet Congress and the administration would be wrong to focus blame on him, for two reasons. First, the Iraqi prime minister's sectarianism is no worse than that of most of Iraq's current political leaders; the problem is not one of a single man or faction. Sunni politicians have contributed much to the paralysis in Baghdad. Last month they gave Mr. Maliki a week to meet a broad list of 11 demands, then withdrew from the government when, predictably, he did not deliver. The greatest obstacle to the oil law -- the measure the White House most counted on -- may be the uncompromising stance of Kurdish leaders.

More broadly, the frustration of Americans with Iraqis is based on the assumption that a political reconciliation among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds is achievable within weeks or months. This is wishful thinking, driven by the common desire of the White House and Congress to end or at least wind down the U.S. mission. In fact, Iraqis are not yet ready to come to terms with each other and may not be for some years. They will settle their country's future on their own timetable, responding to events in Iraq rather than to pressure from Washington. Mr. Maliki is a poor prime minister, but a change of government would not quickly lead to the elusive accords. The coming debate about the future of the U.S. mission in Iraq needs to grapple with that reality.

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