Sadr breaks the deadlock

Nouri al-Maliki appears close to a deal that will put Iraq's Shi'ia parties in power. After seven months of political wrangling, it would be tempting to believe that any government formed by Iraq's squabbling political leaders is progress. It is not.

The political slate that garnered the most seats in the parliamentary elections, Ayad Allawi's non-sectarian bloc, ought to have had the first shot at forming a government. Prime Minister Maliki's manipulations of electoral commission findings and superseding of judicial decisions accrued that advantage instead to his second-place finish.

Even with the advantages of incumbency in a system newly empowered and without strong legal constraints, Maliki has been unable to cobble together a coalition. Other parties fear a "soft coup" of Maliki consolidating power and have been unwilling to join a government with him as prime minister.

Which is where the Obama administration's inattention to Iraq, accelerated drawdown of U.S. troops, and appointment of Christopher Hill -- an ambassador without expertise on Iraq -- comes in. These factors combined to reduce U.S. influence at this crucial juncture of Iraq's democratization. U.S. military leaders backed up the administration for far too long, claiming the drawdown would have no effect on Iraq's political landscape. The spike in violence and the withering of political compromise in Iraq these seven months are the result of our declining engagement and the Iraqis' declining confidence in us.

Into this void has now stepped Moqtada al-Sadr, dilettante son of a revered Shi'ia cleric and leader of sustained insurgent activity against U.S. forces. Since the surge pulled the rug out from under his legitimacy through violence approach, he has been in Iran burnishing his religious credentials, garnering support from the Iranian government, and mobilizing his political forces.

This week, Moqtada al-Sadr achieved what the U.S. government has been unable to do these past seven months: persuade Prime Minister Maliki to give a significant role in governing to the Allawi block. Sadr committed his Parliamentary seats in support of Maliki, provided the prime minister create a substantive role for Allawi, most likely expanding the ceremonial role of president. And Sadr is the only young man among Iraq's political leaders -- he can afford to play the long game, taking the mantle of national conciliator now to position himself as Iraq's leader.

Vice President Biden, the administration's point man on Iraq, is burning up phone lines trying to create the façade of American influence. But the fact remains that the administration could not achieve this and the political faction most invidious to our goals has delivered it.

Ambassador Jim Jeffrey (an adroit hand now in Baghdad) merely stated the obvious, acknowledging that a government including Sadr would render difficult a long-term strategic relationship with the United States. It will also marginalize the Kurds, possibly complicating the likeliest tinderbox of sectarian violence. Iran and Syria welcomed the move. This is what comes from too little effort by the Obama administration to securing the gains achieved by blood and treasure in Iraq.


Shadow Government

The only thing surprising about Jim Jones’s departure is he survived this long

Generalismo Franco is still dead. That SNL bit popped into my mind when I heard that General Jim Jones has resigned to be replaced by his deputy, Tom Donilon.

The connection was driven not by General Jones diffident style, although some disgruntled staffers did complain about a certain autocratic air (it goes, I suspect, with a 4-star resume). Rather, the Franco connection was driven by how long this move has been anticipated by beltway insiders.  General Jones is leaving, still leaving. Only a few months into the administration's tenure, and General Jones seemed to be on the chopping block. He survived another 16 months, but they were exceptionally stormy months with some serious missteps by the  National Security Advisor. Moreover, the most important thing done on his watch - the Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 of the Fall 2009 -- has played to decidedly mixed reviews, especially with the revelations of the recent Woodward book.

Indeed, the Woodward book seems to confirm what many suspected and what today's announcement makes official: that President Obama had more confidence in Jones's deputy than in Jones himself. Jones is a great patriot who has served his country honorably in a number of important posts. But he never seemed to master the most important part of the NSA job: cultivating a close working relationship with the boss. National security advisors who have that (or who cultivate that) succeed in the job. If underlings on your staff are viewed as being in the inner circle while you are not, then the job becomes impossibly difficult. Ironically, the Woodward book also confirms that Jones struggled with the aspect of the job that he seemed best equipped to handle: relations with the military.  

Jones successor, Tom Donilon, starts with an advantage Jones never had: Everyone believes him to be a close intimate of the president and of other White House powerbrokers. He also is an unabashed partisan, thus strengthening the White House's ties with the constituency most disappointed in Obama's foreign policy: the Democratic base. He doesn't have the same apparent advantages on the civil-military front, and the strongest player in the administration on civil-military relations, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, reportedly has grave doubts about Donilon's suitability for the job. Whether Donilon can develop as strong a working relationship with Gates and with the senior brass as he has with President Obama and the political team will likely determine whether he is successful in his job.

For my part, I hope he is successful (full disclosure: Donilon and I have been members together of the Aspen Strategy Group, where he showed himself to be sharp-witted, tough, and a compelling critic of the Bush foreign policy). The Obama Team has a series of very daunting foreign policy challenges to handle, and some of them -- such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran - won't wait around for a leisurely transition in personnel.