Despite being an aspiring foreign policy wonk, I at first failed to realize the significance of August 31st, 2010. That is the date the US combat mission in Iraq will end. It is not that I was unaware of this date, or forgot. Instead, it was the near-absence of Iraq from much public discourse, despite continuing tension over the fallout of the spring's parliamentary elections. As I have been arguing since the elections, however, that contest's winner -- Iyad Allawi -- is the safest bet for US efforts to stabilize Iraq, a bet that has only become safer since the elections. The domestic political climate in the United States makes an increased focus on Iraq unlikely, but it could prove valuable for Democrats' political prospects in November.
Shortly after the election, I pointed out the potential for Allawi to stabilize Iraq, and later highlighted the dangers posed by US inaction and al-Maliki returning to power. This latest phase in Iraq's struggle began with March's parliamentary elections. Allawi, a secular Shiite and former Prime Minister who was initially placed in power by the United States, won a slim majority over the incumbent Nouri al-Maliki. Allawi won in part through support from secular-minded Iraqis, but also through the votes of many Sunnis -- who were wary of al-Maliki -- and divisions between al-Maliki and some of the religious parties who had been his partners. The vote was too close to call, however, and al-Maliki refused to relinquish power. The ensuing stalemate continues -- despite intervention by Vice President Biden -- resulting in sectarian tensions and degraded government capabilities.
My arguments about the danger al-Maliki poses still hold true. Al-Maliki proved willing to stir up sectarian sentiment when it benefited him politically, then reframed himself as an Iraqi nationalist when facing opposition among some Shiites. His attempts after the election to hold on to power, which included threatening comments about his role as commander of the military and a move to disqualify some candidates in Allaawi's bloc due to reputed Baathist ties, demonstrate he is still likely to place personal advancement over Iraq's stability.
Yet, there is also much going for Allawi besides not being al-Maliki. Despite becoming Prime Minister while Iraq was under U.S. control, Allawi proved a responsible and effective leader, albeit one undone by his U.S. ties. Moreover, his Shiite identity and secular tendencies make him legitimate to a majority of Iraqis and less threatening to its Sunni and Kurdish minorities than the more Islamist al-Maliki. Finally, his Sunni-Shia coalition gives him cross-cutting appeal. This provides Sunnis a stake in the system and Allawi a disincentive to draw on sectarian tensions to increase his political standing, as this would alienate many of his supporters.
This has only become clearer in the months since the election. Al-Maliki continued his dangerous posturing, and Iraq's fragile political system is coming under increasing stress. But there are signs al-Maliki is losing ground to Allawi. The Shiite religious bloc al-Maliki was counting on to deliver a majority recently indicated they may negotiate with Allawi. If these two were to merge, this would give Allawi a clear majority and further dampen sectarian tension, as it would unite secular Shiites, religious Shiites, and Sunnis in one governing coalition.
This is where August 31st comes in. U.S. officials are hoping for a stable political system in Iraq to ensure fighting does not erupt as our troops leave. Despite Biden's admirable efforts, there has been little else in terms of U.S. assistance in resolving Iraq's political impasse, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Democrats are trying to paint this as a success in terms of removing the United States from the conflict and are unlikely to advocate enhanced involvement in the country. Republicans, meanwhile, have little to offer in terms of positive policy suggestions, counting on opposition and denunciation to carry them to victory in November.
It would be a grave mistake, however, if Democrats let the potential posed by Allawi to pass by. This is partly about Iraq; absent U.S. assistance, it is very likely al-Maliki will manage to hold on to power, which would only exacerbate the rising violence in that country. It is also about November. A decisive victory by Allawi would help stabilize the country, which can allow Obama to withdraw from Iraq without being accused of leaving mid-mission. And by actively supporting Allawi - -the winner in a relatively fair election -- Democrats can signal their commitment to progressive ideals like freedom and democracy (remember?) as well as their sophisticated approach to international issues. Finally, and most importantly, these moves would show continued commitment to the troops who have served their country in Iraq, even as many Americans -- including Republicans -- seem to want to forget this conflict. If the current trend continues, however, Iraq may turn out to be yet another tragic footnote in the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.