Stability in Iraq, Putin Style

Over the past five years, observers have applied a variety of post-authoritarian and post-totalitarian lessons from history to anticipate the direction of a post-Saddam, post-invasion Iraq.

These observers have chosen their historical examples selectively. Some imagine re-engineering Iraqi society from the ground up and model their vision on post-war Germany or Japan. Those who see partition as a solution use Yugoslavia as a model. But the most pertinent lessons for Iraq could be found in Russia and the post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: First, that beneath the ashes of totalitarianism one is least likely to find the embers of liberal democracy, and second, that elements of old elites and power structures always find their way back to the top.

Vladimir Putin came to the Russian presidency on the heels of the chaotic Yeltsin era. His arrival gave renewed power to parts of the KGB and other Soviet era structures, though decoupled from the Communist party. Yearning for less uncertain times, beleaguered by the conflict with separatist Chechnya, the Russian people were perhaps ready to trade the bruises of their new freedoms for the healing normalcy of a more authoritarian stability.

In Iraq there are abundant signs of a backlash against years of turmoil and extremism. Not reserved for the extremism propagated by Al-Qaeda or some Shia clerics, this public backlash is also aimed at many of the changes that Coalition authorities and their Iraqi allies have sought to push through. It is forcing most religious leaders, politicians and warlords to distance themselves from the sectarian, fundamentalist and radical change rhetoric.

The formal and informal civil society networks that endured through the chaos helped foster the backlash. Baghdad University, Iraqi Women's Network, and websites and blogs like the work of the mysterious Shalsh Al-Iraqi, who pokes fun at everyone from the Sadrists to the Marines, have all played a role in affirming the public consensus against extremism.

The military surge that helped make Iraq's daily life less violent ironically may have also given its people the space to imagine a rebuilt society different than some of the current nation-builders might prefer. For as Iraqis reject those responsible for years of chaos, they are turning to those they naturally associate with stability and a functioning state: government professionals, the technocrats who kept the nation functioning while Saddam was hatching megalomaniacal plans and writing novels.

Across Iraq, and notably outside the gridlocked Green Zone, civil servants and local leaders have been working to eke progress and process out of what remains of the government. These re-emerging elites are driven less by ideology than by a desire for political participation, and an end to the political paralysis that grips national leaders on key issues such as hydrocarbon legislation and national reconciliation.

The regime that could emerge under these elites would look different from either the theocracy of Al-Qaeda or the democratic blueprint of the political exiles. It would look more like Putin's Russia than Adenauer's Germany.

The Putin scenario would see a continued rolling back of excesses from the past five years: religious extremism, reformist zeal, state failure. This process would be coupled with a change in the political leadership. New power structures would be drawn from the former regimes' institutional but not party elites-Concerned Local Citizens commanders, military and security services personnel, mid-level technocrats.

While the largest Shia group, the Sadrists, would likely accept this development, Kurdish leadership and other former exiles would inevitably resist the resurgence of state structures associated with the former regime.

The grassroots awakening taking place is fragile. By definition it is lacking in political direction. It needs power and resources and a benign security environment to sustain it. And the extremists and criminals thriving on Iraq's war economy will do anything to stop the forces of normalcy.

In the Putin scenario for Iraq, security comes at the price of a return toward authoritarianism, but the alternatives--such as a permanent surge, or a post-invasion power vacuum like the one the United States left in Somalia, are too gruesome to contemplate.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is currently assessing the prospects for Iraq after the military surge, in a series of hearings that will culminate Tuesday with testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.

Any U.S. or international strategy should focus on the best way to moderate authoritarian trends if the Putin scenario plays out, and to prevent a Chechnya-like conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan. In my testimony to the Committee this past Wednesday, I listed four steps to help mitigate the worst aspects of this scenario:

* A UN Resolution for Kirkuk. Diffusing the brewing crisis over Kirkuk and the disputed territories will require more than Iraq's elite political class currently has to offer. The United Nations efforts need to be bolstered by a separate UNSCR, one not limited to the disputed geographic boundaries but to the whole package of issues related to extent of Iraqi Kurdistan's self determination.

* A Transparent and Accountable Revenue Sharing Mechanism. Resolving the conflict over the oil legislation is a key to unlocking Iraq's development potential. It will help build trust among Iraqis and provide a blueprint for Federalism in other areas. Addressing the issue of oil has a complementary relation to efforts aimed at diffusing tensions over Kirkuk. Iraq's oil, however, merits being addressed in its own right as the country's main source of income.

One approach for breaking the deadlock on the oil issue would be the establishment of an efficient, transparent and accountable revenue sharing mechanism. Iraq has just declared its commitment to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). Kurdistan's commitment to this framework is enshrined in the region's Petroleum Act. The EITI can serve as the foundation for building trust regarding the revenues generated by the various players.

* Free, Fair and Timely Elections. Emerging forces including the Concerned Local Citizens, the bulk of the Sadrists observing the ceasefire and the awakening bureaucracy need to be introduced into the political process in a meaningful and non-violent way. This necessitates the holding of local elections before the end of this year and national elections in 2009. The elections need to take place under new legislation that dispenses with the closed lists, which favor the political parties and their unaccountable bosses. Better assurances against abuse need to be put in place, including a more robust Electoral Commission, civil society and international monitoring.

* A New, Legitimate Multilateral Framework. The U.S. role in Iraq needs to transition into a more legitimate and multilateral framework. This is required not only to remove the stigma of the occupation from the U.S. forces and the new Iraq, but also offers a path toward disengagement. As a Prince Turki Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia once said, "the withdrawal should not be as illegitimate as the invasion."