Friday, February 15, 2013

The crisis in Iraq: Gaming the political behavior of Nuri al-Maliki

Iraq is experiencing one of the most serious political crises since the overthrow of Saddam Husayn’s regime in 2003.   Since the national parliamentary elections in March, 2010, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has made a series of decisions that, from an outsider’s perspective, seem self-defeating.  What motivates Maliki, and what does his behavior tell us about Iraq’s future political stability?  Is there still a possibility for a  transition to democracy

Because political decision-making in (Arab) Iraq is centered in his hands, does it make sense to apply a game-theoretic approach when trying to understand Maliki's behavior?   If so, what can such an approach tell us?

In gaming Maliki’s behavior, we need to take personality variables and structural constraints into account.  Much has been made of Maliki’s purported paranoid personality and the assertion that he sees a conspiracy under every rock and behind every tree.  This is a far too simplistic analysis.  Maliki may indeed be plagued by a paranoid political style, but his actions are directed at consolidating his power and marginalizing those whom he sees as a threat to that power.  In this sense, his political behavior is highly rational and goal oriented.

Structural constraints include "historical learning," namely Maliki's political socialization. The Iraqi prime minister, like other Iraqi leaders, realizes that only those who have projected an aura of power have been successful in maintaining political power and ruling Iraq since it became an independent state in 1921.  His personal history involved becoming a member of the Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiya) in the late 1960s.  When the party faced severe repression during the late 1970s, Maliki fled Iraq when he learned that he was about to be executed along with other Da'wa Party members by Saddam Husayn's Ba'thist regime.

The lesson Maliki learned from his political experiences under the Ba'th was to never trust anyone, except his closest colleagues in the Da'wa Party, and that any sign of weakness becomes an invitation to challenge existing political authority.  Maliki seems less driven by ego and narcissism than by a well defined sense of the political "rules of the game" which, for him, reflect a Hobbesian world, and are ignored at one's (extreme) peril.  For Maliki, Iraqi politics is the quintessential "zero-sum" game.

What are the power centers that Maliki must take into account when making political decisions? Which factors form the structural constraints on his behavior?  Which power centers does he view as most threatening? 

Maliki’s main concern is the rural Sunni Arabs of the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle.  Many of the tribal elements in this region benefited extensively from their ties with the ousted Ba’thist regime and are resentful that their privileged access to the state no longer exists.  Their resentment was reinforced when Maliki refused to keep his promise of providing positions in the armed forces, police and government bureaucracy for members of the “Awakening” movement (Sahwat al-‘Iraq), formed in 2006, after it defeated, along with US forces, al-Qa'ida in al-Anbar Province (Governorate) and in the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle.

Maliki’s fear of this group is evident from the arrest and harassment of Sahwa leaders but especially his highly provocative arrest of 10 members of Sunni Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s security detail on December 18, 2012.  For Sunni Arabs, these arrests were totally unwarranted and indicative of Maliki’s increasingly sectarian policies.  The attack on Issawi, a highly respected Sunni politician known for his moderate political views, deeply shocked the Sunni community. Indeed, Maliki’s decision has led to highly destructive consequences, resulting in huge demonstrations in the Sunni Arab community against his government (see al-Hayat, Jan, 31, Feb. 3,4,12, 2013).  

Maliki views the Sunni Arabs as a “fifth column” for Sunni elements throughout the Arab world who are frightened by the idea of a Shiite political elite controlling Iraq.  Of particular concern is the funding of radical elements such as al-Qa’ida, and its umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, by Saudi Arabia and these organizations' supporters throughout the Arab Gulf states.  Maliki is currently involved in a systematic campaign not only to eliminate his Sunni political rivals but to remove all Sunnis associated with the former Ba’thist regime from Iraq’s security forces.

The fear of a Sunni fifth column which, in Maliki's mind, is controlled by former Ba’thists, helps explain why he has tied his fortunes so closely to Iran, where he lived between 1982 and 1990.  Support from Iran helps him offset Saudi Arabia and hostile elements in the Arab Gulf, as well as providing a balance to US influence in Iraq.  Maliki can be assured of Iran's intelligence and military support.  Thus the Islamic Republic has become one of the key pillars of support for his regime.

In terms of Maliki’s strategy, these “pull” factors must also be seen in terms of “push” factors.   Beyond the benefits close ties with Iran provide, any Iraqi ruler needs to pay obeisance to Iranian interests and influence in Iraq.  As its most powerful neighbor, Iran exerts significant political, economic and cultural influence in Iraq.
Many of Iraq’s Shiite politicians spent considerable time in Iran during the period of Ba’thist rule, especially after 1975 when suppression of the Islamic Call Party began in earnest.  The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq or SCIRI) was actually under the leadership of Revolutionary Guards for 2 years after its founding in Iran in 1982.

A second power center is the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) which is under the control of the 2 dominant Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.  From one perspective, the Kurds and Shi’a would seem to be natural allies against the Sunni Arabs.  Both fear the larger Sunni Arab community both in and beyond Iraq.  Certainly Iraq’s Kurds experienced horrors under the Ba’th through the gassing of the town of Halabja and the horrific Anfal campaign which destroyed much of the Kurdish agricultural sector and led to many Kurdish deaths.

Why then did Maliki decide to open another “front” against the Kurds?  First, Maliki feels he needs to demonstrate that he is leader of Iraq and not just an Arab state in the south.  Second, while Maliki despised Saddam Husayn, he feels the need to follow what he sees as the only model that Iraqis respect, that of a qabaday – or “tough guy.”  As a former expatriate whose family experienced severe repression, Maliki understands that strength engenders respect.

Maliki is worried that, should the Kurds become too powerful through exploiting their oil resources, they may able to assert their power in the contested city of Kirkuk and other parts of the so-called “disputed areas”  south of the "Green Line" that separates Iraq's 3 Kurdish majority governorates from Arab populated areas. Because the Kurds have become increasingly close to Turkey due to the latter’s extensive investment in the KRG, Maliki also fears that he will potentially face a powerful alliance in the north that unites Turkey and the Kurds.

Maliki’s calculations regarding the KRG also involve Iran which does not want to see a powerful independent Kurdish state along its border.  Thus Maliki strengthens his ties with Iran through taking a tough line towards the KRG.  Just as the Kurdish leadership has sought to create tensions with the Arab south to distract its populace from focusing on the corruption, nepotism and  authoritarianism that characterizes the KRG, so Maliki can unite his base by mobilizing support not just against the Sunni Arabs, but against the Kurds as well.

Another threat to Maliki's power is the Sadrist Trend (al-Tayyar al-Sadri).  The Sadrists, who prior to 2008 based their strength in the Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi), until it was defeated by the Iraqi army with US support, hold 40 seats in the Iraqi parliament and constantly criticize Maliki for the lack of services his government provides to the poor and needy, and the  massive corruption that pervades government ministries.  

The Sadrists demonstrate the fallacy of viewing Iraq's political dynamics simply in sectarian terms.  The Sadrists represent a powerful threat to Maliki within the Shiite community and support the Iraqi parliament taking a vote of no confidence to force him to resign.  The Sadrists strongly support imposing term limits on political offices in the executive branch of government as well.  This would mean that Maliki would not be able to run again for prime minister in the 2014 national elections.

At this point, game theory begins to fall short in explaining Maliki's behavior.  Why, for example, has Maliki not chosen to play a "cooperative" rather than a "zero-sum" game?  Why not seek to form a grand coalition with the dominant secular party, al-Iraqiya, which garnered many Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular Shiite votes, and won 91 seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections to Maliki's State of Law Coalition's 89?  Why not strike a deal with the Kurdish leadership on oil extraction and oil sales and invite the Kurdish list to join the government as well?

The problem with game theory is that it is very weak in explaining the impact of institutions, on the one hand, while often treating powerful political actors as agents who are free to make whatever decisions they deem best for their interests, on the other.  Maliki's position of power in decision-making is indeed the obverse of the weakness of Iraq's political institutions.  For example, even though the Iraqi parliament recently passed a law to limit the prime minister, vice presidents and speaker of the parliament to 2 terms, the Iraqi Supreme Court, which is under Maliki's control, will undoubtedly declare the law unconstitutional.

One might argue, therefore, that this fact only underscores the importance of a game-theoretic approach because Maliki does not have to bow to any meaningful institutional constraints.  However, while Iraq's political institutions are weak, other institutions - informal in nature - have become ever stronger since 2003.  These institutions can be subsumed under one concept - corruption.  The NGO Transparency International ranks Iraq 175 of 180 in its list of the world's most corrupt nations.

If Maliki were to choose to play a cooperative game and "divide the spoils" with al-Iraqiya, the Kurdish List and the Sadrists, he would threaten the extensive system of corruption that is becoming more institutionalized in Iraq's political system by the day.  Government ministries are divided up according to a calculus based on the votes that parties in Maliki's State of Law Coalition won in 2010.  Ministries, especially those which can provide extensive patronage, such as the ministries of defense, health, transportation and electricity, are highly prized and  less concerned with providing services than creating patronage networks and embezzling public funds.

Game theory tells us little about how Maliki's behavior is constrained by Iraq's being caught in the vise of a "Cold War" between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  It also cannot explain how the dynamics of how his decisions are structured by the need to sustain the extensive network of corruption that provides much of the political cement that holds together his government and consequently provides the basis of his political power.

Further, game theory - with its implicit bias towards elite behavior - has little to say conceptually or theoretically about "politics from below."  The massive demonstrations that Maliki has faced over the past month, including opposition from the most powerful Shiite political movement, the Sadrists, comprises a serious threat to his power and authority.  Already, Maliki has been forced to address one of the demands that has enraged the Sunni community, namely the imprisonment of women without charge, often simply because their husbands or male family members were seen as Maliki opponents.  Most of these women have now been released.

Game theory likewise has little to say about Iraq's political economy and its impact on Maliki's political decision-making.  Maliki may feel that his access to large amounts of revenues from the sale of oil (and to a much lesser degree natural gas) gives him the freedom to ignore the demands posed by the large scale demonstrations and parliamentary maneuvers that call for his resignation  as prime minister.  

But is Iraq truly a "rentier state"?  Can Maliki and his political elite ignore the demands of its citizenry?  Can it ignore the increasing instability that plagues Iraq?  If sectarian violence spreads due to his policies, pipelines could be destroyed and foreign oil companies might withdraw from Iraq.  Technical assistance and support needed to  modernize Iraq's aged oil industry might evaporate in an environment of increasing violence and political decay.

At the end of the day, leadership counts for much in Iraqi politics.  Making decisions that bring Iraqis together, rather than forcing marginalized sectors of the populace, such as the Sunni Arabs, to choose to demonstrate against the government, or even turn to violence, requires statesmanship, not the parochial calculus of a short-sighted "political boss."  Can Maliki exchange his cynical sectarianism for a more civic form of rule?  The answer is that such change is highly doubtful.  Thus Iraq's political crisis only seems destined to worsen.

1 comment:

Ulaywi Mahmood said...

The game theory will not work if applied on the Iraqi political behavior and Mr. Maliki decisions. The problem of the new political order in Iraq is a constitutional one. All troubles of the present Iraq stems from the constitution. It is a sectarian constitution, thus for a Prime Minister to be successful he must be a sectarian one, and that what Maliki is doing in an excellent way. Installing democracy in Iraq, which was the main objective of the 2003 war, will not be possible with the present constitution. Anyone who wants to help Iraq must encourage it to reform the constitution. Iraq has been sliding into chaos and corruption since 2003. The present crisis in Iraq is not only Sunni inspired, there are plenty of Shiites (Arabs) who resent Iranian domination and heavy handedness in Iraq as is happening now. Iraq needs help from its friends , and especially those who liberated him from the dictatorship of Saddam , so it do not fall under another dictatorship as is the case now or as might happen soon.