History will not be kind to Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s caretaker prime minister. A respected human rights researcher, journalist, and security technocrat, there was broad optimism in Washington and much of the West when he rose to power against the backdrop of nationwide anti-corruption protests that forced Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s ouster.
As someone who built his career by appointment, Kadhimi had no electoral legitimacy but he was the man of the moment. Iraqis charged him with ushering electoral reform through the parliament and breaking the system in which political party bosses utilized their position to benefit themselves personally at the expense of the Iraqi nation. Iraqis, after all, were furious. Iraq had extracted hundreds of billions of dollar worth of oil since the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein but Iraq’s infrastructure remains more Yemen than Dubai. Baghdad has its charms but, then again, so does Detroit.
Kadhimi’s Disappointing Record on Reform
In every mission, Kadhimi disappointed. President Barham Salih proposed some common-sense electoral reforms, but Kadhimi stood aside as parliamentary factions amended them beyond recognition. Kadhimi had a bully pulpit to name, shame, and change the conversation, but his personal ambition interceded. Rather than call out Massoud Barzani, Muqtada al-Sadr, or Nouri al-Maliki for their corruption, Kadhimi chose silence. Faced with a decision between antagonizing Iraq’s worst offenders by pursuing the anti-corruption agenda ordinary Iraqis wanted and appeasing corrupt party bosses in the hope they might support a second term, Kadhimi chose the latter. Indeed, rather than break the system, Kadhimi participated in it. He may deny corruption, but there is a fine line between corruption and business conflict of interest. Iraqis also note that it is hard to clean up corruption in a country when unwilling to do the same for his personal office.
Kadhimi also failed on the security front. While some in Washington trade access for silence, the reality is that Iranian-directed militias thrived on Kadhimi’s watch. Nor was it only with Iran that he subverted Iraqi sovereignty. Rather than side with the Iraqi people and traumatized Yezidis, Kadhimi merely amplified Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s lies to rationalize Turkish attacks on and occupation of Iraqi territory. Today, Turkey has upwards of 60 outposts on Iraqi territory, extending the Turkish army’s reach as far south as the Diyala governorate.
Perhaps the greatest irony has been Kadhimi’s attitude toward the press. While many Iraqi journalists lack ethics, Kadhimi’s record of repression marks him as the greatest antagonist to free press among any of Iraq’s post-Saddam leaders. Nor can Kadhimi complain about journalists’ ethics when his own staff violates basic journalistic practices by contributing to Al Monitor without acknowledging their role in the prime minister’s office.
While Kadhimi has real success on the foreign policy issue, he simply built upon the initiatives of his predecessors. Likewise, while Kadhimi is correct to say Abdul-Mahdi left Iraq’s treasury looted and empty, Kadhimi’s success meeting Iraq’s bloated payroll had more to do with high oil prices than any real reform. Indeed, Kadhimi’s office continues to treat as secret the figures that would support bragging about the economic progress he claims he made.
Can Sudani Succeed where Kadhimi Failed?
Should parliament ratify Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Shia al Sudani, could Sudani succeed where Kadhimi failed?
Here, the prognosis is uncertain. Sudani is a competent manager. He outshone his peers while governor of Maysan more than a decade ago. While a minister in Nouri al-Maliki’s cabinet, he stood alone as clean while Maliki, Transport Minister Hadi al-Amiri, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, and others engaged in rank corruption. Being clean, however, is not enough in Iraq: Too many owe their position to corruption and are loathe to allow any change to the system that empowered them. To get the parliament to act responsibly is simply a bridge too far. Barham’s ouster also shows the tendency in Iraq to punish merit in favor of mediocrity.
Iraqi politicians and intellectuals acknowledge that Iraq needs a new compact. The system created by the current constitution is too dysfunctional. Too many stakeholders will resist meaningful reform, however, so achieving a new constitution absent a revolution would be impossible.
When a glutton does not have the willpower to refrain from engorging himself, the best way for him to diet would be to remove his opportunity to eat. Perhaps the best way forward, then, would be to remove the ability of Iraqi leaders to misappropriate funds.
Is it time for the Alaska Model and a Sovereign Wealth Fund?
Against the backdrop of the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein, late Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi argued that the best model for Iraq and its hydrocarbon wealth would be Alaska. He outlined a proposal in which the Iraqi government would create an account for every Iraqi man, woman, and child and then deposit shares of Iraq’s oil revenue on a regular basis into that account. Some intellectuals like Fareed Yasseen, a future Iraqi ambassador to the United States, voiced thoughtful opposition, arguing that such payments would both be a disincentive to work and would reinforce a tribal oligarchy. While Yasseen was right on the latter, two decades of funding sclerotic bureaucracy has taken its toll on Iraq. Most government positions are as much welfare as direct payments; the only difference is that the current system stifles entrepreneurship while direct payments would not. Chalabi’s proposal ultimately went nowhere given the “anybody but Chalabi” attitude within the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency, though others such as former U.S. ambassador Lukman Faily have, in recent years, suggested the Alaska model is worthy of study. Certainly, removing tens of billions of dollars from the pool of discretionary money would mitigate the opportunities for corruption. As Iraqis admit more than do Americans, Chalabi despite his many faults was prescient.
Establishing a sovereign wealth fund for Iraq might also reduce the spoils over which Iraq’s political factions can fight. A decade ago, I argued in the Kurdistan Tribune that Iraqi Kurdistan needed to set aside and invest its oil revenue; had it done so, then Kurds today might not need to brave the Belarussian forest or the English channel to escape the poverty and corruption that predominates today. For the Barzanis to buy luxury real estate for their wives or Patek Philippe watches or Bugatti cars for themselves and their children is not the United Arab Emirates model they wish to replicate. They have diverted tens of billions of dollars into their own pockets which, had they invested in businesses as the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority does, could be paying dividends to allow Kurds among the best living standards in the region. What holds true for the Kurds is exponentially truer for the rest of Iraq given the geographical allocation of oil between the region and the central government.
A new constitution may not immediately be possible, but creating schemes to reduce the pot of money could be. After all, as Iraqi faction heads put their hatred of each other above the good of the country, each can take equal solace in the fact that such a scheme deprives their rivals of a fortune at the same time it impacts their own purse.
Iraq is too important to fail, but the disappointment of Kadhimi’s tenure and the absence of any meaningful reform telegraphs to the Iraqi street that the best chance for change is through violence. It is the fear of this dynamic that the United States, Europe, moderate Arab states, and international lenders can channel to force Iraqis simultaneously to shrink the opportunity for corruption and to invest in a new generation.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).