Last week U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he believed the United States underestimated the level of mistrust between Iraq's Shiite-dominated government and its other ethnic groups. Not only was his assessment the frankest offered by an administration official since the troop surge, but it was especially sobering in light of CIA Director Michael Hayden's assessment in November 2006 that "the inability of the (Iraqi) government to govern seems irreversible."
The two assessments contradict optimistic predictions about the prospects for success of Washington's military "surge" in Iraq. These comments suggest that even if the surge is successful in a narrow military sense, there is no evidence it will translate into a decisive, beneficial impact on Iraq's political outcome.
Gates' grim analysis comes amid a rapidly disintegrating political situation in Baghdad. The Iraqi Accordance Front, the biggest Sunni political bloc, recently announced the withdrawal of its six Cabinet members because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to meet its demands. Those defections brought to 12 the number of vacancies in Iraq's 39-member Cabinet. And just this week five more ministers — from the group led by Iyad Allawi — decided to withdraw from future Cabinet meetings, though they will continue to run their ministries.
Not only have these moves seriously undermined reconciliation, but they are bringing the Iraqi government dangerously close to collapse.
Under the rubric of pacification, the military and the media typically focus on the violence swirling around Baghdad and in Anbar province. But according to a report from the non-profit International Crisis Group, highlighted in this week's Washington Post, British-administered Basra, previously touted as a success, is in disrepair.
"Basra illustrates the pitfalls of a transitional process that has led to collapse of the state apparatus and failed to build legitimate institutions," reads the report. "Iraq has become a failed state — a country whose institutions and, with them, any semblance of national cohesion, have been obliterated."
While the United States can give Iraqis military equipment and training, it cannot provide Iraq adequate military or political leadership. In fact, despite the infusion of 30,000 more American troops, which according to President Bush was meant to provide the "breathing space" necessary for political negotiations, the feckless Iraqi Parliament has just adjourned on a monthlong summer recess.
While adjourned, Iraqi lawmakers will probably achieve just as much as they did while Parliament was in session — which is very little. Iraq's Parliament has repeatedly failed to meet two key political benchmarks: the equitable distribution of oil revenues and the inclusion of Sunnis into the government. The Cabinet did approve a plan to proportionally allocate petroleum revenue among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, but Sunnis have already rejected the draft legislation.
Memories of Sunni domination are fresh enough to undermine true national reconciliation with Shiites. As long as Shiites remain committed to preserving their hold on power, it is unlikely they will succeed in bringing Sunnis into a proper national unity government.
To make matters worse, the Iraqi Security Forces — the pillar that supposedly will provide security in a united Iraq — is composed mostly of Shiites and Shiite militias.
Because the security forces have been compromised by rampant sectarianism, minority Sunnis have grown fearful of the government in Baghdad, considering it to be merely another vehicle of Shiite domination. Indeed, a good many Sunnis openly say that they trust no one in uniform.
Troubling questions also linger about control of Kirkuk, an oil-rich territory in northern Iraq. To the chagrin of neighboring Turkey as well as Iraq's Arab population, a promised referendum on the status of the city is likely to lead to permanent control by the Kurdish regional government.
From backbiting Cabinet members to a deadlocked and nearly comatose Parliament to the government's inability to monopolize the legitimate use of force, Iraq is suffering from a pervasive political dysfunction that the surge cannot solve.
Iraq requires a political solution, but there seems little prospect of that.
The efficacy of the U.S. military option has largely run its course. Even if the surge enjoys a modest amount of tactical success, Iraq's underlying political rot will persist. So the critical question is, "How patient are we?" How long is America willing to wait for Iraqis to forgive past grievances? It's clear that the country's pre-existing social fractures will not be healed by Gen. David Petraeus, President Bush, or even the U.S. military. If that's the case, it leaves Washington's goal of a stable, united, peaceful, democratic Iraq as remote as ever.