Fund the Iraqi grass roots

MICHAEL RUBIN, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He has spent 22 months in Iraq.

THE DEMOCRATICALLY elected government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has proved a grave disappointment. Security has worsened since Maliki has been in power. Ignoring the pleas of U.S. officials, he has been unwilling to crack down on the militias and death squads that fuel sectarian violence -- and the mass kidnapping from a Ministry of Higher Education building in Baghdad on Tuesday by gunmen in police uniforms shows the consequences.

Last month, Maliki’s government refused to cooperate with U.S. troops searching for a kidnapped comrade. A week later, Maliki ordered U.S. forces to lift a blockade of Sadr City, where the missing soldier was believed to be held.

Corruption remains corrosive. Maliki’s administration has hemorrhaged hundreds of millions of dollars. Oil revenues and foreign aid disappear. Maliki and his allies treat ministries as mechanisms for patronage. They dispense jobs to political loyalists, not able technocrats. Officials in the Shiite-dominated Health Ministry, for example, have replaced experienced doctors with uneducated militiamen.

But does this mean that the U.S. ambition to bring democracy to Iraq was a mistake? As a supporter of the war, and later an advisor to the U.S. occupation authority, I don’t think so. Despite our disappointment with Maliki, the strategic rationale for promoting democracy in the Middle East -- and in Iraq in particular -- remains sound. But it needs to be a long-term strategy, as demonstrated by our success in Korea, where more than 35,000 American servicemen sacrificed their lives. Half a century later, the juxtaposition of totalitarian, destitute and nuclear North Korea with thriving and peaceful South Korea shows the value of a long-term strategy to build democracy.


With chaos growing, impatience in Washington should not come as a surprise. In March, Congress charged a bipartisan commission chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) to look at Iraq with “fresh eyes,” but it’s already clear that its final recommendations will not make a priority of preserving democracy. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he has no confidence in Maliki and has called for Iraq’s division. Others seek to scrap the constitution or impose a strongman. Rumors circulate in Baghdad that the CIA plans a coup.

But to give up on democracy would affirm our adversaries’ conspiracy theories, betray the Iraqi people and undercut U.S. diplomacy for decades. Rather, Washington should leave the elected government in place but stop funding it. If Maliki wants to treat ministries as fiefdoms, let him do it without our money. American taxpayers are under no obligation to subsidize an ineffective government that is hostile to U.S. interests.

Some who advocate shock therapy to reform the Maliki government, such as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), argue that the way to force it to take responsibility is through a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. But only the best-armed groups would benefit. Ending subsidies to the central government, though, would promote better government, more efficient tax collection and greater transparency over oil revenues (without, most likely, actually bringing down the Maliki government). Accountability, not elections, is the bedrock of democracy.

I’m not suggesting that aid to Iraq should be cut off entirely. Rather, it should be redirected away from the central government through the U.S. military to Iraq’s municipalities, especially those that are run by democratically elected city and town councils. Democracy is best built from the bottom up.


Shortly after Saddam Hussein’s ouster, I spent a few days with the 173rd Airborne Brigade around Kirkuk, an ethnic and sectarian flashpoint. The U.S. troops offered aid, but the councils determined how it would be spent. For example, Kurds might be a plurality, but they could not dictate. In order to win consensus, they had to compromise with Turkomen and Arabs. Technocrats and those willing to compromise rose as Iraqis pushed the populists aside.

Can this local emphasis work given the ongoing sectarian violence? Yes. Many Iraqis support ethnic militias because they provide services and security the central government is unable to supply. The greatest impediments to reconstruction now are corruption and security. But every day, U.S. servicemen go on patrol across Iraq. They visit every city, town and village. They know what is possible and can keep tabs on the money they are handing out. While billions spent by Green Zone diplomats have evaporated into the ether, U.S. troops can provide accountability.

Injecting money directly to local projects works. Indeed, it is how Muqtada Sadr and the militias have won hearts, if not minds, and at a far lower cost. Rather than ignore our enemies, we should copy their model of success. The stakes for Iraq and U.S. national security are simply too high to throw in the towel.