Why U.S. should fund democracy & governance in Iraq

iraq ngosAlthough policymakers and the news media seem surprised by the most recent crisis in Iraq, the reality is that the Iraqi state has been steadily deteriorating for months, writes Beza Tesfaye, a research advisor at Mercy Corps, in this guest post.  Stoked by political rivalries and an unwillingness to reconcile, sectarian tensions have been taking a consistently violent turn since 2013.  There is no question that the rise of ISIS in Iraq is a multi-faceted issue, but the marked absence of an inclusive, transparent and participatory system of governance may have contributed to creating an opening in which violent extremists could insert themselves into the domestic scene.

U.S. policymakers have become increasingly frustrated with a lack of progress after the thousands of lives lost and the billions of dollars spent to pave the way for democracy in Iraq.  But given the Administration’s shortsighted engagement in this challenging country, any transformational improvements should not have been expected.  For starters, U.S. commitment to long-term development programs – the programs that build economic security and strengthen political stability – has been dropped, as USAID was virtually zeroed out in FY14 and in the FY15 request, and funding in 2013 was pre-emptively cut back from previous projections.  Only limited, short-term activities by the State Department in Iraq have continued to receive funding. Overall, the country is among the biggest losers in the administration’s FY2015 international affairs budget, slated to receive only $23 million in U.S. development aid – a 69 percent reduction from 2013.   

In recent years, a significant portion of U.S. development assistance to Iraq has been spent on helping to increase political engagement by building democratic institutions, enhancing local government capacity and supporting the development of an independent civil society. Through these efforts, civil society has been gradually gaining a voice, channeling popular concerns to the government. There’s been good progress, but it is only the beginning.  As one activist put it, “Democracy is incomplete in Iraq. Donors are leaving, but we still need support.” 

Credit: Mercy Corps

Credit: Mercy Corps

At the very moment that Iraq’s fledgling civil society is beginning to gain traction, funding for civil society development programs is drying up. In 2011, the U.S. government was spending an average of $802,000 per soldier in Iraq—or $80 billion per year for a minimal 10,000-troop presence.  This year, the State Department’s FY 2015 request for investments in civil society development programs dramatically pales in comparison: under $15 million.

What’s effective for improving governance? 

A recent report by Mercy Corps sheds light on the link between civil society and governance in Iraq.  Data from a nationwide public opinion survey indicate that civil society investments are vital for the development of an open, participatory and accountable system of governance. The main takeaway from the study is that an effective civil society may actually help boost citizens’ views of the government’s responsiveness and legitimacy—important outcomes for democracy and peace. Moreover, civil society organizations are setting a needed model for democratic engagement by creating coalitions across sectarian, ethnic and religious lines, proving that internal divisions can be overcome to address shared everyday concerns such as access to public services.

In practical terms, countries that have a stake in Iraq’s long-term stability should do more—not less—to support civil society’s role in bridging gaps between citizens and government and between divided communities. For example, Mercy Corps’ conflict-resolution work in Iraq has already helped resolve more than 200 major disputes that otherwise might have resulted in more bloodshed. Sustaining such efforts should be a core part of a revamped long-term strategy of engagement in Iraq. 

Today it seems that we may have missed the best chance to help Iraq, but in reality the U.S. and other stakeholders still have the opportunity to shape a positive outcome. As institutional donors begin to respond to the humanitarian crisis caused by the most recent fighting, it is critical to keep in mind that solving the current conflict and averting future crises will require steadfast support for democratic development. In the FY2015 appropriations process, Congress has the ability to reverse the devastating funding cuts that threaten to cripple civil society in Iraq. Although the Senate has already taken important steps in this direction by slightly increasing funding over the Administration’s request, there is still a deficiency in funding for programs that can help improve governance, especially in light of the need for such initiatives in Iraq today. In the immediate crisis, civil society can also play a larger role in the recovery process if humanitarian funding is channeled through local organizations, with technical assistance from USAID and international partners.

It’s clear that improvements in the political situation are unlikely to be achieved without internal commitment and continued external engagement.  Still, in the long run, funding programs that enable Iraqis to address shortcomings in governance is perhaps the most cost-effective means to peace and stability. The recent events remind us that the U.S. needs a long-term vision if it seeks to influence positive changes in Iraq.  In addition to seeking a political resolution to end the conflict, the U.S. should advance the indigenous development of democratic peace by supporting local civil society groups that are slowly changing the political and social landscape in Iraq.

Beza Tesfaye is a research advisor at Mercy Corps and lead author of the new study “Bridging the Gap: Evidence on the Links between Civil Society and Good Governance in Iraq.”

US risks losing Iraq and Syria to ISIS



Credit: Institute for Study of War

Credit: Institute for Study of War

The U.S. can still help save Syria—and Iraq, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams.

What has been missing in Syria since 2011 is Western, and especially American, leadership and determination, but it is not too late for a new policy, argues Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“The early goal of a quick departure for Assad and transition to democracy in Syria is now impossible to attain,” he writes in the July/August issue of Standpoint:

More disorder and suffering are certain. But Syria need not be an endless source of refugees, a centre of inhuman suffering at the hands of a vicious minority regime, and a worldwide gathering place for jihadi extremists.  

Needed now are a serious and coordinated effort to assist the nationalist elements of the rebels, and organise assistance for them from others in the region—Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar are the most critical—and American (and if possible British and French) willingness to use force directly to punish chemical warfare and erode Assad’s air power. Those remain essential steps of a new policy that can over time diminish the tragedy being suffered by the Syrian people and the threat Syria now poses to regional stability and European and American security interests.


Jihadists in Iraq and Syria, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) are capturing cities, energy assets, and military hardware daily. They now control a territory the size of Jordan and are building a state from which they aspire and are increasingly able to attack US regional interests, allies, and the United States itself. In a new publication, “Losing Syria and Iraq to Jihadists,” Atlantic Council Fellow Faysal Itani contends that the United States has every interest in enabling a moderate Sunni-led victory over ISIS, one that can lay the groundwork for a fair and inclusive political order that can end ISIS once and for all.

Itani outlines the roots and nature of the threat ISIS poses to US interests and security. He refutes arguments that Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki could be allies against jihadists; that extremist groups in Syria and Iraq should simply be left to fight one another; or that a narrow counterterrorism approach can eliminate the ISIS threat. Itani argues instead that the deepening sectarian extremism in Syria and Iraq is the product of fundamentally dysfunctional political orders and the weakness of ISIS’ opponents.

Only the Sunni Arab community that ISIS aims to control can defeat it and offer a healthy alternative to its sectarian bigotry. Fortunately, the United States is not short of allies against ISIS, but they include neither the Assad nor the Maliki regimes.

Click here to download the publication.

Now is the time for Kurdish independence?

It is time for stubborn facts to guide US diplomacy on Kurdistan, not threadbare ideas and tactical maneuvers, the Brookings Institution’s William Galston writes for the Wall Street Journal:

Nearly a century after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, we have yet to deal with its consequences. The lines British and French diplomats drew on a map in 1916 never corresponded with ethnic and sectarian realities on the ground, and now the lines of the Sykes-Picot agreement are unsustainable. “Iraq” and “Syria” are names, not nations.

By contrast, the Kurds are a distinct people. They have their own language, culture and history. They have been oppressed by every country in which they have languished as a minority. They were promised independence in 1920, only to have that promise rescinded three years later. They have made wise and patient use of the autonomy they have gained in Iraq. It is hard to think of a people who more deserve their own state.

The case for Kurdish independence is more than moral, says Galston, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

Despite persistent corruption in Iraq, the Kurds there have governed themselves effectively and have attracted significant foreign investment. Their army has proved to be disciplined and effective. With the Kurds’ recent takeover of Kirkuk, they have what they have long regarded as their true capital, their Jerusalem. And the Iraqi Kurds’ entente with Turkey allows them to export oil without Baghdad’s cooperation, securing their economic independence.

As Ofra Bengio, head of the Kurdish Study Program at the Moshe Dayan Center in Tel Aviv, recently noted in the Jerusalem Post, this appears to be the Kurdish moment in the Middle East. Syria is “neutralized by its own struggle for survival” and “will not . . . raise a finger against the Kurds.” It is hard to imagine that Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait would do so either. Turkey is willing to accept an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, and its control of the oil pipeline would give the new Kurdish state incentives not to meddle with Turkey’s Kurds. As for Iran, says Mr. Bengio, Tehran is “up to its neck with business and relations with the Kurds.”


US focuses on Iraqi transition: why jihadists keep coming back

IRAQ SECTARIANThe Obama administration is now focused on a political transition that would move Iraqis toward a more inclusive government — one without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that would include Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions, CNN reports.

How have radical jihadist groups like ISIS been able to stage such impressive comebacks? a leading analyst asks.

Part of the answer lies in the structure of the groups themselves, says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies:

Many violent non-state actors have sought to ensure their survival by taking on the form of ‘clandestine cellular networks’: clandestine in that they are designed to be out of sight, cellular in that they are compartmentalised to minimise damage when the enemy succeeds in destroying some portion of the network. It is thus difficult to count out a militant group after a state-led offensive forces it to retreat. They are never utterly routed…..

Western countries and their regional partners should work together to prevent extremist groups like ISIS from establishing long-lasting states. But they also need to recognise this growing boom-and-bust pattern of instability, and work to address it. Not claiming victory too soon might be a start.

Join Steven Simon, former senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the National Security Council, and Barak Mendelsohn, associate professor of political science at Haverford College, on Friday, June 20, for a conference call discussion and on-the-record Q & A about the fight between the Iraqi government and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Date: Friday, June 20, 2014

Call Time: 11 a.m.–12 p.m. (EDT)

Dial-in Information:

U.S. Callers: 1.800.351.6805

International Callers: 1.334.323.7224

Password: IRAQ


Steven Simon, Senior Fellow, The Middle East Institute; former Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs, National Security Council; former Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Barak Mendelsohn, Associate Professor, Political Science Department, Haverford College; former Captain, analyst of international affairs and strategy, Israel Defense Forces


Gideon Rose, Editor, Peter G. Peterson Chair, Foreign Affairs magazine

Reserved for members of the media.

Please respond by 1:30 p.m. (EDT).

Reply to NYPressRSVP@cfr.org.

Press Contact:

David Mikhail




Who Will Win in Iraq,” a New York Times op-ed by Simon

Collateral Damage in Iraq,” a Foreign Affairs article by Mendelsohn

Iraq’s Descent,” a collection of Foreign Affairs articles on Iraq

‘Syriaq’? Sea change in the desert

laith kubbaThe National Endowment for Democracy’s Laith Kubba (left) discusses the insurgency of Islamic militants in Iraq, and the response from the United States on this BBC podcast (scroll down).

The extremist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is not acting alone in Iraq but is part of a de facto alliance of other disaffected Sunni opposition groups, including former Baathist army officers and civilians, writes Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research at The Middle East Institute. And that is what makes the changes to the political map more lasting. The fortunes of ISIS might rise or fall, but the Sunni population of Iraq, like much of the Sunni population of Syria, has made a decisive break with the Shiite- (or in the case of Syria, Alawite) dominated central government.

Sunni opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, with backing from regional players, have been battling to topple the regime in Damascus, and to topple Maliki or at least regain a meaningful share of power in Baghdad. Having failed in both goals, ISIS has effectively shown another way forward: to forget about Damascus and Baghdad for now, forget about the Sykes-Picot borders and create a new political space out of the parts of Syria and Iraq that their capitals do not control–a large and viable political territory with major historic cities, trade routes, oil resources and borders potentially abutting Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. For now, let’s call it Syriaq. In this, they might be emulating the Kurds, who long ago decided to concentrate on controlling their own areas rather than relying on politics in the capital.

Whether controlled fully by ISIS or eventually by a coalition of Sunni groups, this new political space is likely to be part of the Middle East map for the foreseeable future. It might harden into a robust proto-state as has happened in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, or might be a transitory political reality that is effective as a bargaining rod and melts away again if new and meaningful political deals are struck in Baghdad and Syria.

There is no doubt that most Iraqis and Syrians–Sunnis included, of course–want to be part of the national political institutions of Iraq and Syria, respectively. Assad in Syria has made it quite clear that government is his and certainly not for sharing. And although most Sunnis were part of the political process when the Americans left in 2011, Maliki has systematically excluded them (and Iraqi Kurds) since then and pushed them to more desperate options.

Theoretically, there might be a way to roll this back in Iraq through the formation of a broad national unity government with strong Sunni and Kurdish representation. However, the response from the Maliki government and its supporters has been basically the opposite. Maliki has doubled down on his consistent sectarian rhetoric, Iran has responded by sending military reinforcements, and even Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who has been a beacon for maintaining national unity, called for Shiite conscription rather than national reconciliation. One has to conclude, that for the immediate future at least, Iraq has ceased to exist as a political reality.