Derided less than a year ago as an ineffectual bumbler on the verge of losing power, today Nouri al Maliki seems poised to become the strongman of Iraq, writes F Gregory Gause. The war in Iraq, at least as it is viewed through the skewed prism of the American presidential race, has been reduced to a single issue: the success of the surge - the deployment of additional US units to Iraq that began in January 2007. Republican partisans claim that the surge has brought stability to Iraq and, according to the Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, brought America to "the verge of victory". Sceptics contend that other factors offer a more convincing explanation for the decline in violence, including the Sadrist ceasefire and the rise of the Sunni Awakening groups. But even Barack Obama has been forced to admit that the surge worked out better than he ever imagined.
With this premature self-congratulation dominating our discussion of Iraq, most Americans have missed what might be the most important political consequence of the improved security situation in Iraq: the emergence of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki as the strongman of Iraqi politics. After taking office as a compromise choice between the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) after the December 2005 elections, Maliki has recently pursued an ambitious agenda of marginalising opponents and consolidating power. There are still plenty of obstacles in his path. But only a year ago the almost universal consensus was that he was an ineffectual plodder who was largely irrelevant to the course of Iraqi politics and whose days in leadership were probably numbered. He had come out of the smallest Shi'ah party in Iraq, and even that was split. He had little personal following and no evident charisma. How did he change his fortunes?
We may find some answers in an unexpected place: Karl Marx's 1852 pamphlet The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, famous for its opening lines suggesting that history recurs, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I, came out of nowhere to get himself elected president and then declared himself Emperor, taking the title Napoleon III. Aside from his questionable family connection to the original Napoleon, this adventurer had little going for him - no organised mass following and no political party behind him.
Marx writes that two factors explained the ease with which Louis Napoleon executed his constitutional coup. The organised classes of French society - the workers and the middle classes - failed to exert political power because of internal weaknesses and divisions. Louis Napoleon relied on the support of the peasantry, which Marx notoriously likened to a "sack of potatoes" - a mass of individuals with no cohesion. The peasants, despite their shared concerns, had no political organisation: an ideal base of passive support for a strongman. Then, when Louis Napoleon took power, he had the apparatus of the powerful French state and army entirely at his disposal.
Contemporary Iraq is not mid-19th century France. But the comparison offers insights into how Maliki has positioned himself to emerge as Iraq's strongman. His opponents are divided among themselves internally and unable to form alliances across sectarian lines against him. The Sunni Awakening movements have yet to coalesce as an organised political force, and they are opposed within the Sunni Arab community by the political parties of the Iraqi Accord Front, which are in Maliki's government. The Sadrist movement, though still a potent populist force in the Shia community, seems to have lost some of its coherence. Its militia, the Mahdi Army, has splintered, and Sadr has ordered it to stand down while he tries to reorganise and reassert his control. Maliki's main coalition ally, the ISCI, is suffering from a leadership crisis, with Abd al Aziz al Hakim ill and succession an open question. While there are signs that Sunni and Shia Arab parliamentarians can come together to block Maliki on specific issues, like the provincial election law, a real cross-sectarian Arab bloc has yet to emerge in Iraqi politics.
Maliki, like Louis Napoleon, inherited the infrastructure of a state and has put it to good use in consolidating his power. He has used the new Iraqi army and security services, built by the United States, to strike at his rivals. The spring offensives by Iraqi forces in Basra, Maysan Province and Sadr City largely targeted the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army, weakening Maliki's major rival in the Shia community and preparing the ground, perhaps, for managed elections at the provincial level. The current campaign of arrests and intimidation against leaders of the Awakening Movements in the Sunni Arab community is serving the same purpose. The United States, anxious that the developing Iraqi army take over more of the security responsibilities in the country, has supported these moves. We do not know the details of Maliki's relationship with the commanders of the army. Perhaps some of them have their own ideas about who should be the strongman of Iraqi politics. But, at least so far, both the American military and Iraq's own armed forces have been willing instruments of Maliki's moves against his opponents.
Maliki has one advantage that Louis Napoleon did not - a bulging state treasury. Flush with oil revenues, the Iraqi state can now begin to reassume its previous role as the major employer of and provider of services to its citizens. That can only benefit Maliki in his efforts to build a personal power base. Beginning October 1, Maliki's government will take over from the United States the payment of members of Awakening Movements. That provides Maliki with a golden opportunity to build a patronage network among Sunni Arabs, while cutting off Awakening leaders who do not fall in behind his leadership.
Maliki has adopted an ideological platform of Iraqi Arab nationalism to garner popular support among both Sunnis and Shia. He has very publicly demanded a date for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and resisted American pressure, in the negotiations over a status of forces agreement, to provide immunity to American soldiers and contractors. The demand for withdrawal is, of course, more symbolic than real. If Maliki wants to keep US forces around after 2011 and John McCain is in the White House, he can do so. But appearances are important. With both provincial and national elections scheduled for sometime in 2009, Maliki can now present himself as the man who secured an American withdrawal. He recently replaced the foreign ministry team negotiating the status of forces agreement with his own aides, putting his personal stamp on the deal. The first major oil deal of the post-Saddam era was announced two weeks ago, and it was with a Chinese, not an American, company - another bit of nationalist symbolism.
Maliki's recent - and risky - moves against his Kurdish allies are another means of highlighting his Arab nationalist credentials. Last month he sent the Iraqi army into Kurdish-controlled areas of Diyala Province, provoking a stand-off with Kurdish peshmerga units. While the crisis was solved through negotiations, Maliki signalled his intent to deploy the Iraqi army at will throughout the country. Iraqi Arabs tend to believe that the Kurds have overstepped in their demands for control of Kirkuk and other mixed areas, and Maliki is positioning himself as the champion of Arab claims - with the army to back him up. In the same way that Louis Napoleon used his famous name to rally support among the disconnected rural population of France, Maliki seems poised to rally Arab Iraqis to his side by playing the nationalist card - they are fed up with the existing political parties and enjoying the improved security situation over which Maliki presides.
The other famous line from Marx's 18th Brumaire says that men make history, but not in any way they choose. Maliki faces a number of roadblocks en route to consolidating his personal power into complete authority over Iraq. Any Iraqi strongman needs control over two things - the military and the oil money. Maliki still faces a parliament that has constitutional authority over government spending. He cannot guarantee the perpetual support of the Iraqi army, and the United States, whose backing has been vital to his rise, may yet decide his usefulness has run its course and withdraw the backing that its forces have given him. He still lacks the popular base of Muqtada al Sadr and the disciplined party structure of the ISCI, so upcoming elections (if they are held) may generate new rivals to his leadership. His sudden turn against his Kurdish allies threatens to rupture his parliamentary majority and turn the most cohesive force in Iraqi politics against him. But the rise of Nouri al Maliki bears watching. He would not, after all, be the first Arab leader to use oil money and the security services as the basis on which to build an authoritarian regime. F Gregory Gause is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and the director of its Middle Eastern Studies programme.