At the level of theory, it would be easy and useful to shrink the bloated cabinet of Iraq. And although intractable political realities do complicate matters, there are some interesting possibilities.
An effective Iraqi cabinet is not as impossible as it seems
The impact of the Arab Spring in Iraq has been comparatively negligible, with one significant exception: the idea of making the Iraqi government smaller is finally gaining some traction. When Adel Abd Al Mahdi resigned as vice president in May, he did so with reference to a growing chorus of dissent from street demonstrators as well as Shiite clergy who demand a smaller and more effective government.
Last week, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki also began talking openly about the need for a much smaller government, and a few days ago the Iraqiyya party, too, said demonstrators had made legitimate demands about a government free from honorary positions whose sole purpose was to satisfy ethno-sectarian quotas.
As so often in Iraqi politics, new ideas are being bandied about entirely without reference to the Iraqi constitution or laws in force. In fact, it is not possible to shrink the government just like that. Unless the government intends to resign as a whole, the only possibility would be for parliament to individually question each of the ministers they wanted to get rid of and then dismiss them in separate votes of no confidence. This would certainly require greater effectiveness on the part of the Iraqi legislature than its members have exhibited thus far.
That said, the idea about a smaller government is a good one and worth pursuing a little further. First, let us for a second forget about politics and just try to envision how, in an ideal world, the current government could be restructured and downsized to about 20 ministries.
The first aim would be to get rid of the many bogus ministries and ministers of state that were invented during the formation of the second Al Maliki government in December 2010. The obvious place to start would be the ministry that is actually a contradiction in terms - the "ministry for civil society". Next, all the 10 or so ministers of state could go as well, with the possible exception of the one for women's affairs which remain an urgent priority area in Iraq.
For purposes of greater efficiency, education, science and technology, and culture could be easily merged into a single ministry of education and science, whereas an infrastructure ministry could take care of what are the separate ministries of transportation, housing, public works, communications, tourism and provincial affairs. A separate ministry for sports also seems unnecessary: if anything, Iraqi sport needs less Iraqi government interference, and the building of arenas and other activities could be undertaken by the infrastructure ministry.
Finally, the current ministries of planning and labour come across as redundant. A good government plans collectively, and with separate ministries for oil, commerce and industry it is hard to see what a labour ministry can achieve on its own.
So much for theory: Iraqi politics has become increasingly polarised lately and unrealistic agendas tend to dominate. On the one hand, the secular but mostly Sunni-backed Iraqiyya keeps pushing for a strategic policy council with executive powers that the current Iraqi parliament is unlikely to ever grant them. Recently, the parliamentary speaker, Usama Al Nujayfi, even made an unprecedented threat about "Sunni separatism" if Iraqiyya's demands are not met.
On the other hand, Mr Al Maliki, of the Shiite Islamist State of Law alliance, is signalling impatience with Iraqiyya. As an alternative to the continued bickering, Mr Al Maliki is proposing a "political majority" government: a not-so-veiled threat to ditch Iraqiyya from the governing coalition and instead build a more narrow government with support from the Kurds, splinter elements of Iraqiyya, minorities and maybe some of the smaller Shiite Islamist factions. The Iraqi press keeps discussing this scenario despite the fact that it seems quite unrealistic as well, not least since Mr Al Maliki would have to resign himself if the whole government were to be changed.
Enter the idea of shrinking the government. Is this perhaps Mr Al Maliki's more realistic plan for reaching the same goal of marginalising or splitting Iraqiyya? The problem for Mr Al Maliki in this respect is that the ministries held by Iraqiyya are pretty important and indispensable (especially finance, education and agriculture) whereas those held by his own coalition tend to belong to the bogus category. In fact, State of Law ministers like Safa Al Din Al Safi and Ali Al Dabbagh would probably be among the first to get axed in any straight-faced parliamentary move to shrink the government.
But if Mr Al Maliki thinks creatively, he could persevere with the idea of shrinking the government by doing something truly bold: getting rid of the Sadrists and the smaller Shiite Islamist factions that once delivered him the premiership by creating the Shiite super-alliance called the National Alliance. Mr Al Maliki actually no longer needs that fractious alliance, and it could be argued that trying to keep it together might create more problems for him in the future.
Not least - and despite the latest official pronouncements on the issue - individual members of his own State of Law alliance keep signalling an interest in keeping some kind of extended US presence beyond 2011, which would mean conflict with the Sadrists and other members of the National Alliance who share the Iranian view that it would be best to get rid of the US forces entirely and as soon as possible.
By chance, a restructuring of the Iraqi government from 40 plus to some 20 ministries could actually dovetail with a sacking of the ministers from the Sadrists, the smaller Shiite Islamist parties as well as the tiny Sunni parties. That would leave a slimmer coalition made up of State of Law, the Kurds and Iraqiyya (who in turn should give up the idea of a strategic policy council in return for enhanced relative weight inside the government).
Such a coalition - similar to the preferred US scenario around May 2010 but completely unrealistic then because of the premiership issue - would be in a far better position to remain united, govern Iraq effectively and reach an informed decision on the question of a US presence after 2011.
Reidar Visser is an historian of Iraq who blogs at gulfanalysis.wordpress.com