The chronicles now assign Iraq a distinction all its own. It holds the world record for the longest period of time spent without a government in the aftermath of a contested election. Seven months on, the Baghdad political bazaar is still open. (Consolation to the Iraqis: Holland had held the distinction of longest without a government.)
This is a far cry from the ways of the Arab autocracies and despotisms in Iraq's neighborhood. The pharaonic state in Egypt would have dispensed overnight with the formation of a cabinet. In the monarchies next door to Iraq, the palace makes ministers and sends them packing. There is mayhem in Iraq to be sure, but there are the growing pains of a new democracy as well. Those who see this frustrating interlude in Iraq as evidence of the waste and the futility of the American project in Iraq give voice to a traditional hostility to the idea of democracy taking root in a distant, non-Western setting.
Incumbency appears to have paid dividends in Iraq as it does in many political contests. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now all but sure to form and lead the new government. Dogged and taciturn, he hunkered down, cut political bargains, and promised greater patronage in the days ahead—all to cobble together a broad coalition.
The elections last March yielded no clear winner. Four big slates divided and claimed the electorate. There was the Sunni vote, and it went to a Shiite standard-bearer, former prime minister and CIA favorite Ayad Allawi—91 seats in a parliament of 325 members. There was the slate of Prime Minister Maliki, overwhelmingly Shiite, which claimed 89 seats. Another broad Shiite coalition, the National Alliance, came third, with 70 parliamentary seats. The Kurds got roughly their share of the population, a total of 57 seats. All four blocks were far from united movements. They were ramshackle structures, riven by personal ambitions, made up of splinter groups, in quest of what could be had and gotten in a free-for-all scramble.
"Politics has no heart," said the radical firebrand, Muqtada al-Sadr, from his Iranian exile, in response to a follower puzzled by his decision to cease his veto of Mr. Maliki and back his coalition. "Be informed," Mr. Sadr continued, "politics is giving and taking."
For Mr. Sadr this is a remarkable transformation. His hatred of Mr. Maliki ran deep. It was Mr. Maliki who in early 2008 launched a decisive military campaign against Mr. Sadr's Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army. Mr. Maliki had made this decision alone, as the American military command had been dubious about his chances of success. Having won the war for Baghdad against the Sunnis, the Mahdi Army had grown brazen, it had become an instrument of outright pillage and mayhem. The Shiites themselves had grown weary of it, and Mr. Maliki would show its brigades and petty warlords no mercy.
By then Mr. Sadr had quit Iraq for his Iranian exile. He was afraid for his safety, afraid of the Americans, afraid of potential assassins. Above all, there was the sword of Damocles hanging over his head: an arrest warrant for the brutal murder in the spring of 2003 of a scion of one of the most illustrious Shiite clerical families, Abdul Majid al-Khoei.
For Mr. Sadr, his Iranian exile is a gilded cage—no one takes seriously his claim that he is there for religious studies. He chose Iran because no other place was safe for him, and he was largely able to hold his movement together by remote control. On his coattails 40 members made it to the new parliament.
Has Mr. Sadr bent to the will of Iran by backing Mr. Maliki? Conceivably so. Much of the recent commentary takes that as evidence of Iran's power in the making of a new government. But there is a simpler explanation. A political man with 12% of the parliamentary seats wanted access to state treasure and resources, opportunities for patronage and government employment for his brigades. Baghdad is not Chicago, but it has shades of it as the struggle for the oil bounty plays out.
So we can now see the broad outlines of a post-American order in Iraq. The withdrawal of the Americans is already "baked into the cake," a senior Iraqi politician recently told me. This is "the East," and in the East people have an unerring instinct for the intentions and the staying power of strangers. Iraqis needn't rush to the pages of Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars" to know of the disinterest of the president in the affairs of Iraq. There's little doubt that he'll carry out his promise to withdraw U.S. troops by Dec. 31, 2011. But it would make a great difference to Iraqis were he to signal that Washington has a strategic doctrine for the region, and for Iraq's place in it, that goes beyond that date.
The Iraqis have a fetish about their sovereignty, but they also understand their dependence. They will need American help, cover for their air space, protection for their oil commerce in the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf. This Iraqi government will remain, for the foreseeable future, a Shiite-led government anxious about the intentions of the Sunni Arab states; about the Turks now pushing deeper into Iraq's affairs, armed with Neo-Ottomanist ideas about Turkey as a patron of the Sunnis of Iraq. And there will always play upon Iraqis—Shiites in particular—a healthy fear of Iran and a desire to keep the Persian power at bay. There will be plenty of room for America in Iraq even after our soldiers have packed up their gear and left.
The question posed in the phase to come will be about the willingness of Pax Americana to craft a workable order in the Persian Gulf, and to make room for this new Iraq. It is a peculiarity of the American presence in the Arab- Islamic world, as contrasted to our work in East Asia, that we have always harbored deep reservations about democracy's viability there and have cast our lot with the autocracies. For a fleeting moment, George W. Bush broke with that history. But that older history, the resigned acceptance of autocracies, is the order of the day in Washington again.
It isn't perfect, this Iraqi polity midwifed by American power. But were we to acknowledge and accept that Iraqis and Americans have prevailed in that difficult land, in the face of such forbidding odds, we and the Iraqis shall be better for it. We have not labored in vain.
Mr. Ajami is a professor at The Johns Hopkins School of Advance International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.