If there is one thing we have learned about Iraq during the last decade, it is that violence is a direct reflection of the political process or lack thereof. When politics was dysfunctional in 2003-2007, violence skyrocketed. Once the success of the surge kicked in, the political process began to function again and various factions could resolve their disputes with back-room deals rather than with bombs and rockets. Now that U.S. troops have pulled out, the political process is fraying once again. Consider the events of just the past few days.
Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a leading Sunni moderate, is in internal exile in the Kurdish region; he fears if he returns to Baghdad he will be seized by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces and put on trial on what he says are trumped up charges of terrorism; he accuses the Maliki government of torturing his aides to produce phony confessions. At the same time, Maliki is moving to remove Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al Mutlaq, another Sunni, from office for (ironically) accusing Maliki of running a nascent dictatorship. Sunni provinces are openly pushing for more autonomy from Baghdad. The Iraqiya coalition, which represents secular nationalists including many Sunnis, is boycotting parliament. Maliki is threatening to kick them out of the government altogether and effectively rule without Sunni participation.
It is hardly surprising that amid what is the most severe crisis Iraq has faced since 2007 violence is breaking out: Earlier today a series of car bombs and other explosive devices went off across Baghdad, killing more than 60 people and wounding at least 160. These sorts of explosives are the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents. This may be seen as their riposte to Maliki’s high-handed dealings with Sunni leaders, and a warning that if the prime minister does not adopt a more inclusive approach the Sunnis may go to the mattresses again.
That would be a catastrophe–it would mean the revival of the civil war which was barely snuffed out in 2007-2008 by the presence of more than 150,000 U.S. troops. With no U.S. troops, there is nothing left to prevent an even worse explosion this time around–a conflagration which could easily merge with the war already going on in next-door Syria to produce a regional catastrophe. This is the direct result of President Obama’s failure to negotiate an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past this year.
The lack of U.S. troops removes a major source of American leverage. But there are other pressure points that still exist and could be utilized if the administration chooses to do so. Team Kagan (Fred and Kim Kagan) summarize some options in this Weekly Standard post:
The U.S. should immediately threaten to withhold assistance, including the shipment of military aircraft Iraq recently ordered, if Maliki does not back down and adhere to the commitments he made to the Sunni bloc. Washington should engage Ankara energetically to enforce a common front toward the Kurds. Kurdish parliamentarians—and security forces—remain key players in this drama, but they have been acting selfishly and fearfully, always with one eye on the door out of Iraq and into independence. Many Kurdish leaders apparently believe that even if the U.S. will not back them, Turkey will. But it is no more in Turkey’s interest than in ours to see Iraq once more in flames. Now is the time for some smart power in the region.
Above all, however, now is the time to show that this administration actually cares about what happens in Iraq. It is not enough for the vice president to phone it in. The secretary of state should go to Baghdad, not to celebrate our withdrawal, but to play an active role in mediating the aftermath. Obama should invite Maliki and his Sunni and Kurdish counterparts to a summit somewhere in the West to hash this out.
That’s good advice, but taking it would force the president to back away from his “Mission Accomplished” narrative and acknowledge that Iraq is not actually, as he claimed on Dec. 12, “sovereign, self-reliant and democratic.” Instead, Iraq is in a state of crisis that threatens to undo the democratic accomplishments of recent years. If Obama does not act, and fast, he could be presiding over the biggest disaster in an administration that has had more than its share of them.