If you are to read only one article on where Iraq stands today, I heartily recommend this Foreign Affairs essay, “The Iraq We Left Behind: Welcome to the World’s Next Failed State,” by Ned Parker, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Baghdad who is now spending a year at the Council on Foreign Relations (where I am a senior fellow). Parker accurately sums up the country as follows:
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presides over a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population. The law exists as a weapon to be wielded against rivals and to hide the misdeeds of allies. The dream of an Iraq governed by elected leaders answerable to the people is rapidly fading away.
The Iraqi state cannot provide basic services, including regular electricity in summer, clean water, and decent health care; meanwhile, unemployment among young men hovers close to 30 percent, making them easy recruits for criminal gangs and militant factions. Although the level of violence is down from the worst days of the civil war in 2006 and 2007, the current pace of bombings and shootings is more than enough to leave most Iraqis on edge and deeply uncertain about their futures. They have lost any hope that the bloodshed will go away and simply live with their dread. Acrimony in the political realm and the violence in the cities create a destabilizing feedback loop, whereby the bloodshed sows mistrust in the halls of power and politicians are inclined to settle scores with their proxies in the streets.
How did we get to this bleak point? Parker is right to point the finger at the U.S. for failing “to capitalize on the gains of the U.S. troop surge.” Specifically, Parker points to a key error made by the Obama administration in the summer of 2010, “when the United States dropped the pretense of neutrality by backing Maliki for the post of prime minister over [Ayad] Allawi–even though Allawi’s party list had received more votes in the national elections held in March.” That gave Maliki the confidence to run roughshod over other political factions, especially the Sunnis, and yet “Washington quickly disengaged from actually ensuring that the provisions of the deal [struck between Maliki and Allawi] was implemented. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, the Obama administration’s leading figure on Iraq policy, was largely absent from Iraq for nearly a year as the power-sharing arrangement unraveled.”
I would argue that these cardinal errors were compounded by Obama and Biden’s unwillingness to go to the mat to ensure a continuing presence of U.S. troops after 2011. Their departure, after the premature breakdown of negotiations with Maliki, has given the prime minister an even freer hand which he has used to accumulate even more power, setting the conditions for a potentially lethal Sunni backlash. I believe that this abandonment of Iraq could turn out to be one of the biggest blots on the administration’s record–to be exceeded only, perhaps, if the president goes on to similarly abandon Afghanistan.
But even now it is not too late for the U.S. to take a more active role in Iraq. As Parker notes, even without a continuing troop presence, the U.S. still retains some leverage from continuing weapons sales (which could be interrupted) and other levers at our disposal. It is high time the administration used whatever influence it still possess so as to avoid the worst.