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Don’t Blame Maliki for Iraq Violence

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet President Obama today, as Max Boot notes. His visit comes against the backdrop of a sharp escalation in violence, with terrorists killing almost 1,000 people a month. While Max notes the relative success of Iraqi Kurdistan (and he could have also mentioned much of southern Iraq as well), he places much of the blame for the current violence on Maliki himself:

…The overall situation is grim, and Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had pursued more inclusive policies, he could have kept the Sunnis who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 in large numbers from reverting to the way of the gun. Instead Maliki has allowed his paranoia to run rampant by targeting senior Sunni figures for arrest and prosecution. 

Frankly, Max is not alone. The Washington Post published a masthead editorial yesterday calling on the United States “to hold Maliki accountable.” Certainly, there’s enough blame to pass around, but it would be wrong to place too much blame on Maliki.

First of all, when a terrorist detonates a car bomb in a crowded market, the fault lies with the terrorist. Period. There are many places in the world where political grievances exist; none excuses terrorism.

There are two schools of thought with regard to terrorism. The first sees terrorism’s roots in grievance, and the second in ideology. Those who subscribe to the grievance-based approach believe if a grievance is addressed, the cause for terrorism goes away. I’d argue far more of the Iraq-based insurgents root their terrorism more in an absolutist ideology. To accept the grievance-based philosophy is a bit dangerous as well, not only because it legitimizes some terrorism but also because terrorists and other rogues know the susceptibility of Western diplomats to declarations of real or contrived grievance, and it simply encourages some elements of society to stake out ever more extreme positions.

When it comes to Iraq, Maliki is between a rock and a hard place. The surge was wise military strategy, but it was at times politically short-sighted, especially as some elements concluded that the shortest path to empowerment was the appeasement that followed violence rather than the ballot box. Indeed, the most extreme sectarian parties fared poorly in the most recent provincial polls; they were beat out by more moderate parties.

It is also dangerous to suggest that Iraqi security forces should not have sought to arrest Tariq al-Hashemi and Rafi Issawi if valid evidence against the two prominent Sunni politicians existed and, indeed, ample evidence exists. Being a Sunni politician should never lead to a free pass for terrorism. That Issawi is already paying blood money to those who his guards murdered suggests there may be something to the charges. Maliki should certainly target those leading Shiite death squads with the same fervor. While I would like to see Muqtada al-Sadr behind bars one day—and believe one of the Bush administration’s greatest mistakes in Iraq was not authorizing the shot when Muqtada al-Sadr was in the crosshairs—Maliki has dispatched his forces to take on Shiite militias in Basra and elsewhere.

Maliki may have flaws—though I cannot think of a single Iraqi politician (or American politician for that matter) that does not. But he has guided Iraq well through some turbulent times against the backdrop of a cabinet that as often answers more to political bosses outside the government rather than to the prime minister. Despite frequent accusations to the contrary, he does not cultivate a personality cult. Other Iraqi politicians do, however, most notably Muqtada al-Sadr and some Kurdish regional leaders. He is hardly authoritarian as his opponents too often seek to paint him because Iraqi political rhetoric still tends toward exaggeration. That said, Maliki should be held accountable, but that accountability should come first and foremost from the Iraqi people in the 2014 elections and not by an American administration which has largely abandoned Iraq hastily passing judgment. A major flaw of U.S. policy toward both Iraq and Afghanistan has been prioritizing personality over system. It is time to respect the system.

The United States should seek close ties with Baghdad. Not only would that enable Baghdad to better resist Iranian pressure, but it would also enable American businesses to take advantage of the growing Iraqi market. Long-term defense cooperation—for example, with regard to provision of the F-16 fighters Iraq seeks—would also help Iraq protect itself in a hostile neighborhood and would create a framework for decades of exchanges and interaction. It would make it harder for the Iranian government to try to run roughshod over Iraqi sensitivities. Such decisions should be based on American interests and Iraqi needs, not frustration with the outcome of the 2010 Iraqi elections or misdirected personal animus toward Maliki himself.


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