One of the debates reportedly ongoing among Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his inner circle, and his political rivals is not only whether Maliki should retire, but what that retirement should look like. The knives are out for Maliki as fair-weather friends turn against him, though scapegoating him for the rise of the Islamic State still seems wrong: After all, those who say he should have reached out more to the Sunni Arab community ignore the fact that any such concessions would be irrelevant to the Islamic State, which embraces an uncompromising ideology. Much of the current uprising is also fueled by former Baathists and while some suggest that they could have been brought into a big tent, their tendency to operate in secret cells, coordinate with groups like the Islamic State, and embrace extreme sectarianism into which even Maliki does not engage suggests coopting them would not have brought the peace so many seek.
Nor is scapegoating him because he has become deferential to Iranian influence wise, for two reasons. First, it was the U.S. withdrawal that allowed Iranian influence to grow unabated and forced Maliki to make concessions to those who would remain. Until the U.S. withdrew, Maliki could use their presence and the need to balance the interests of both the United States and Iran in order to carve out independent space. And, second, if the problem is Qods Force chief Qassem Suleimani and unabated deference to Iran, then the United States should treat Iraqi Kurdish leaders with the same animosity with which they now treat Maliki. Suleimani is as frequent a visitor to Sulaimani and Erbil as he is to Baghdad and Basra.
That said, events have spun out of control on Maliki’s watch, he has grown more sectarian and paranoid in recent weeks, and even his own constituents acknowledge it is time for him to go.
While some Iraqis suggest Maliki should become a deputy president in order to maintain parliamentary immunity, Iraqi detractors suggest that parliament should not reward Maliki with such a post. They point out alleged corruption and abuses during his term.
With or without a follow-on position from the premiership, it would be wise to let Maliki retire both in peace and inside Iraq. While the long knives are out for Maliki, he has been no better nor worse than his immediate predecessors. The precedent of allowing a leader to retire would undercut the temptation of future rulers to feel that reelection is more about life than having a job. True, Iraqis say that many of those surrounding him, including his son, engaged in business which at best reflected a conflict of interest and at worst was outright corrupt. But whatever the animosity against Maliki—and much of it remains unfair or exaggerated—the value of allowing him to walk away would be a good precedent for Iraq’s future stability. And that future stability should be the goal of floundering U.S., Arab, and international policy.