It is hard to exaggerate the drama or the stakes of the leadership battle now playing out in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is desperately clinging to power, even summoning elite troops to the Green Zone where the government is based. Yet many in his own Dawa party are deserting him. Enough Shiite politicos have turned against Maliki that his own State of Law slate (a larger grouping of Shiite parties which includes Dawa along with others) has nominated another candidate–Haider al-Abadi–as prime minister. Iraq’s president has now asked Abadi to form a government, which he has 30 days to do.
It appears that Maliki’s day may be done. There are rumors that even Iran, which in many ways is the strongest political actor in Iraq, at least on the Shiite side, is willing to see him leave office. If that’s the case then Maliki will find it impossible to mount a coup because the militias and sectarian military units he would need would be unlikely to march without the acquiescence of Iran. If, however, Maliki manages to cling to office somehow despite his rampant unpopularity, Iraq is unlikely to survive and all-out civil war becomes more likely. The Obama administration has been doing the right thing by pressing for Maliki’s departure and by standing behind the right of Iraq’s president to nominate a different prime minister.
Assuming that Maliki can be ushered out of office, this opens up a new opportunity for Iraq–and a new challenge for President Obama.
So far the president has justified his minimalist strategy for Iraq–he only ordered warplanes into action last week when Yazidis were in danger of being massacred–on the grounds that the U.S. does not want to help a sectarian regime dominated by Iran. Fair enough. I think that the U.S. on balance should have been doing more militarily against ISIS in cooperation with the Kurdish pershmerga and Sunni tribes and certain units of the Iraqi Security Forces. But Obama’s stance is understandable and perhaps justifiable.
What, however, will the president do if we no longer have Maliki to kick around? That will be the moment of truth. Will we stick to a minimalist containment strategy designed to prevent ISIS from taking Erbil and murdering the Yazidis? Or will we implement a much more ambitious strategy to enable the defeat of ISIS?
I believe the U.S. must opt for the latter option. We cannot tolerate the indefinite existence of a terrorist state like the Islamic State stretching across the borders of Iraq and Syria. But to defeat ISIS would require a much more substantial commitment–of advisers, Special Operations Forces, and aircraft–than Obama has hitherto been willing to make. Will Obama finally own up to the challenge of fighting ISIS and commit the commensurate resources for the task–or will he persist with the minimalist, nibbling-around-the-edges approach that he inaugurated last week?
That is the dilemma he will no longer be able to avoid if and when Maliki is gone from the scene.