Commentary Magazine


Topic: Baathism

It’s Not Maliki Pushing Iraq into Civil War

Max Boot pushes back on my post and suggests that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s recent actions consolidating power risk are pushing Iraq into a civil war. I certainly worry about instability in Iraq, but it is wrong to suggest that Maliki’s attempts to govern would be the cause.

First, it’s important to define where we agree: Both of us see the U.S. withdrawal as costly. It undercut U.S. leverage, and privileged Iran. Both of us are deeply suspicious of Iran. I make no secret of my belief that the United States should do nothing that throws a lifeline to Tehran and, indeed, should do everything possible to undermine the Iranian regime. That said, while I understand that Max’s view is conventional wisdom in many U.S. military circles, I am as unconvinced about Max’s argument as he is about mine.

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Max Boot pushes back on my post and suggests that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s recent actions consolidating power risk are pushing Iraq into a civil war. I certainly worry about instability in Iraq, but it is wrong to suggest that Maliki’s attempts to govern would be the cause.

First, it’s important to define where we agree: Both of us see the U.S. withdrawal as costly. It undercut U.S. leverage, and privileged Iran. Both of us are deeply suspicious of Iran. I make no secret of my belief that the United States should do nothing that throws a lifeline to Tehran and, indeed, should do everything possible to undermine the Iranian regime. That said, while I understand that Max’s view is conventional wisdom in many U.S. military circles, I am as unconvinced about Max’s argument as he is about mine.

Max sees sectarian motives underlying Maliki’s actions against both Tariq al-Hashimi and Saleh Mutlaq; I see merit behind the charges on Hashimi, against whom INTERPOL recently issued a “red notice” at the Iraqi government’s request. Mutlaq is more sympathetic to Baathism—and Sunni Arab supremicism—and laments that the privileges Sunni Arabs assumed in the years before 2003 are gone, and would not think twice about a coup in Iraq if he could. To force Maliki to embrace Mutlaq would be akin to demanding Obama make room for David Duke.

Max suggests that selectively pursuing charges against Hashimi but not against Shi’ite firebrand Moqtada al Sadr exposes the sectarian nature of the charges. I would note, however, that Sadr hardly remains on Maliki’s side and, indeed, represents one of the Shi’ite factions which Maliki also battles. Indeed, one of the unanswered questions regarding Operation Iraqi Freedom is who in the Bush administration made the decision to shield Sadr from the justice which U.S. forces were prepared to serve.

With regard to Ali Mussa Daqduq, a Shi’ite who was responsible for the murder of five U.S. soldiers in 2007, Max and I agree he should not go free. A few points, however: While the article Max cites says he is not yet released from prison, there is an open question about whether the United States turned over the evidence the Iraqi court required. If, by ignoring the Iraqi court’s request, we made it easy for the court to release him on a technicality, then heads should roll in the White House, at Langley, or in the Pentagon. Regardless, it is inane that we released such a man from our custody in the first place. We should not be surprised that Iraqi courts are more likely to prioritize cases involving Iraqi victims than U.S. soldiers. If there was ever a case, however, for extraordinary rendition—or targeted assassination—Daqduq is it. If the Iraqi government releases Daqduq, it would be unfortunate if he takes more than a dozen steps before he is enveloped by pink mist.

There is a tendency among Hashimi, Mutlaq, and others to warn darkly of a return to civil war if their demands are not met. Legitimizing such blackmail will only lead to more violence. If Hashimi and Mutlaq’s forces wished, they could urge votes of no confidence in the government as Mutlaq himself has threatened. It is far easier to win a vote of no confidence under the Iraqi system than form a government, but Ayad Allawi, Hashimi’s supporters, and Mutlaq know they cannot do either, and so they threaten violence and come crying to the Saudis, Jordanians, and Americans. Suggesting that Maliki is pursuing a sectarian agenda but that Hashimi and Mutlaq’s actions are somehow noble is backward.

Undo sympathy toward Hashimi and Mutlaq replicates the mistakes of 2004, when General Petraeus sought not only to forcibly integrate but also empower unrepentant Baathists and Sunni Islamists in Mosul, only to have them betray U.S. forces and the Iraqi government and cast their lot with the insurgency. Validating men like Hashimi and Mutlaq will do more to undercut reconciliation and set Iraq down the path toward civil war than anything Maliki has done. I have yet to meet a politician from al-Anbar who will not quietly argue that there should be some sort of “do over” and that empowering a Sunni Iraqi general “without blood on his hands” is the best way forward. None has ever been able to name such a general from outside their immediate family or clan, however. Max points out that regional Arab papers publishing articles such as this shape perceptions, but the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, and Qataris are unapologetic about their sectarian perspective and work overtime to delegitimize the Iraqi government on purely sectarian grounds. Nothing Maliki can do will change their perspective, and he is correct to understand that making undo concessions to Saudi Arabia is never wise.

The Shi’ites are the majority in Iraq; it is not sectarian for one Shi’ite or another to run Iraq. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the Iraqi Shi’ites are necessarily pro-Iranian. After all, during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, it wasn’t the privileged sons of Tikrit who manned the trenches against the Iranian army, but rather the Iraqi Shi’ite conscripts. They hated Saddam, but fought for Iraq against the Iranian hordes. When I was last in Najaf about a year and a half ago, I was fortunate to have separate audiences with three of the Grand Ayatollahs resident there. Each made reference to the elder Bush administration’s 1991 “abandonment” of the Iraqi Shi’ite uprising and how the United States appeared to be replicating those mistakes. When we empower Baathists or abandon the Shi’ites, we simply drive them into Iran’s embrace. Indeed, this is the tragedy of President Obama’s abandonment of Iraq: Maliki preserved independence of action by complaining to the Iranians about American red lines and vice versa. By leaving Iraq completely, Obama has undercut Maliki’s ability to resist Iranian pressure.

So where should we go from here? Rather than handicap Maliki’s ability to govern, we should focus U.S. policy on ensuring that his government holds itself accountable to the Iraqi electorate in 2014, as scheduled. Perhaps if Allawi and Mutlaq spent more time campaigning inside Iraq as they do in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, London, and on K Street, Iraqis would view them a bit more sympathetically.

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