Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nouri al-Maliki

How to Help the Anti-ISIS Backlash

Word is trickling out of Mosul that Iraqis are starting to chafe under the heavy-handed rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. New York Times correspondent Tim Arango reports of anger against ISIS for destroying a shrine to the biblical prophet Jonah. Residents actually gathered around Mosul’s ancient leaning minaret to prevent its destruction too.

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Word is trickling out of Mosul that Iraqis are starting to chafe under the heavy-handed rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. New York Times correspondent Tim Arango reports of anger against ISIS for destroying a shrine to the biblical prophet Jonah. Residents actually gathered around Mosul’s ancient leaning minaret to prevent its destruction too.

There is also understandable concern that ISIS isn’t making life better for the people–its specialty, after all, is suicide bombings, not municipal governance. The Times quotes one Mosul resident interviewed by phone: “There are unorganized groups fighting ISIS now. If we had the power and the supplies, we could have kicked ISIS out of Mosul by now.”

This is a positive sign–it shows how unpopular Islamist fundamentalists are whenever they achieve power. But we should keep our euphoria about a potential anti-ISIS revolt firmly in check. The history of ISIS suggests that, however much Iraqis may resent their rule, they will successfully rise up only if they have strong outside support. Resentment of al-Qaeda in Iraq (the ISIS predecessor) did not boil over in Anbar Province until 2006 and even then it required American efforts during “the surge” to forge tribesmen into a 100,000-strong Sons of Iraq militia to fight against AQI. In prior years, nascent revolts in Anbar had been repressed with great brutality by AQI.

The question now is where can outside support come from to support an anti-ISIS revolt in western and northern Iraq? Probably not from the Iraqi government, which is identified with a Shiite sectarian agenda that only drives Sunnis further into ISIS’s arms and whose army has shown a depressing inability or unwillingness to fight hard under the political hacks appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

It is possible a change of leadership in Baghdad can revitalize the Iraqi army, lessen the government’s sectarian taint, and thereby allow effective partnering with the Sunni tribes. But don’t count on it. Even if a new prime minister is selected, there will still be deep-seated suspicion in the Sunni community, and understandably so. The only force the Sunnis would trust–despite our prior abandonment of them–is the United States.

But to become an effective catalyst for a Sunni revolt, the U.S. will have to send a lot more than 825 troops to Iraq–the current number. This week I testified before the House Armed Services Committee, presenting my own plan for rolling back ISIS gains. I suggested, in essence, a multi-pronged approach based on supporting relatively moderate factions in both Iraq and Syria–to wit, the Free Syrian Army, elements of the Iraqi security forces which have not been totally subordinated to the Iranian Quds Force, the Sunni tribes, and the Kurdish peshmerga.

I argued that we need to send at least 10,000 troops to act as advisers, intelligence gatherers, air controllers (to call in air strikes), and Special Operations raiders and that in Iraq these personnel need to be evenly distributed between the Iraqi army, the Sunni tribes, and the peshmerga. U.S. troops would not be on the frontlines of ground combat but they would be enabling proxies to fight far more effectively, as we have previously done in countries as disparate as Kosovo, Libya, and Afghanistan. This should be done in conjunction with a political strategy focused on replacing Maliki with a more inclusive figure.

Alas there is no sign that the Obama administration is seriously rethinking its abandonment of Iraq or its misguided policy of arming the current sectarian regime in Baghdad without real American oversight over how the weapons we provide are employed. Unless the administration is willing to roll up its sleeves and get more involved in Iraq (admittedly a difficult political pill for the anti-interventionist president to swallow), anti-ISIS sentiment among Sunnis is unlikely to lead to a serious revolt and ISIS will continue to strengthen its terrorist caliphate.

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What’s the Real Story of the U.S. and Maliki?

Earlier this week, Max Boot flagged an important column by Ali Khedery, the American who had perhaps the greatest institutional knowledge of what went on inside Iraq, because as an advisor to a succession of American diplomats, he was often at the thick of things. I do not know Khedery well and have only met him a few times in a cursory fashion, but he is smart, personable, and able. In short, Khedery is everything he claims to be in his Washington Post essay, when he writes that he was the reason why the United States initially pushed Nouri al-Maliki to Iraq’s premiership but that he recognized Maliki’s drawbacks and sought a withdrawal of U.S. support in 2010.

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Earlier this week, Max Boot flagged an important column by Ali Khedery, the American who had perhaps the greatest institutional knowledge of what went on inside Iraq, because as an advisor to a succession of American diplomats, he was often at the thick of things. I do not know Khedery well and have only met him a few times in a cursory fashion, but he is smart, personable, and able. In short, Khedery is everything he claims to be in his Washington Post essay, when he writes that he was the reason why the United States initially pushed Nouri al-Maliki to Iraq’s premiership but that he recognized Maliki’s drawbacks and sought a withdrawal of U.S. support in 2010.

Khedery’s column comes just a few months after Dexter Filkins wrote a lengthy profile of Maliki in the New Yorker based on numerous interviews with American officials.

Enter Reidar Visser, an astute Norwegian Iraq analyst, who has compared the two narratives and pointed out some inconsistencies. First, Khedery writes that it was he and Jeffrey Beals who promoted Maliki’s candidacy within the embassy and U.S. government. Filkins, however, credits a CIA officer whom he doesn’t name. As Visser notes wryly, “Unless one of them was indeed CIA there is some discordance between the two narratives.” In this case, the answer might simply be both are right. U.S. policymaking is marked by huge bureaucracies. Independent strains coalescing to a common purpose shape outcomes, but it is the nature of the beast that each independent strain believes that they were the ones who mattered: it’s like the old parable of the blind men describing the elephant, but in this case, two of the blind men were describing its legs, albeit separate ones.

Visser then identifies two problems in which the open sources seem to contradict Khedery’s narrative. The first was with regard to Maliki’s use of the de-Baathification committee against opponents in the lead-up to the 2010 elections. Visser quotes Khedery as writing, “He [Maliki] coerced Iraq’s chief justice to bar some of his rivals from participating in the elections,” and then Visser himself notes, “This description of what happened comes across as disingenuous. For starters, the resuscitation of the de-Baathification issue in early 2010 was clearly driven by Maliki’s Shiite enemies [like Adel Abdel Mehdi] who, with considerable Iranian assistance, had tried in vain to enlist him for their sectarian alliance during the previous summer.” Indeed, Visser notes, Maliki had to fight off de-Baathification committee attempts to disqualify some of his own political allies. It was only after the elections that Maliki sought to use de-Baathification to disqualify some election winners.

Visser also takes Khedery to task for his treatment of the Iraqi supreme court which ruled in May 2010 that blocs could shift and merge after the election, in effect building coalitions to change the election outcome. “Many Americans have tried to portray this ruling as some kind of Maliki coup,” Visser notes, “but closer inspection of the relevant constitutional background materials suggests that the ruling was quite objective in addressing the limited constitutional ambiguity that existed.”

Both Khedery and Visser skim past the arrest warrant which the Maliki government issued for former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Visser does note that Khedery “conveniently flashes forward to the threatened arrest of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi right after the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, and then jumps further to the targeting of Rafi al-Eisawi [sic], the finance minister, in late 2012. Between those events, however, there were junctures where things could have gone very differently in Iraqi politics if the US government had had the acumen to act in a more balanced way.” The problem with this statement is that it seems to imply that the arrest warrants were somehow wrong. Even many Sunni Arab Iraqis acknowledge substance behind the accusations against Hashemi. And, as the Iraqi government points out, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of his victims if there were no victims? The criticism that should be made of the Maliki government is not that it sought to bring Sunni officials complicit in terrorism to justice, but rather that it was selective and did not pursue many Shi‘ite officials (Muqtada al-Sadr, for example) with the same energy or enthusiasm.

There are other issues of context which should be acknowledged and understood when reading Khedery’s narrative. Khedery is forthcoming in acknowledging his post-government role with Exxon, where he helped that oil company begin operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. What is important to note, however, is that the Iraqi government considered this a shot across its bow, corrosive to Iraqi integrity, and deeply illegal. Indeed, Maliki subsequently exerted great pressure on Exxon and lobbied the White House furiously to accept Baghdad’s position in the conflict and, indeed, this is what the Obama administration did. The Kurds have lobbied tirelessly against Maliki, and it bears observation that Khedery’s change of mind coincided with his joining of Exxon and its attempts to do business with the Iraqi Kurds.

Iraq is a complicated story. After leaving the Pentagon, I was approached by many Ph.D. students who wanted to interview me as they wrote about the decisions to go to war. Because of my own bias as a historian–the old Yale adage that was drilled into us that to try to write a history of recent events for which there hasn’t been adequate declassification of documents from all sides isn’t history but rather journalism–I turned them down. I had my own opinions and observations, but absent declassified documentation, no Ph.D. student would be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in his sourcing and would likely simply go with his or her bias. To re-read today some of those journalists—George Packer and Tom Ricks, for example—who sought to write a first draft of the Iraqi war’s history is to recognize how superficial, self-serving, and inaccurate some of their sources were. Khedery, Filkins, and Visser are more the real deal. And each of their writings is worth reading in order to better illustrate key decisions and their reasoning.

That said, one of the problems—and this is especially true in Filkins’s piece—is that American officials tend to re-write their legacies and exaggerate their importance. It is unbecoming, and it reinforces the notion that American officials cannot and should not be trusted. Too often, writers also assume that the United States shapes the playing field, and that Iraqis don’t simply nod their heads, make the American feel important, and then pursue their own politics. It is also unbecoming—and very damaging to American interests—to bash a democratically-elected leader like Maliki simply because he has pursued policies which do not always conform to what the United States would like to see. After all, Maliki’s constituency is Iraq, and not the American embassy. Some American analysts and, indeed, Iraqis can be frustrated with what they perceive as Maliki’s sectarianism, but they might also recognize that Maliki was put in a precarious position when American generals made promises to some Sunni tribal leaders that they had no ability to keep. In effect, these generals traded long-term stability for short-term calm. Of course, the problem isn’t just with these generals: Many Sunni tribal leaders heard only what they wanted to hear from their interlocutors and when what they wished to be the case did not become their reality, they grew bitter and disenfranchised.

Maliki won the largest share of votes in Iraq’s most recent elections, but he also faces unease within his own party, especially in the wake of the joint tribal and Baathist uprising, and ISIS terror campaign that erupted in its wake. It is the vanguard of this uprising that is truly sectarian. To suggest that Maliki is somehow responsible for the sectarian radicalism of the Islamic State is to blame a battered spouse for the aggression of her partner. It is still a testament to Iraq’s system, as convoluted and dysfunctional as it can be, that Maliki may not get the third term he desires for the simple reason that his opponents have coalesced around him.

As to who is responsible for Maliki, let’s stop treating the man as a puppet: Maliki has a far greater role in his rise than outside forces did and even if he got a boost at some strategic points, it is well-past time to stop pretending that Iraqi politicians are puppets that can be controlled by Foggy Bottom or Langley. The more we engage in that self-deception, the more detached from reality we will become, and the worse the outcome will be for U.S. interests in the country.

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Is Administrative Federalism the Solution for Iraq?

While talking to Iraqi Sunnis disaffected with the Iraqi central government, it is easy to get sucked into discussions of the past: Many remain upset with the 2003 U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi Army, some complain about the way de-Baathification occurred, and many also complain about what they see as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s overly sectarian policies. Few put themselves in the position of the Iraqi Shi‘ites or recognize that after centuries of oppression, Shi‘ites aren’t going to subordinate themselves again to Sunni minority rule.

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While talking to Iraqi Sunnis disaffected with the Iraqi central government, it is easy to get sucked into discussions of the past: Many remain upset with the 2003 U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi Army, some complain about the way de-Baathification occurred, and many also complain about what they see as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s overly sectarian policies. Few put themselves in the position of the Iraqi Shi‘ites or recognize that after centuries of oppression, Shi‘ites aren’t going to subordinate themselves again to Sunni minority rule.

The most interesting conversations revolve around the future. There is a recognition even among Sunni Arab Iraqis most disaffected by the events of the last eleven years that there is no going back to the past, and that there is no way to simply re-impose a strong Sunni general “without blood on his hands” to restore order.

That said, Sunnis do not want to be dominated by Shi‘ites, and many Sunnis and Shi‘ites are increasingly frustrated with the sectarianism. While residents of al-Anbar, Ninewa, and Salahuddin have no desire to live under al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, they also do not wish to have those from outside their respective provinces come in to restore order. Anbaris no more want to be occupied by Basrawis than Basrawis would want to be occupied by Anbaris.

Earlier this week while brainstorming about ways forward, an Anbari professional from a prominent tribe made a persuasive case for administrative federalism in Iraq. It is an idea that I first heard while teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan in academic year 2000-2001, and one which I wrote about shortly thereafter in the New York Times and in a collection of essays (see p. 44) about Iraq published shortly before the war.

The idea is simple: Rather than divide Iraq according to ethnic or sectarian characteristics as per then-Senator Joe Biden’s plan—a recipe for chaos and ethnic cleansing in mixed areas—the center of gravity of governance should devolve to each province which would be awarded a proportion of Iraq’s oil revenue according to its share of the population. At present, some money is awarded to each province according to its population, but the center of gravity remains in Baghdad and with the centralized ministries. Iraqis resent Baghdad and national political parties, however, and should not have to rely on them for every decision, especially when they are not accountable to any specific constituency. While defense, foreign policy, and oil infrastructure might be the domain of the central government, putting provincial (or even district) leaders in charge of other aspects of governance will bring government closer to the people. Moslawis will determine what happens in Mosul and they will police Mosul. The buck will stop with local politicians who will no longer be able to blame their own incompetence on Baghdad or excuse corruption by suggesting the money disappeared in Baghdad.

When the idea was debated in the months before the war, Kurdish leader Masud Barzani opposed it fiercely because he saw federalism based on provinces as undercutting his authority over the Kurdistan Region which was comprised at the time by three provinces. So be it: The Kurds can have their trans-provincial federal unit should they choose to remain inside Iraq.

And when it came to putting together Iraq’s fiscal year 2004 budget, Patrick Kennedy—Bremer’s chief of staff and administrative guru—vetoed proposals to allow governorates to develop their budgets separate from the central government because it would be administratively inconvenient, and could complicate planning for the Coalition Provisional Authority’s plans for a donor conference. In effect, for a meaningless diplomatic event, that decision undercut local representation and reinforced centralization which many Iraqis outside of the ruling party now resent. Perhaps it’s time to reverse that mistake of a decade ago, and encourage Iraqis to allow greater administrative autonomy on a provincial basis rather than on an ethnic or sectarian one.

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Maliki and America’s Bad Bet

The news from Iraq continues to be grim. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has proclaimed a new caliphate, called simply the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now a self-proclaimed emir, has gotten so confident that he appeared at a mosque in Mosul to spread his message. His men are parading around in captured Iraqi army equipment such as Humvees and tanks amid reports that they have seized enough guns and ammunition to arm several divisions. Meanwhile political gridlock continues to prevail in Baghdad, where Nouri al-Maliki has made clear his determination to hold onto the prime minister’s office at all costs despite his catastrophic tenure in office.

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The news from Iraq continues to be grim. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has proclaimed a new caliphate, called simply the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now a self-proclaimed emir, has gotten so confident that he appeared at a mosque in Mosul to spread his message. His men are parading around in captured Iraqi army equipment such as Humvees and tanks amid reports that they have seized enough guns and ammunition to arm several divisions. Meanwhile political gridlock continues to prevail in Baghdad, where Nouri al-Maliki has made clear his determination to hold onto the prime minister’s office at all costs despite his catastrophic tenure in office.

How did we get here? There is no better answer than this lengthy essay in the Washington Post by Ali Khedery. He is not a household name by any stretch of the imagination, but he was an immensely influential behind-the-scenes player in Iraq from 2003 to 2009. A young and personable Iraqi-American who spoke fluent Arabic, Khedery served as aide to a succession of U.S. ambassadors and Central Command chiefs. He worked closely with all of Iraq’s political leaders as well as with America’s representatives in that country.

Indeed he was one of the first Americans to suggest in 2006 that Maliki would make a good leader for Iraq, but by 2010, witnessing Maliki’s dictatorial and sectarian tendencies, Khedery changed his mind. Following the Iraqi election of that year, in which Maliki’s slate finished in second place behind Ayad Allawi’s party, Khedery urged his American superiors to withdraw their support from Maliki in favor of Adel Abdul Mahdi, another Shiite leader who had served as finance minister. But his entreaties fell on deaf ears. As Khedery recounts, Vice President Biden, during a visit to Baghdad, “said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, ‘I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,’ referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.”

As Khedery recounts it, he was joined in his opposition to Maliki by Generals Jim Mattis and John Allen at Central Command and by Ambassador to Baghdad James Jeffrey. Even senior Shiite clerics in Iraq weighed in against Maliki. “But all the lobbying was for naught,” Khedery notes. “By November, the White House had settled on its disastrous Iraq strategy. The Iraqi constitutional process and election results would be ignored, and America would throw its full support behind Maliki.”

As Khedery notes, “catastrophe followed”: Maliki pursued a sectarian agenda leading to a Sunni backlash which has enabled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to take control of much of the Sunni Triangle from Fallujah to Mosul. Perhaps the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq might have restrained Maliki’s sectarian tendencies but of course, as we know, the Status of Forces Agreement was not renewed in spite of Biden’s unwarranted certainty that Maliki would endorse it.

Khedery doesn’t have much to say about those negotiations because he had already left government at that point, but he is right to highlight the Obama administration’s disastrous decision to back Maliki in 2010 as one of the American moves that set Iraq on the path to disaster (the others being the decision to let the Syrian civil war rage unabated and the decision not to push harder to keep U.S. forces in Iraq).

The implication of Khedery’s article is clear: We must today rectify the mistake of 2010 and push as hard as we can for Iraq’s parliament to select someone other than Maliki as prime minister. Too bad we have so much less leverage than we did in 2010 because today we have fewer than 1,000 troops in Iraq, as opposed to some 50,000 back then.

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Don’t Overestimate the Islamic State

I’m currently in Jordan where I’ve been able to meet some Iraqi tribal representatives, Sunni Iraqi businessmen, and representatives of the “Iraqi resistance,” including those who held senior positions under Saddam Hussein. What they have conveyed to me—which is consistent with what I have heard from many Kurdish interlocutors familiar with the situation in Mosul—is that the West should not see the fighting in largely Sunni populated areas of Iraq as simply a battle between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Iraqi government. Rather, they suggest, while ISIS—now just the Islamic State—has been the vanguard advancing against the Iraqi military, most of the ground is being held either by Sunni tribes or by veterans of the Saddam-era army, albeit professionals who are nationalists but not necessarily Baathists.

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I’m currently in Jordan where I’ve been able to meet some Iraqi tribal representatives, Sunni Iraqi businessmen, and representatives of the “Iraqi resistance,” including those who held senior positions under Saddam Hussein. What they have conveyed to me—which is consistent with what I have heard from many Kurdish interlocutors familiar with the situation in Mosul—is that the West should not see the fighting in largely Sunni populated areas of Iraq as simply a battle between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Iraqi government. Rather, they suggest, while ISIS—now just the Islamic State—has been the vanguard advancing against the Iraqi military, most of the ground is being held either by Sunni tribes or by veterans of the Saddam-era army, albeit professionals who are nationalists but not necessarily Baathists.

Indeed, word from Mosul and elsewhere is that once ISIS passes through, the situation calms rapidly. There are still flights to Mosul listed on the departure board at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. And while there have been atrocities—against some Iraqi army members and, alas, Christians—many of the most gruesome claims, they suggest, are false: just re-posting of photos of Syrian atrocities relabeled to suggest that they had occurred more recently in Iraq. Women are staying home because they don’t necessarily understand what the new rules are or how they will be enforced but, beyond that, life is getting back to normal. The real problem right now, residents say, is that the Iraqi government has cut off salaries, water, and electricity to the city and so supplies are beginning to run out.

The former officers and tribal representatives suggest that Abu Baghdadi’s sermon on Friday in Mosul notwithstanding, they are unwilling to settle for ISIS domination but are willing to cooperate loosely with them for the time being with the full understanding that they will soon be fighting them directly. They also seem to suggest that they recognize that there will have to be negotiations with the Iraqi central government—they have no delusions of taking and holding Baghdad—but that they are unwilling to sit with Prime Minister Maliki, and instead say they will talk to his successor.

Fears of the Islamic State and the caliphate make headlines, but the reach and power of the Islamic State should not be exaggerated. The problem of this radical al-Qaeda off-shoot is real, but the current dynamics in Al-Anbar, Ninewa (Mosul), and Salahuddin (Tikrit) governorates are both more complicated but also perhaps more reconcilable.

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On Demonizing Chalabi

Mainstream journalists have now picked up on increasingly noticeable chatter inside Iraq suggesting that Ahmed Chalabi could become a compromise candidate for Iraq’s premiership should incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki step down or fail to achieve a coalition to support a third term.

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Mainstream journalists have now picked up on increasingly noticeable chatter inside Iraq suggesting that Ahmed Chalabi could become a compromise candidate for Iraq’s premiership should incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki step down or fail to achieve a coalition to support a third term.

I had written here several years ago about Chalabi’s strengths (although predicting he would win five percent in those parliamentary elections was in hindsight much too optimistic). That said, he is one of the few Iraqi politicians—ailing incumbent president Jalal Talabani was another—who managed to talk to all sides through thick and thin and to whom Iraqis of all beliefs and ethnicities turned for mediation. Even his opponents also acknowledge he is also smart and organized.

He has drawbacks as well. Even his friends acknowledge that he is arrogant. Like many other Iraqi politicians, and frequent American partners as well, he surrounded himself with people who abused positions, power, or engaged in corruption. As one Iraqi put it, “it’s hard to dress in a white suit and clean a cesspool without getting splatted with sh-t.” I haven’t seen evidence of direct Chalabi complicity in corruption, though he can be faulted for turning a blind eye toward those in his organization. The Jordan Petra Bank issue is more political than real. King Hussein of Jordan was between a rock and a hard place and made many compromises to Saddam Hussein, including targeting Iraqi oppositionists in Jordan.

Chalabi has not been consistent when it has come to secularism versus religion in politics, or allegiance to the West versus toward Iran. That said, no politician should be expected to fall on his sword when abandoned by one side or the other, but they adjust to the new reality. Chalabi less abandoned the United States than the United States abandoned Chalabi. Does Chalabi have relations with Iran—and, indeed, people whom the U.S. government considers very bad in Iran? Yes. But, here American officials and journalists should not be selective: Those embraced by Washington—Jalal Talabani, Barham Salih, Qubad Talabani, Nechirvan Barzani, among others—have relations with the same Iranian officials. Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, for that matter, sat down across the table from a Qods Force operative (and former Iranian ambassador to Iraq) to discuss security in Iraq.

Aspersions with regard to false intelligence are exaggerated, because many journalists confused Chalabi and his inner circle with the broader opposition coalition under the Iraqi National Congress (INC) umbrella. Much of the controversial intelligence came through the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Here, for example, is then-New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg talking about al-Qaeda-affiliated prisoners to whom he was introduced by the PUK testifying to the Iraq-al-Qaeda links. And here is the New York Times correcting almost a decade ago the calumny that Chalabi was responsible for the false “Curveball” intelligence. And here is Jonathan Landay, an unabashedly partisan journalist now at McClatchy, burying a correction for his past mistakes in a Knight-Ridder story. Landay and his colleague do note “the INC did provide U.S. intelligence services with defectors whose claims about Iraq’s banned arms programs and links to terrorism were exaggerated or fabricated.” That’s true. But the INC was well known by Iraqis and exiles alike as an umbrella. When Iraqis claimed to have information—and, admittedly, they often exaggerated what they knew to inflate their own importance and their attractiveness to the West—then by law the only organizations that can debrief and process them are the CIA and DIA. The INC without apology referred them to the CIA and DIA in order to determine if these individuals were sincere or showed deception. In few cases is the answer 100 percent of either, but rather that defectors fall on a spectrum. To complain that any group should not direct defectors to the proper persons to screen them is a bit ridiculous.

Could Chalabi do the job? Only Iraqis know and could tell, and ultimately it is their choice. I still doubt that Chalabi will make the cut because I believe the Iranians find him too secular and too unwilling to accept Iranian dictates.

That said, it was always counterproductive for the United States to demonize mainstream politicians it does not like who operate in allied countries. It did something very similar with newly elected Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, to whom the United States refused visas and sought to marginalize for very different reasons and, for that matter, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who became the subject of harsh critiques and outright slanders in self-serving books penned by former Clinton administration officials who, 15 years later, discovered awkwardly that they would have to interact with the target of their open animosity once they were brought into the Obama administration. Have Chalabi, Modi, and Netanyahu made mistakes? Yes. Is there much to their personalities and policies to resent or oppose? Certainly. Too often, however, American journalists and officials exaggerate faults and flaws which then become false conventional wisdom. Few officials serve in the same position long enough to have depth of knowledge in any particular subject, and few have time or the desire to challenge the conventional wisdom which they inherit.

Chalabi may become prime minister, or he may not. Should he rise to the premiership, it will not be because anyone in the United States helped him get there, which perhaps is testament to his political skill. But whatever happens, perhaps it’s time for the United States to sit back and look forward, rather than leap forward and think only of the past.

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Should Maliki Be Granted Immunity?

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.

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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.

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Is Biden Vindicated on Iraq? Not Even Close

Here is a terrifying, but oddly explanatory, opening sentence from the Sunday edition of the New York Times on Iraq: “From the first summer of the Obama administration, Iraq has been considered Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s account.” While giving such an important strategic portfolio to the man who famously is on the wrong side of nearly every foreign-policy issue may not have been the best idea, the article at first sounds like it’ll at least be a demotion of some kind. After all, a self-declared caliphate is currently burning Iraq to the ground.

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Here is a terrifying, but oddly explanatory, opening sentence from the Sunday edition of the New York Times on Iraq: “From the first summer of the Obama administration, Iraq has been considered Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s account.” While giving such an important strategic portfolio to the man who famously is on the wrong side of nearly every foreign-policy issue may not have been the best idea, the article at first sounds like it’ll at least be a demotion of some kind. After all, a self-declared caliphate is currently burning Iraq to the ground.

But no. Believe it or not, that sentence serves as the introduction to the Times’s attempt to claim that the current mess in Iraq is Biden’s vindication–or at least the vindication of his proposal in 2006 to divide Iraq into three pieces. The country currently looks headed that way, goes the logic, and so perhaps Biden was right after all.

Wrong. Let’s first dispense with the faulty logic employed by the Times. Just because Biden suggested something that is now happening does not mean the United States should have facilitated that outcome. There are various reasons for this, one of which Christian Caryl reported a few days ago:

For the past 2,000 years, Iraq has been home to a distinct and vibrant culture of Eastern Christianity. Now that storied history appears to be coming to an end. Even if the ISIS forces are ultimately driven back, it’s hard to imagine that the Mosul Christians who have fled will see a future for themselves in an Iraq dominated by the current Shiite dictatorship of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which enjoys strong support from Iran.

It’s worth adding, perhaps, that Christians aren’t the only ones in this predicament. Iraq is also home to a number of other religious minorities endangered by the country’s polarization into two warring camps of Islam. The Yazidis follow a belief system that has a lot in common with the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism; about a half a million of them live in northern Iraq. The Mandaeans, numbering only 30,000 or so, are perhaps the world’s last remaining adherents of Gnosticism, one of the offshoots of early Christianity. By tradition many Mandaeans are goldsmiths — a trade that has made them prominent targets for abduction in the post-invasion anarchy of Iraq. Losing these unique cultures makes the world a poorer place.

Feeding Iraq’s sectarianism meant obliterating in some cases its ethnic minority communities. That’s what is happening now, and I don’t think Biden or his staff wishes they could take credit for it.

Now, there’s an important distinction Biden makes: he insists he didn’t want three separate countries–a true partition–but instead three semi-autonomous territories with a central government. Yet a look at Iraq today tells you all you need to know about how well the center could hold under such a federal system. What that division would do is accelerate the disintegration.

Once you devolve power from the center and encourage sectarian division, that division will only concretize leaving the federal center without enough enforcement power. A federal system can thrive in certain conditions–Biden himself is currently vice president of a federal republic–but one important condition is a commitment to a certain level of nationalism. Iraq’s borders never possessed the legitimacy such a state would need. The legitimacy, instead, was held by sectarian loyalties.

There’s also more than a bit of irony in the supposed “vindication” of Biden’s old idea. The tone of the story is that if only we had listened to Biden, things might have been different. But the story opens up by stating, explicitly, that we have been listening to Biden all along. Iraq has been his portfolio. The truth is that neither of Biden’s ideas about how to solve the Iraq puzzle were good ones, and the current situation there is demonstrating the failure of both–the failure of one leading to the failure of the other.

More than anything else, Iraq’s dissolution is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Obama/Biden team was elected on a platform of ending America’s involvement in the Iraq war as soon as the president could make the retreat happen. When that took place, which was before it was strategically sensible, the fragile calm achieved but still being secured when Obama came into office was lost. The administration’s overall policy has been disastrous, and that did not happen because no one took Joe Biden’s advice.

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The Talking Secretary of State

Secretary of State John Kerry works hard, that’s for sure. He seems to spend more hours in the air—shuttling backwards and forwards between D.C. and the troubled parts of the world—than he does on the ground. One round of talks is rapidly followed by another. Keeping up to date with the issues of the day and the demands of the myriad diplomats that Secretary Kerry has to deal with is no doubt an impressive feat. There is just one small catch. At best, the most that Kerry ever has to show for his pains is an extension in the talks. Meanwhile the situation on the ground grows invariably worse.

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Secretary of State John Kerry works hard, that’s for sure. He seems to spend more hours in the air—shuttling backwards and forwards between D.C. and the troubled parts of the world—than he does on the ground. One round of talks is rapidly followed by another. Keeping up to date with the issues of the day and the demands of the myriad diplomats that Secretary Kerry has to deal with is no doubt an impressive feat. There is just one small catch. At best, the most that Kerry ever has to show for his pains is an extension in the talks. Meanwhile the situation on the ground grows invariably worse.

Most recently Kerry has been doing the rounds in Iraq and Egypt—two countries beset by turmoil and the strife stirred up by Islamic fanaticism. In neither case does the Obama administration have the faintest idea as to what to do and in both cases mixed signals and a complete weakness of resolve from Washington has only exacerbated existing problems. Particularly abysmal were Kerry’s ventures in Iraq. There he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday to discuss the possibility of the formation of a national unity government that would bring more Sunnis into his cabinet, although—given that Maliki’s pro-Shia factionalism has in no small part contributed to driving Iraq to its present position, teetering on the edge of a cataclysm—perhaps a resignation would be more in order.

Kerry should have had some leverage here. Mr. Maliki no longer controls most of his own country. The Kurds have significantly increased the chunk of Iraq that they control while ISIS have captured huge swaths of the northwest and are steadily moving toward Baghdad where at one point it looked as if Maliki would soon find himself under siege. Only a few days ago the Iraqi government was pleading for American assistance, but given that the Obama administration is unlikely to offer any more than its beloved drones, and that Iran is now stepping up its offers of support, Maliki suddenly finds that he is not so beholden to Kerry’s demands after all. Unsurprisingly then, Kerry and his requests were promptly dismissed.

On Sunday Kerry had been in Egypt, and in return for the significant financial and military aid that the U.S. is providing Egypt’s military government with, Kerry was to ask the generals if they wouldn’t mind laying off on the human-rights abuses a bit. The Egyptians took about as much notice of Kerry as the Iraqis. By Monday Kerry had his answer when Egyptian courts sentenced three foreign journalists to prison, with the government refusing to bow to outside pressure to intervene.

And this pattern of simply ignoring American begging has been repeated throughout the region, and indeed the world at large. Kerry’s strategy of talking has failed to yield results with the Assad regime in Syria, with the Israelis and Palestinians in the course of those ill-fated negotiations (that against all advice Kerry insisted upon wasting so much time, energy, and air miles on), with Putin over the Crimea, and now with Iran and the negotiations over its illegal nuclear enrichment program. There has been much talk of these latest negotiations being extended, although by all accounts a draft of an agreement with the Iranians is now being pieced together. But many are convinced that the deal will be a bad one and Iran’s neighbors are getting nervous. So they should be: Russia is currently in talks with the Iranians about assisting with the construction of a vast network of nuclear reactors.

Obama and his government washed-up at the White House with all kinds of grandiose ideas about the efficacy of soft power. Influence, it has been said, is simply so much more interesting than power. Well, the Middle East is certainly looking more interesting than it has in a long time, just not in a good way. The truth is that time and again America—the world’s only hyperpower when Obama took office—now has almost no influence at all, even over parties as weak as the Palestinian Authority. But then that’s the thing about soft power, in the end it is just soft. Kerry talks and talks, and initiates one round of fruitless negotiations after another. Yet those he is talking to are quite right in their assessment that they need only nod and smile politely and then not listen to a word the secretary of state has to say. When America is too timid to back up its words with any concrete actions, who needs to worry about what the United States thinks about anything anymore?

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Iraq and the Immunity Dodge

President Obama has repeatedly claimed it wasn’t his fault that U.S. troops had to leave Iraq at the end of 2011; it was the fault of Iraqi leaders for not being able or willing to pass a law through parliament granting American personnel immunity from prosecution under Iraqi laws. Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who worked on Iraq issues for Obama, recently claimed, “Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, told U.S. negotiators that he was willing to sign an executive memorandum of understanding that included these legal protections. But for any agreement to be binding under the Iraqi constitution, it had to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.”

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President Obama has repeatedly claimed it wasn’t his fault that U.S. troops had to leave Iraq at the end of 2011; it was the fault of Iraqi leaders for not being able or willing to pass a law through parliament granting American personnel immunity from prosecution under Iraqi laws. Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who worked on Iraq issues for Obama, recently claimed, “Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, told U.S. negotiators that he was willing to sign an executive memorandum of understanding that included these legal protections. But for any agreement to be binding under the Iraqi constitution, it had to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.”

Not really. It turns out that such a parliamentary act isn’t actually required for US troops to deploy to Iraq. In fact in most places where U.S. troops operate they do so under agreements signed with the local government but not necessarily enacted by the local parliament. And that now includes Iraq too where Obama has decided to deploy 300 Special Operations troops to help stem the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

What about the supposed need for those troops to have immunity from prosecution? Apparently the White House has gotten the assurances it needs from an exchange of diplomatic notes with Iraq’s Foreign Ministry.

Why, one wonders, was it so necessary to get parliamentary immunity in 2011 but not now? The answer is pretty obvious: Obama really wants to send some troops to Iraq now but he really didn’t want to keep any troops in Iraq back then. Thus in 2011 Obama acceded to the concerns of administration lawyers who claimed parliamentary immunity was a must. He could just as easily have overridden those concerns as he has just done. As is so often the case, interpretations of the law, especially international law, can be twisted to justify whatever actions the executive wants to take.

Legal immunity, in the end, isn’t all that important anyway when it comes to Iraq. It never was. It’s more of an issue in countries like Germany or the Philippines where GIs are free to go off base and risk getting into legal trouble for assault, rape, and other offenses. In Iraq troops have always been confined to base except for military missions. And what protection from harm they have enjoyed has come not from legal documents but from the promise of swift and decisive military action against anyone who would seek to harm them.

By acting now to send U.S. troops back to Iraq, at least in limited numbers, without a formal Status of Forces Agreement in place, Obama is showing how that issue was all along a smokescreen. The real issue has always been Obama’s aversion to any involvement in Iraq. With ISIS solidifying its control over northern and western Iraq by the day, it is imperative that Obama overcome his hesitations before an Islamist caliphate–a terrorist state stretching across Syria and Iraq–becomes so entrenched that it is impossible to dislodge.

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A Step Forward for Iraq

President Obama’s announcement that he is sending some 300 Special Operations personnel to Iraq is a small but important step in the right direction. The president is at least willing to acknowledge that the U.S. has a real stake in the future of Iraq and that we have to use military power to protect our interests. That’s a step forward from his previous stance, which seemed to be that the only interest we have is in “ending the war” (i.e., ending our involvement in the war). But this latest proposal is a long way from the kind of plan that would actually be necessary to roll back recent advances both by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by the Iranian Quds Force which has been amping up its presence in Iraq in response to ISIS’s gains.

There was, for a start, no mention of air strikes and no mention of raids by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which has become so effective at targeting terrorist networks in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Both will be necessary to do serious damage to Sunni and Shiite extremists–America’s enemies–who are operating en masse in both Syria and Iraq.

Sending in 300 military personnel to work with the Iraqi Security Forces will enhance American awareness of Iraqi military operations and could potentially help honest officers to resist sectarian orders from Nouri al-Maliki’s henchmen. But there is a danger in embedding U.S. forces only with the Iraqi military when it has become so heavily politicized by Shiite operatives. It is vital that the U.S. not be seen as taking a side in this sectarian conflict and that we not become an enabler of Maliki’s sectarian agenda.

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President Obama’s announcement that he is sending some 300 Special Operations personnel to Iraq is a small but important step in the right direction. The president is at least willing to acknowledge that the U.S. has a real stake in the future of Iraq and that we have to use military power to protect our interests. That’s a step forward from his previous stance, which seemed to be that the only interest we have is in “ending the war” (i.e., ending our involvement in the war). But this latest proposal is a long way from the kind of plan that would actually be necessary to roll back recent advances both by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by the Iranian Quds Force which has been amping up its presence in Iraq in response to ISIS’s gains.

There was, for a start, no mention of air strikes and no mention of raids by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which has become so effective at targeting terrorist networks in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Both will be necessary to do serious damage to Sunni and Shiite extremists–America’s enemies–who are operating en masse in both Syria and Iraq.

Sending in 300 military personnel to work with the Iraqi Security Forces will enhance American awareness of Iraqi military operations and could potentially help honest officers to resist sectarian orders from Nouri al-Maliki’s henchmen. But there is a danger in embedding U.S. forces only with the Iraqi military when it has become so heavily politicized by Shiite operatives. It is vital that the U.S. not be seen as taking a side in this sectarian conflict and that we not become an enabler of Maliki’s sectarian agenda.

For this reason it is imperative that U.S. personnel work closely not only with the Iraqi military but also with the Kurdish peshmerga and whatever anti-ISIS forces can be cobbled together among the Sunnis–call it the Son of the Sons of Iraq (as the Anbar Awakening militia was known). Moreover, it is imperative that the U.S. not forget about the “S”–Syria”–in ISIS. We need to hit ISIS on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, which will require doing much more to train and equip the Free Syrian Army and possibly support their operations with air power.

But doing all this–partnering with Sunnis and Kurds and the Free Syrian Army as well as the Iraqi Security Forces; launching air strikes and Special Operations raids–will require a commitment much larger than 300 troops. I don’t have an order of battle worked out, but I’m guessing we are talking about a minimum of a few thousand troops–in other words at least the number that Obama was prepared to leave behind after 2011 if a Status of Forces Agreement had been worked out. Doing that, of course, would require the president to admit he was wrong to pull the U.S. troops out in the first place, but absent such an implicit admission it is hard to see how Iraq can be stabilized.

I don’t mean to slight the political element, which will ultimately be the most important. I have repeatedly argued and still believe that one of our primary objectives has to be Maliki’s removal and replacement with a more inclusive leader. I am happy to see the administration signaling that it agrees. But on the issue of tactics and timing I am becoming convinced that it is counterproductive to premise greater U.S. military action on political progress in Baghdad. We need to pursue both lines of operation, political and military, simultaneously. In fact the greater commitment we make militarily to Iraq’s future, the more say we will have in the formation of the next government.

This, by the way, is a task that Obama needs to stop delegating to Joe Biden and others. He needs to make the same realization that George W. Bush made, which is that the future of U.S. interests in the region–and of his presidency–are dependent on a successful outcome in Iraq and therefore it behooves the commander in chief to get more personally involved in all matters pertaining to Iraq. The president, whoever he is, brings more gravitas to the negotiating table than a vice president or an ambassador. Alas there is still no sense that Obama is giving Iraq–and Syria–the kind of focus and attention and resources that these countries deserve in their hour of crisis.

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What Kind of Iraq Did Obama Inherit?

A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

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A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

Defenders of Mr. Obama are now insisting that the president is fault-free when it comes to the SOFA failure. But this is an effort at revisionism. On the matter of the SOFA, this story by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins makes it clear that (a) the Maliki government (which is certainly problematic) wanted to maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq; (b) it would have made a significant difference in keeping Iraq pacified; and (c) the Obama administration was not serious about re-negotiating a SOFA agreement. In the words of Mr. Filkins:

President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq. For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis—like how many troops they wanted to leave behind—because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” [James Jeffrey, the Amerian Ambassador to Iraq at the time] told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

And then there’s this:

Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. “There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,” he said. “Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.” But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. [emphasis added]

To sum up, then: post-surge, Iraq was making significant progress on virtually every front. The Obama administration said as much. The president was not engaged or eager to sign a new SOFA. A full withdrawal was the right decision. His own top advisers admitted as much. The president had long argued he wanted all American troops out of Iraq during his presidency, and he got his wish. He met his goal.

The problem is that in getting what he wanted, Mr. Obama may well have opened the gates of hell in the Middle East.

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Hold Turkey and Saudi Arabia Accountable

The Obama administration is looking for some low-cost magic bullet to resolve the mess in Iraq, never mind that its search for a similar remedy in Syria hasn’t materialized. As Max Boot ably demonstrates, reaching out to Iran shouldn’t be the solution: Iran might go in—and, indeed, already has—but it won’t leave. Just look at Lebanon, where Hezbollah continues to wreak havoc 14 years after Israel’s withdrawal.

That said, while Iran has sponsored terrorism that has killed countless Iraqis and scores of Americans in Iraq, and continues to arm and fund hardcore sectarian militias which undercut reconciliation in Iraq, it is as important to recognize that Saudi Arabia and its promotion of radical Islam has historically been as poisonous as the Islamic Republic of Iran (if not more so). Saudi authorities have cracked down slightly after suffering their own blowback a decade ago, but many Saudi charities continue to fund extremism and hate.

Turkey, meanwhile, has become a state sponsor of terrorism in all but official U.S. designation. It has embraced Hamas, helped finance Iran through the sanctions regime, and become an underground railroad through which most foreign jihadis and al-Qaeda wannabes pass on their way into Syria. When pressed, all Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç could say was that Turkey had not supplied the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) with arms; evidence that it provided other logistical support and a safe-haven is overwhelming. Even though ISIS holds 49 Turks hostage in Mosul, the Turkish government refuses to condemn ISIS as a terrorist group. Demanding Turkey stop playing a double game on ISIS is doable, unlike putting boots on the ground in Iraq.

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The Obama administration is looking for some low-cost magic bullet to resolve the mess in Iraq, never mind that its search for a similar remedy in Syria hasn’t materialized. As Max Boot ably demonstrates, reaching out to Iran shouldn’t be the solution: Iran might go in—and, indeed, already has—but it won’t leave. Just look at Lebanon, where Hezbollah continues to wreak havoc 14 years after Israel’s withdrawal.

That said, while Iran has sponsored terrorism that has killed countless Iraqis and scores of Americans in Iraq, and continues to arm and fund hardcore sectarian militias which undercut reconciliation in Iraq, it is as important to recognize that Saudi Arabia and its promotion of radical Islam has historically been as poisonous as the Islamic Republic of Iran (if not more so). Saudi authorities have cracked down slightly after suffering their own blowback a decade ago, but many Saudi charities continue to fund extremism and hate.

Turkey, meanwhile, has become a state sponsor of terrorism in all but official U.S. designation. It has embraced Hamas, helped finance Iran through the sanctions regime, and become an underground railroad through which most foreign jihadis and al-Qaeda wannabes pass on their way into Syria. When pressed, all Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç could say was that Turkey had not supplied the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) with arms; evidence that it provided other logistical support and a safe-haven is overwhelming. Even though ISIS holds 49 Turks hostage in Mosul, the Turkish government refuses to condemn ISIS as a terrorist group. Demanding Turkey stop playing a double game on ISIS is doable, unlike putting boots on the ground in Iraq.

Since the current ISIS/Baathist uprising in Iraq started, Turkey’s behavior has been absolutely reprehensible. There have been photographs circulated in Turkey of an ISIS commander recovering at a Turkish hospital in Hatay. While Turkey claims medical treatment for ISIS terrorists wounded in Syria (or Iraq) is a humanitarian act, the same Turkish government prosecutes doctors who treat protestors wounded in demonstrations against the Turkish government’s authoritarianism in Istanbul.

On Friday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu complained that the media was portraying ISIS unfairly. Turkey may finally have declared the Nusra Front a terrorist group—only after the group stopped obeying Turkish direction—but it has apparently yet to impose the same designation on ISIS, a group too radical even for al-Qaeda. Iraqi press reports suggest that Iraqi forces have arrested four Turkish officers helping train ISIS in Iraq; while the Turks have denied that accusation, it seems there’s some fire causing that smoke. If any Turkish officer took part in training a terrorist group that has reportedly summarily executed more than 2,000 soldiers, then it is hard to conclude that Turkey does not have blood on its hands.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is no angel, but to blame Iraq’s Shi’ites or a democratically elected government that includes Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites and Christians, men and women is unfair. The current strife in Iraq is not because of Shi’ite intolerance but rather because of intolerance of the Shi’ites. Those who say the uprising could have been averted if only Maliki had given more perks, positions, and goodies to Sunni Arabs misunderstand the fact that what Iraqis are fighting against is a noxious and hateful ideology, not simply grievance.

Never again will Iraq be dominated by a small Sunni minority. Nor should it. Shi’ites cannot be expected to sit idly by when Saudi- and Turkish-supported radical groups brag about their plans for genocide against the Shi’ites. It’s important to check Iranian ambitions and to reinforce that Iran does not represent all Shi’ites. If the United States truly wants to encourage peace in Iraq, however, it is time to acknowledge that Shi’ites too have legitimate grievances and face a deadly challenge, one embarrassingly that has a return address in Riyadh and Ankara.

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Broad-based Coalition in Iraq? No Thanks

Whenever there’s a crisis in one country or another, American diplomats and the conflict-resolution crowd counsel handing power to a broad-based coalition. Anarchy in Somalia? Broad-based coalition. Chaos in Kenya? Broad-based coalition. Terrorists seize Iraq’s second-largest city? Broad-based coalition. I’m dating myself, but it’s almost like “Mad-Libs Diplomacy,” with only the name of the country left blank.

And while it’s comforting to think that simply getting everyone under the same umbrella of government will solve the problem, it’s the sort of conventional wisdom that is often repeated but never demonstrated. Would the White House work better if Valerie Jarett and Karl Rove shared an office, and if Chuck Hagel shared an office with Donald Rumsfeld? Or, if it’s not fair to assume duplication of every office, what about a situation in which Dick Cheney answered to Al Sharpton or vice versa? As dysfunctional as the U.S. government seems now, I’m pretty confident that governing by a broad-based coalition here would make things demonstrably worse.

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Whenever there’s a crisis in one country or another, American diplomats and the conflict-resolution crowd counsel handing power to a broad-based coalition. Anarchy in Somalia? Broad-based coalition. Chaos in Kenya? Broad-based coalition. Terrorists seize Iraq’s second-largest city? Broad-based coalition. I’m dating myself, but it’s almost like “Mad-Libs Diplomacy,” with only the name of the country left blank.

And while it’s comforting to think that simply getting everyone under the same umbrella of government will solve the problem, it’s the sort of conventional wisdom that is often repeated but never demonstrated. Would the White House work better if Valerie Jarett and Karl Rove shared an office, and if Chuck Hagel shared an office with Donald Rumsfeld? Or, if it’s not fair to assume duplication of every office, what about a situation in which Dick Cheney answered to Al Sharpton or vice versa? As dysfunctional as the U.S. government seems now, I’m pretty confident that governing by a broad-based coalition here would make things demonstrably worse.

Indeed, the problem in Iraq over the past decade has in many ways been that the governing coalition is too broad. Whereas any U.S. president gets to pick his Cabinet, subject to Senate confirmation, Iraq’s prime minister has very little control over any of his ministers who are effectively appointed by and answer to different political parties. An incompetent and corrupt minister? To fire him or her would bring down the government because it would undercut party representation and patronage. A minister who is abusive to those of a different sect? Ditto.

Perhaps the United States does not want to stand by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki anymore. That’s understandable given the current crisis. But it is up to the Iraqis—and Maliki’s own party—to decide whether to replace him or not. For the United States to try to impose its candidate or a triumvirate of candidates would only de-legitimize them.

Rather, if the United States wants to improve governance in Iraq, it should focus on two issues. First, the problem in Iraq and newly-emerging democracies is not so much that all parties aren’t represented in government, but rather that there is no real concept of how to be an active and responsible opposition. If the Sunnis feel underrepresented, then it is essential to help them build capacity and coordinate with Shi’ites and Kurds who are not part of the government. They dislike Maliki’s policies? Rather than fight, they should put forward their own ideas.

The second issue—and this is important to the future stability of Iraq—is that retirement should be safe. If ongoing political coalition talks determine that Maliki will not serve a third term, then it is in the interest of Iraq—both now and in the future—to allow him to retire in Iraq in peace. There will be a temptation for retaliation—investigating corruption, real or imagined—or criminalizing other actions. Such temptation should be discouraged not only against Maliki but against any future successors, all of whom will likely be as controversial in Iraq’s volatile political milieu.

It may be comforting to think politicians in polarized countries can join hands and sing Kumbayah, but broad-based coalitions are a recipe for paralysis, not effective governance.

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Don’t Appease Terror in Iraq

In the wake of the joint Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Baathist seizure of Mosul, Tikrit, and Beiji, the knives have been out for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is far from perfect, but the idea that Maliki’s sectarianism or alleged authoritarianism caused the current crisis is nonsense.

First, it’s long past time Americans cease being more sectarian than the Iraqis. ISIS might despite Shi’ites, but they are killing Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds. On Saturday, the imam at one of the leading Sunni mosques in Mosul was executed by ISIS because he would not willingly turn his mosque over to the terrorists. The governor whom ISIS drove out of Mosul was Sunni, elected by the population of Mosul.

Second, ISIS and other radical Islamist groups as well as unrepentant Baathists are motivated not by grievance but by ideology. I, too, think Maliki should have more proactively sought to co-opt Iraqi Sunnis even if he tried more than he has been given credit for. But bashing Maliki for not offering enough to Sunnis is neither here nor there: ISIS and Baathists would have pocked any concessions offered and then simply attacked anyway.

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In the wake of the joint Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Baathist seizure of Mosul, Tikrit, and Beiji, the knives have been out for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is far from perfect, but the idea that Maliki’s sectarianism or alleged authoritarianism caused the current crisis is nonsense.

First, it’s long past time Americans cease being more sectarian than the Iraqis. ISIS might despite Shi’ites, but they are killing Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds. On Saturday, the imam at one of the leading Sunni mosques in Mosul was executed by ISIS because he would not willingly turn his mosque over to the terrorists. The governor whom ISIS drove out of Mosul was Sunni, elected by the population of Mosul.

Second, ISIS and other radical Islamist groups as well as unrepentant Baathists are motivated not by grievance but by ideology. I, too, think Maliki should have more proactively sought to co-opt Iraqi Sunnis even if he tried more than he has been given credit for. But bashing Maliki for not offering enough to Sunnis is neither here nor there: ISIS and Baathists would have pocked any concessions offered and then simply attacked anyway.

Third, to respond to Sunni Islamist or Baathist terror by demanding the central government grant more concessions to Sunni Islamists or Baathists simply legitimizes terror. When terrorists struck the United States, only fools counseled changing American behavior to appease those terrorists. Likewise, when extremist Iranian-sponsored Shi‘ite militias targeted American soldiers in Iraq, the response should not have been offering incentives to Iran. When Sunnis are disillusioned, they should vote and, indeed, they did. If they are so disappointed with Maliki, they can rally other Iraqi political communities against a third term for Maliki, something that was already occurring before the ISIS attack began.

And, fourth, we’ve been down this road before. Remember the Fallujah Brigade? During the initial uprising in Fallujah a decade ago, the Bush administration and U.S. military responded by blessing the creation of the so-called Fallujah Brigade. Big mistake. Empowering the insurgents and justifying their uprising only worsened violence: Car bombings increased six-fold.

Before the surge, Gen. David Petraeus engaged in a similar strategy of appeasing and co-opting local Islamists and Baathists in Mosul, appointing them to key positions in the police and border security. In November 2004, after Petraeus went home and the money with which the 101st Airborne subsidized them dried up, the Islamists and Baathists with whom Petraeus had partnered handed the keys to the city to the insurgents. Too many journalists, cultivated by Petraeus, blamed the 25th Infantry which succeeded the 101stThat was both unfair and inaccurate.

America’s memory is notoriously short-term, but simply empowering those who consistently fail at the ballot box and refuse to accept both the legitimacy of the elected government and the fact that they cannot once again dominate 70 percent of the country who happen to be Shi’ite would be to make the same mistake three times.

A new government will benefit Iraq, but sometimes the key to making peace possible is to defeat terror and its supporters, not to reward it or to blame the victim.

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Getting Fooled by Iran in Iraq

Back in January, Michael Doran and I had an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the Obama administration was pursuing a grand realignment of Middle East politics which would turn Iran from an enemy into “a cooperative partner in regional security.” I am reminded of that argument when I now hear the State Department spokesman claim that the U.S. and Iran have a “shared interest” in pushing back against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and when I read Tom Friedman claim it’s actually in our interest to let Iran dominate substantial chunks of the region: “Iran wanted to be the regional hegemon. Well, Suleimani: ‘This Bud’s for you.’ Now your forces are overextended in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and ours are back home. Have a nice day.”

Is it really necessary to point out that letting Iranian forces dominate Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq is a win for Iran–not for the United States? It is possible to turn this Iranian commitment from an advantage to a disadvantage, but to do so the U.S. would have to wage active proxy warfare against Iran as it once did against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (or as Iran did against us in Iraq and Lebanon). This would involve dramatically ramping up aid (including possibly air strikes) to support the non-jihadist opposition in Syria, which is eager to fight both the Iranian-backed and the al-Qaeda-backed extremists, and to possible partners in Iraq such as the Sunni tribes (if we can still find any left who are stupid enough to trust American assurances of support). But President Obama shows no sign of doing that. Absent a much more active American role to oppose Iranian designs, the mullahs will be able to live out their dreams of regional hegemony at relatively small cost.

Is this actually in America’s interest because Iran as a Shiite nation opposes Sunni extremists? No, because that analysis is far too simplistic. In the first place, as Doran and I pointed out, Iran has made common cause in the past with Sunni extremists in Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, among others. It’s true that Iran doesn’t want to see ISIS or the Nusra Front, another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, dominate Iraq or Syria. But that’s because it would like to see those states dominated by its own proxies who are every bit as bad–Lebanese Hezbollah, Khataib Hezbollah (the Iraqi version), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (another Iraqi Shiite terrorist group), and other actors including to a large extent Bashar Assad and Nouri al-Maliki who are both becoming, in the absence of American intervention, lock-step Iranian allies.

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Back in January, Michael Doran and I had an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the Obama administration was pursuing a grand realignment of Middle East politics which would turn Iran from an enemy into “a cooperative partner in regional security.” I am reminded of that argument when I now hear the State Department spokesman claim that the U.S. and Iran have a “shared interest” in pushing back against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and when I read Tom Friedman claim it’s actually in our interest to let Iran dominate substantial chunks of the region: “Iran wanted to be the regional hegemon. Well, Suleimani: ‘This Bud’s for you.’ Now your forces are overextended in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and ours are back home. Have a nice day.”

Is it really necessary to point out that letting Iranian forces dominate Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq is a win for Iran–not for the United States? It is possible to turn this Iranian commitment from an advantage to a disadvantage, but to do so the U.S. would have to wage active proxy warfare against Iran as it once did against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (or as Iran did against us in Iraq and Lebanon). This would involve dramatically ramping up aid (including possibly air strikes) to support the non-jihadist opposition in Syria, which is eager to fight both the Iranian-backed and the al-Qaeda-backed extremists, and to possible partners in Iraq such as the Sunni tribes (if we can still find any left who are stupid enough to trust American assurances of support). But President Obama shows no sign of doing that. Absent a much more active American role to oppose Iranian designs, the mullahs will be able to live out their dreams of regional hegemony at relatively small cost.

Is this actually in America’s interest because Iran as a Shiite nation opposes Sunni extremists? No, because that analysis is far too simplistic. In the first place, as Doran and I pointed out, Iran has made common cause in the past with Sunni extremists in Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, among others. It’s true that Iran doesn’t want to see ISIS or the Nusra Front, another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, dominate Iraq or Syria. But that’s because it would like to see those states dominated by its own proxies who are every bit as bad–Lebanese Hezbollah, Khataib Hezbollah (the Iraqi version), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (another Iraqi Shiite terrorist group), and other actors including to a large extent Bashar Assad and Nouri al-Maliki who are both becoming, in the absence of American intervention, lock-step Iranian allies.

This is not an outcome remotely in American interests. As Doran and I argued, the increasing Iranian prominence will only drive Sunnis, who constitute the region’s vast majority, into greater militancy. Do you honestly think Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE will stand by and watch Iran and its stalking horses take control of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon? Not a chance. They will amp up their aid to ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups and you will see the murderous Syrian civil war spill over into Iraq.

While some may take satisfaction from Sunni and Shiite extremists clashing, the problem is that they could both win–i.e., both sides could gain control of significant territory which will then become terrorist states. That is what has already happened in Syria and it is now likely to happen in Iraq as well. While the Iranians would prefer obviously that ISIS not control any territory in Iraq or Syria, they may well be willing to live with some ISIS control if the payoff for them is that their proxies consolidate control over what remains of those two states.

Put bluntly, the U.S. interest is in creating democratic, stable, and pro-Western regimes; the Iranian interest is in creating fundamentalist, terrorist-supporting, Shiite-extremist regimes. There is no overlap of interest except when we make the mistake of backing Iranian-aligned leaders such as Nouri al-Maliki. We made that mistake in 2010 when both the U.S. and Iran worked, after the last Iraqi election, to help Maliki win a second term as prime minister. Please, let’s not make that mistake again. The Iranians are pushing for a third term for Maliki. Let’s push for ABM–Anybody but Maliki. Iraq will not survive four more years of Shiite sectarian leadership.

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Now Is Not the Time to Let Up on Iran

In addition to pledges to assist the Iraqi government in fighting Sunni militants it is also now being reported the Iranians have made overtures to Washington about cooperating on preventing the further disintegration of the Iraqi state. But no one should for a moment imagine that the Iranians are doing any of this out of the goodness of their hearts. For one thing, it makes sense for Iran to bolster Iraq’s Shia-backed leader Nouri al-Maliki. But more than that, ever since the fall of Saddam the Iranians have been seeking ways to martial Iraq’s Shia majority in such a way that would be advantageous to the interests of Tehran.

In a sense, events in Iraq have mirrored those in Syria, and to some degree Lebanon. It has been argued that this is really all part of a proxy war being fought out between the Gulf states and Iran, with financial assistance flowing to Sunni groups from the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, while the Iranians back the Shia and Alawite factions in these places. Yet, Iran’s offer of cooperation in with the U.S. in Iraq is concerning when viewed in light of the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

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In addition to pledges to assist the Iraqi government in fighting Sunni militants it is also now being reported the Iranians have made overtures to Washington about cooperating on preventing the further disintegration of the Iraqi state. But no one should for a moment imagine that the Iranians are doing any of this out of the goodness of their hearts. For one thing, it makes sense for Iran to bolster Iraq’s Shia-backed leader Nouri al-Maliki. But more than that, ever since the fall of Saddam the Iranians have been seeking ways to martial Iraq’s Shia majority in such a way that would be advantageous to the interests of Tehran.

In a sense, events in Iraq have mirrored those in Syria, and to some degree Lebanon. It has been argued that this is really all part of a proxy war being fought out between the Gulf states and Iran, with financial assistance flowing to Sunni groups from the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, while the Iranians back the Shia and Alawite factions in these places. Yet, Iran’s offer of cooperation in with the U.S. in Iraq is concerning when viewed in light of the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

There is every reason to be skeptical about the progress of these talks. The conferences between Iran and the P5+1 countries come and go, diplomats file in and out of elegant hotels, enjoying a few days Vienna or Geneva. But it’s not at all clear that the parties are any closer to a satisfactory deal than when they started. And now it appears that the Iranians are attempting a divide-and-conquer strategy. Of the six nations negotiating with Iran, the Iranians have struck up separate dialogue tracks with four: America, France, Germany, and Russia. No doubt the hope on the part of the Iranians is that one of these will begin to soften in its line, thus undermining the stance taken by the others and making it impossible for the P5+1 group to maintain a united front in the negotiations.

It is hard to imagine that the parties will have put together a workable agreement by the July 20 deadline. Secretary of State John Kerry is fond of repeating his mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” but given what little has been achieved so far it seems that by July 20 we will have either a bad deal or no deal, both of which are thoroughly bad options.

It’s not surprising, then, that diplomats have been warning that they may “regretfully” have to extend their stay on the negotiation circuit for another six months. Clearly this is precisely what the Iranians have been playing for. Keeping the negotiation process going allows them to keep the sanctions concessions they’ve already gained, the opportunity of winning more along the way, protection from the threat of a military strike, and all the time they can quietly tip-toe closer toward nuclear breakout beneath the cover of negotiations. In the meantime Iran is seeking to rebuild some of its standing on the world stage, which may well strengthen its hand in winning further concessions. It simply has to play for time, wait for something to happen–a major conflagration in Iraq perhaps, more conflict in Ukraine or the Baltics–and then it can slip over the threshold when the time is right.

Speaking in Rome recently, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Aragachi told listeners that negotiations are now in a very “critical stage.” He went on, “There are still gaps. We need wisdom and creativity to bridge the gaps …. a deal is within reach.” What does all of that amount to? The message is clear: stick with negotiations, it’s going to take a lot more time, but you’ll get what you want in the end, we promise. But if the promise of a carrot wasn’t enough, the Iranians are also threatening a stick. Aragachi warned that abandoning the talks without an agreement would be “disastrous for all” and said that in that event the Iranians would resume enriching uranium at 20 percent–just a quick and easy step away from weapons-grade levels.

Yet it’s strange that Iran should expect the West to be more afraid of its enrichment program than it should be of Western sanctions or air strikes. Under a different administration perhaps such Iranian threats would sound as ludicrous as they ought to. But with Obama having taken both the military and sanctions options off the table, the West’s last pitiful line of defense against Iranian tyrants is to keep them talking.

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The Conditional Support Obama Should Offer Iraq

As a conspiratorial Shiite who spent long years of exile in Iran, Nouri al-Maliki has long been suspicious of the United States and overconfident about the capabilities of his own security forces. He had to be brought around to support the U.S. troop surge in 2007 because even then, even as the state was collapsing around him, he had exaggerated ideas about the ability of the Iraqi military to handle matters on his own. Four years later, in 2011, he drove such a hard bargain over renewing the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement that President Obama walked away and left Iraq bereft of all U.S. troops. Maliki didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, at least not in public.

So you know that things have come to a pretty dire pass when he is actually requesting American airpower be employed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That request was first made, apparently, last month and no doubt will be even more urgently renewed now that ISIS fighters have taken Mosul, Tikrit, and Baiji and are on the march, like the wildling army in Game of Thrones, toward the seat of power in Baghdad.

The request was, naturally, rebuffed by the Obama administration–an example of the president doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The real reason, one suspects, why Obama won’t order airstrikes is that he is determined not to let facts interfere with his cherished narrative that the “tide of war is receding” and that the U.S. is “rebalancing” away from the Middle East. That’s a political posture, not a serious strategy. But even strategic considerations argue against employing U.S. airpower to help the Maliki regime as presently constituted.

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As a conspiratorial Shiite who spent long years of exile in Iran, Nouri al-Maliki has long been suspicious of the United States and overconfident about the capabilities of his own security forces. He had to be brought around to support the U.S. troop surge in 2007 because even then, even as the state was collapsing around him, he had exaggerated ideas about the ability of the Iraqi military to handle matters on his own. Four years later, in 2011, he drove such a hard bargain over renewing the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement that President Obama walked away and left Iraq bereft of all U.S. troops. Maliki didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, at least not in public.

So you know that things have come to a pretty dire pass when he is actually requesting American airpower be employed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That request was first made, apparently, last month and no doubt will be even more urgently renewed now that ISIS fighters have taken Mosul, Tikrit, and Baiji and are on the march, like the wildling army in Game of Thrones, toward the seat of power in Baghdad.

The request was, naturally, rebuffed by the Obama administration–an example of the president doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The real reason, one suspects, why Obama won’t order airstrikes is that he is determined not to let facts interfere with his cherished narrative that the “tide of war is receding” and that the U.S. is “rebalancing” away from the Middle East. That’s a political posture, not a serious strategy. But even strategic considerations argue against employing U.S. airpower to help the Maliki regime as presently constituted.

Maliki himself is largely to blame for the resurgence of ISIS because he has so alienated Sunnis that many have been driven to support the terrorists as their defenders. Maliki has also undermined the effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces by politicizing them. Under those circumstances, American airstrikes would do nothing to change the conditions which have given rise to ISIS and would instead foster a narrative that the U.S. is supporting Shiite sectarianism in the civil war raging across the Middle East. Same goes for rushing Apache helicopters, F-16 fighters, and Hellfire missiles to Iraq so they can be employed by Iraq’s own military. Such advanced assets can be invaluable as part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy but they cannot substitute for the lack of such a strategy.

Obama should tell Maliki (and he should get on the telephone to deliver the message personally) that greater U.S. military aid will only be forthcoming if Maliki makes dramatic moves to mollify the Sunnis, depoliticize the Iraqi security forces, and limit his own almost-unlimited authority. Better still, the U.S. would be even more willing to support Iraq if Maliki were to step down as prime minister–admittedly a condition that would be hard to get Maliki to agree to but one that the U.S. could press with other political factions which are already suspicious of the prime minister.

Absent substantial political reform in Iraq, greater U.S. military aid at this juncture would be counterproductive. But the very dire nature of the situation today makes it at least marginally more likely that the government may actually make political reforms needed to ensure the state’s survival. If that were to happen, the U.S. should offer to provide not just airpower but intelligence analysts, military advisers, Special Operations Forces, and other assets to enable the Iraqi Security Forces to strike back effectively against ISIS.

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Maliki Must Go

Not satisfied with seizing control of Fallujah and Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to advance from victory to victory. In a lightning fast offensive–the terrorist version of a blitzkrieg–its fighters have now taken control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery. We can expect that they will next march on Baqubah, capital of Diyala province, and then on Baghdad itself. Indeed, in some ways the battle for Baghdad has already begun with ISIS regularly setting off massive car bombs in the capital and with Shiite extremist groups retaliating with atrocities against innocent Sunnis. The Sunni Triangle is rapidly falling under the control of a group so radical and violent that even al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, disowned it.

Perhaps most dismaying of all is that the Iraqi army appears to be falling apart under the sustained assault it is receiving. Its soldiers evacuated Mosul so fast that many left their uniforms behind. Obviously they did not see, much less emulate, Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones in which an embattled garrison of the Night’s Watch managed to throw back a much larger wildling horde. In Iraq the wildlings are on the march and there is little to stop them before they get to the Shiite heartland.

I have previously pointed out that this was not fated to happen–that this dire situation might have been averted if President Obama had kept U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011. But he didn’t. Now what? In today’s Wall Street Journal, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution offers some inventive ideas for reforms that can transform the Iraqi political system to enable it to meet this threat.

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Not satisfied with seizing control of Fallujah and Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to advance from victory to victory. In a lightning fast offensive–the terrorist version of a blitzkrieg–its fighters have now taken control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery. We can expect that they will next march on Baqubah, capital of Diyala province, and then on Baghdad itself. Indeed, in some ways the battle for Baghdad has already begun with ISIS regularly setting off massive car bombs in the capital and with Shiite extremist groups retaliating with atrocities against innocent Sunnis. The Sunni Triangle is rapidly falling under the control of a group so radical and violent that even al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, disowned it.

Perhaps most dismaying of all is that the Iraqi army appears to be falling apart under the sustained assault it is receiving. Its soldiers evacuated Mosul so fast that many left their uniforms behind. Obviously they did not see, much less emulate, Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones in which an embattled garrison of the Night’s Watch managed to throw back a much larger wildling horde. In Iraq the wildlings are on the march and there is little to stop them before they get to the Shiite heartland.

I have previously pointed out that this was not fated to happen–that this dire situation might have been averted if President Obama had kept U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011. But he didn’t. Now what? In today’s Wall Street Journal, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution offers some inventive ideas for reforms that can transform the Iraqi political system to enable it to meet this threat.

For example, he argues for “a constitutional amendment imposing a two-term limit on the presidency and prime ministership,” “a new national-unity government, including a leading Kurd as defense minister and a leading Sunni from one of the opposition parties as interior minister,” and “a constitutional amendment that redefines Iraq’s executive authority, with security and foreign affairs under the president, and the economy and domestic politics under the prime minister.”

These are good ideas but unlikely to be realized, as Pollack himself acknowledges, given the current state of Iraqi politics and given the weakness of American influence in Iraq today. Instead of lobbying for such extensive changes the U.S. might be better off lobbying for a new prime minister. Maliki’s political party came out on top in the April parliamentary elections but it lacks the votes to form a government on its own. It needs the support of other parties, especially other Shiite parties and the Kurds. The U.S. should exert whatever influence it still has to prevent that from happening.

Maliki has presided over the disintegration of Iraq. He doesn’t deserve a third term. The country desperately needs a new leader. Until a change of leadership happens, there is little point in sending more U.S. aid which, if Mosul is anything to go by, is likely to wind up arming the insurgents.

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Maliki’s Power Play

What’s bad policy may sometimes be good politics. So it proved in Iraq where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has presided over a disastrous collapse of security since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011 left the Iraqis entirely on their own. As The Wall Street Journal notes: “More than 7,800 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013—the most civilian deaths since the nearly 18,000 killed in 2007 at the height of the sectarian conflict, according to the United Nations. At least 2,300 were killed so far this year.”

Much of this increase in violence is due to Maliki’s short-sighted alienation of the Sunnis whose leaders he has been persecuting and sidelining. This has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to revive itself in the new guise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And this has given an opening for militant Shiite extremists backed by Iran to start committing their own atrocities against Sunnis in retaliation for Sunni car bombings of Shiites. Thus has the cycle of violence started spinning again. 

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What’s bad policy may sometimes be good politics. So it proved in Iraq where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has presided over a disastrous collapse of security since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011 left the Iraqis entirely on their own. As The Wall Street Journal notes: “More than 7,800 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013—the most civilian deaths since the nearly 18,000 killed in 2007 at the height of the sectarian conflict, according to the United Nations. At least 2,300 were killed so far this year.”

Much of this increase in violence is due to Maliki’s short-sighted alienation of the Sunnis whose leaders he has been persecuting and sidelining. This has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to revive itself in the new guise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And this has given an opening for militant Shiite extremists backed by Iran to start committing their own atrocities against Sunnis in retaliation for Sunni car bombings of Shiites. Thus has the cycle of violence started spinning again. 

Part of the problem here is the Syrian civil war, which has spilled over the border into western Iraq. But the largest part of the problem is Maliki’s conspiratorial, dictatorial worldview that treats as enemies those he should have been trying to win over.

The course he is embarked on is terrible for Iraq but it seems that it is good for his political prospects. In the recently completed elections his State of Law party emerged as the top vote-getter, winning 92 seats in parliament. That puts Maliki in a strong position to cobble together a coalition that will keep him in the prime minister’s office for a third term, thereby allowing him to further increase his already worrisome accumulation of power.

Why did Maliki win the election in spite of the terrible impact of his policies? He is in the position of arsonist turned firefighter: Having stoked sectarian passions and alarmed Shiites, he is now posturing as a strongman who can save the Shiites from further violence. This perception does not accord with the facts–Maliki is the problem, not the solution–but it is not the first or last time that voters have fallen for a politician who abets the very insecurity he is purporting to solve. Vladimir Putin is a beneficiary of the same trend, although he has increasingly disposed with the trappings of democracy which Iraq still has–but for how long?

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