Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nouri al-Maliki

In Trying to End One Iraq War, Did Obama Restart Another?

It is surely no coincidence that on Sunday an Iraqi court sentenced to death Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a prominent Sunni, and on the same day Sunni militants unleashed a series of attacks across Iraq, many of them aimed at Shiites, which killed some 100 people. Not that the bombings were planned in response to Hashemi’s sentencing in absentia–such coordinated strikes have to be arranged well in advance. But the attacks are symptomatic of how Iraq is starting to unravel: Prime Minister Maliki is seen as a Shiite militant who is persecuting Sunnis and Sunni extremists are responding with their trademark terrorist attacks.

It is quite possible that Hashemi is guilty of the killings attributed to him–but then similar charges could be lodged against many senior Shiite political figures. Too many Iraqi politicos to count have blood on their hands from the dark days of Iraq’s civil war, which finally petered out in 2008–at least temporarily. The fact that the courts, which are widely viewed as beholden to Maliki and not in any credible way independent, have gone after Hashemi is widely seem as a political vendetta–not as justice being done. The evidence against Hashemi, moreover, appears to have come from the torture of his bodyguards.

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It is surely no coincidence that on Sunday an Iraqi court sentenced to death Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a prominent Sunni, and on the same day Sunni militants unleashed a series of attacks across Iraq, many of them aimed at Shiites, which killed some 100 people. Not that the bombings were planned in response to Hashemi’s sentencing in absentia–such coordinated strikes have to be arranged well in advance. But the attacks are symptomatic of how Iraq is starting to unravel: Prime Minister Maliki is seen as a Shiite militant who is persecuting Sunnis and Sunni extremists are responding with their trademark terrorist attacks.

It is quite possible that Hashemi is guilty of the killings attributed to him–but then similar charges could be lodged against many senior Shiite political figures. Too many Iraqi politicos to count have blood on their hands from the dark days of Iraq’s civil war, which finally petered out in 2008–at least temporarily. The fact that the courts, which are widely viewed as beholden to Maliki and not in any credible way independent, have gone after Hashemi is widely seem as a political vendetta–not as justice being done. The evidence against Hashemi, moreover, appears to have come from the torture of his bodyguards.

All of this is deeply disturbing because it threatens to throw off the delicate balance that Iraqi politics achieved after the success of the surge. By 2009 Al Qaeda in Iraq had been effectively defeated and Iraq had an excellent chance to emerge as an enduring democracy. Now that chance is being squandered because of Maliki’s short-sightedness–and because the Obama administration has totally given up trying to play any meaningful role in Iraq’s future. Not only do we not have any more troops in Iraq; we don’t even have an ambassador.

Iraq is only mentioned by the president in the context of “I ended the war.” On the contrary, it appears more accurate to say that Obama, with his failure to renew the mandate of U.S. troops, may have restarted a war that had been effectively ended after the sacrifice of the lives of 4,486 U.S. service personnel. Voters may not care now, but if the situation continues to worsen it will be a major blot on Obama’s historical legacy, something that he appears not to realize at the moment. More significantly, it will be a dangerous blow against U.S. interests in the Middle East.

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Maliki Bests Erdoğan, Barzani

On December 19, 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi alleging that al-Hashemi had planned a wave of bomb attacks and had directed the assassination of Shi’ite opposition. The move unleashed a furious wave of political maneuvering, not only in Baghdad and Erbil, but also amongst Iraq’s neighbors, most notably Turkey. Interpol subsequently upheld the warrant against al-Hashemi, whose trial is ongoing even as Hashemi remains a fugitive. Almost nine months on, it’s clear that Maliki has come out the winner. Hashemi and his allies—Masud Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—miscalculated and face a growing perception respectively of weakness and fallibility among their home constituencies.

Erdoğan and Barzani’s embrace of al-Hashemi was a cynical and sectarian strategy. While Turkish diplomats still insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that Erdoğan harbors no ill-will toward Jews and Christians, Shi’ite and Shi’ite offshoot sects are another issue. Often, strict adherents to any religion exhibit more tolerance toward those of other religions than they do toward those whom they consider deviating from their own. Simply put, Erdoğan dislikes Turkey’s Alevis. Upon winning his first national elections, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) included not a single Alevi parliamentarian. He has since unleashed a campaign of discrimination, refusing to recognize Alevi places of worship, in some cases even threatening to tear them down. Alevis complain he is imposing Sunni religious education teachers upon their children. Like his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, Erdoğan will never accept a Shi’ite-led Iraq.

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On December 19, 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi alleging that al-Hashemi had planned a wave of bomb attacks and had directed the assassination of Shi’ite opposition. The move unleashed a furious wave of political maneuvering, not only in Baghdad and Erbil, but also amongst Iraq’s neighbors, most notably Turkey. Interpol subsequently upheld the warrant against al-Hashemi, whose trial is ongoing even as Hashemi remains a fugitive. Almost nine months on, it’s clear that Maliki has come out the winner. Hashemi and his allies—Masud Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—miscalculated and face a growing perception respectively of weakness and fallibility among their home constituencies.

Erdoğan and Barzani’s embrace of al-Hashemi was a cynical and sectarian strategy. While Turkish diplomats still insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that Erdoğan harbors no ill-will toward Jews and Christians, Shi’ite and Shi’ite offshoot sects are another issue. Often, strict adherents to any religion exhibit more tolerance toward those of other religions than they do toward those whom they consider deviating from their own. Simply put, Erdoğan dislikes Turkey’s Alevis. Upon winning his first national elections, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) included not a single Alevi parliamentarian. He has since unleashed a campaign of discrimination, refusing to recognize Alevi places of worship, in some cases even threatening to tear them down. Alevis complain he is imposing Sunni religious education teachers upon their children. Like his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, Erdoğan will never accept a Shi’ite-led Iraq.

To date, Turkey and many Persian Gulf Arabs espouse a “do-over” strategy toward Iraq, which would see the restoration of a Sunni Arab dictatorship over both Kurds and Shi’ites “by an Iraqi nationalist general who doesn’t have blood on his hands.” Many of these countries—and the Iraqi politicians they help sponsor—have been willing on one hand to castigate Maliki as a sectarian dictator and on the other sponsor terrorism and violence directed toward Maliki and the larger Shi’ite community, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Masud Barzani’s game is different. While Barzani has talked a good game against Baathists, he never hesitates to embrace them to bolster his popularity or pocketbook. Hence, in 1996, Barzani invited Saddam’s Republican Guard into Erbil to help push out rival Jalal Talabani (and the Arab opposition to Saddam). This is only the most famous example. The fact that Hashemi openly has sympathized with Baathists and sought to return many of the worst offenders to power is immaterial for Masud.  Barzani’s rivalry with Maliki comes down to oil revenue and disputed territories. By embracing Maliki’s rival, Barzani hoped to manufacture Maliki’s collapse and manufacture a deal which would benefit Barzani’s own oil claims. Into the mix, he sought to rally his own people with nationalist rhetoric, promising to defeat Baghdad and even hinting that he would declare Kurdish independence. Now, months later, oil companies waiver on Kurdish deals, Barzani’s promises ring empty, and he must negotiate with Maliki as a chastised politician. Masud might have pretensions to be a strongman, but he is increasingly ridiculed even in regional capital Erbil as “Balon Barzani” because he is full of hot air.

Maliki’s victory can be good for Iraq. Certainly, Max Boot and others are right that the United States should be wary of Iranian encroachments into Iraq. But it is absolutely wrong to suggest that all Shi’ites are fifth columnists. Most Iraqi Arabs are Iraqi nationalists, regardless of their sectarian preference. The growth of Iranian influence is a direct result of America’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, which has denied Maliki and other Shi’ite leaders the ability to preserve Iraqi interests by playing America and Iran off each other. As for Hashemi and his allies—including Ayad Allawi, a man revered in U.S. military circles but respected less in Iraq because of his reputation for laziness and overreliance on outside powers—the alternative they provide is potentially as deleterious. After all, Hashemi’s sympathy toward al-Qaeda is as dangerous for the United States as Baghdad’s flirtation with Iran.

With Maliki emerging victorious from his power struggle, it would behoove the United States to support him as he tries to restore order in Iraq, castigating him when his policies violate the norms of good governance and human rights, and assisting any efforts to drive a wedge between Iraq on one hand, and Syria and Iran on the other. As for his foreign critics, rather than try to subvert the only political leader who managed to cobble together a coalition after elections, they might better expend their energy ensuring that Iraq’s next elections are as transparent as possible, so whomever hold the premiership will forever remain accountable to ordinary Iraqis.

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U.S. Errors Boosted Iran’s Meddling in Iraq

The front-page New York Times story today on the role that Iraqi financial instituions are playing in helping Iran to evade sanctions may well be taken by opponents of the decision to invade Iraq as vindication of one of their core arguments: namely, that Saddam Hussein was a vital bulwark against Iranian power and that toppling him would only increase Iranian influence in Iraq.

How much of a bulwark Saddam actually was is debatable: The Iranian Revolution spread its influence for decades to Lebanon and Syria, among other places, all the while Saddam was still in power. That Iran has managed to increase its influence in Iraq since 2003 is incontestable, however. To some extent, Iranian influence in a neighboring state is inevitable. The situation has gotten worse, however, because of a series of bad policy choices made in Washington.

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The front-page New York Times story today on the role that Iraqi financial instituions are playing in helping Iran to evade sanctions may well be taken by opponents of the decision to invade Iraq as vindication of one of their core arguments: namely, that Saddam Hussein was a vital bulwark against Iranian power and that toppling him would only increase Iranian influence in Iraq.

How much of a bulwark Saddam actually was is debatable: The Iranian Revolution spread its influence for decades to Lebanon and Syria, among other places, all the while Saddam was still in power. That Iran has managed to increase its influence in Iraq since 2003 is incontestable, however. To some extent, Iranian influence in a neighboring state is inevitable. The situation has gotten worse, however, because of a series of bad policy choices made in Washington.

First and foremost was President George W. Bush’s failure to establish a modicum of stability in Iraq after 2003; the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force was able to fill some of the resulting vacuum by funding a host of Shiite politicians and militias (and even some Sunnis). But Bush, to his credit, made up, at least to a large extent, for his initial blunders with the success of the surge in 2007-2008–which not only curbed the power of sectarian terrorist groups such as Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdist Army but also of Sadr’s Iranian backers. Indeed, under the leadership of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the U.S. mounted a sophisticated campaign to expose and curb the influence of the Quds Force.

A great deal of that success has been undone, alas, by two bad decisions made by President Obama: First the decision to back a coalition headed by Nouri al Maliki in forming a government even after Maliki finished second in the 2010 election. If the U.S. had gone all out to support the winning slate, led by Ayad Allawi, the result might well have been a government in Baghdad far less amenable to Iranian influence than the current one.

This initial mistake was made much worse by Obama’s failure to negotiate an accord to allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011. With the U.S. military presence gone, and our intelligence and diplomatic presence much reduced, our ability to track and counter Iranian machinations has declined alarmingly. Thus Iraq is now becoming aligned with Iran on a host of issues, helping the Iranians not only to defy sanctions but also to support the Assad regime in Damascus.

This is not to say that Iraq is a puppet of Iran; even Iraqi Shiites maintain a healthy distrust of their Persian neighbors. But it does mean that Iran will exercise substantial influence–more than it would if the U.S. were still maintaining a robust presence in Iraq that could serve as a hedge against Iranian meddling.

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U.S. Must Use Leverage Against Maliki

Michael Rubin and I have been disagreeing about the nature of Iraq’s government and specifically about Prime Minister Maliki: Is he a well-intentioned leader who is trying, in all good faith, to increase the power of the central government in Baghdad so as to govern the country effectively, or is he a budding dictator who is trying to establish a sectarian Shi’ite regime with the aid of Iranian agents? I wish the answer were the former but I fear, alas, that it is the latter. More evidence of his alarming tendencies comes from Human Rights Watch, which can hardly be accused of being a Sunni mouthpiece. Its latest report finds:

Iraq’s government has been carrying out mass arrests and unlawfully detaining people in the notorious Camp Honor prison facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone, based on numerous interviews with victims, witnesses, family members, and government officials. The government had claimed a year ago that it had closed the prison, where Human Rights Watch had documented rampant torture.

Since October 2011 Iraqi authorities have conducted several waves of detentions, one of which arresting officers and officials termed “precautionary.” Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces have typically surrounded neighborhoods in Baghdad and other provinces and gone door-to-door with long lists of names of people they wanted to detain. The government has held hundreds of detainees for months, refusing to disclose the number of those detained, their identities, any charges against them, and where they are being held.

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Michael Rubin and I have been disagreeing about the nature of Iraq’s government and specifically about Prime Minister Maliki: Is he a well-intentioned leader who is trying, in all good faith, to increase the power of the central government in Baghdad so as to govern the country effectively, or is he a budding dictator who is trying to establish a sectarian Shi’ite regime with the aid of Iranian agents? I wish the answer were the former but I fear, alas, that it is the latter. More evidence of his alarming tendencies comes from Human Rights Watch, which can hardly be accused of being a Sunni mouthpiece. Its latest report finds:

Iraq’s government has been carrying out mass arrests and unlawfully detaining people in the notorious Camp Honor prison facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone, based on numerous interviews with victims, witnesses, family members, and government officials. The government had claimed a year ago that it had closed the prison, where Human Rights Watch had documented rampant torture.

Since October 2011 Iraqi authorities have conducted several waves of detentions, one of which arresting officers and officials termed “precautionary.” Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces have typically surrounded neighborhoods in Baghdad and other provinces and gone door-to-door with long lists of names of people they wanted to detain. The government has held hundreds of detainees for months, refusing to disclose the number of those detained, their identities, any charges against them, and where they are being held.

That certainly doesn’t sound like the actions of a prime minister interested in upholding the rule of law or in establishing a sound basis for Iraqi democracy. The tragedy is that, in the days when there were still U.S. troops in Iraq, the U.S. commanding general undoubtedly would have gone along with the U.S. ambassador to Maliki’s office and read him the riot act over such egregious misconduct. Similar Iraqi torture operations had been uncovered in the past and disbanded under American pressure.

With our troops gone, we have now lost a good deal of leverage to influence the actions of the Iraqi government. We must use what leverage we still have–Iraq is counting on arms sales from the U.S. to deliver F-16s and other valuable systems–to try to keep Maliki in check. But it won’t be easy. It may not even be possible. For all our disagreements about Maliki, Michael and I at least agree that withdrawing American troops entirely was a mistake, and one for which we–and the long-suffering people of Iraq–are likely to pay a steep price.

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It’s Not Maliki Pushing Iraq into Civil War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Maliki Push Iraq Back into Civil War?

I commend Michael Rubin for challenging conventional wisdom about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s power grab in Iraq. He argues that what we are seeing is a commendable consolidation of power rather than the alarming sings of incipient authoritarianism. While I am intrigued by his argument, I am not convinced.

It is hard to see anything but sectarian motives in the criminal charges filed against Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, a Sunni, and Maliki’s attempt to remove from office Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al Mutlaq, another Sunni, for, ironically, criticizing Maliki for his dictatorial tendencies. There are widespread reports that Hashemi’s bodyguards implicated him after having been subjected to torture by security forces.  Read More

I commend Michael Rubin for challenging conventional wisdom about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s power grab in Iraq. He argues that what we are seeing is a commendable consolidation of power rather than the alarming sings of incipient authoritarianism. While I am intrigued by his argument, I am not convinced.

It is hard to see anything but sectarian motives in the criminal charges filed against Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, a Sunni, and Maliki’s attempt to remove from office Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al Mutlaq, another Sunni, for, ironically, criticizing Maliki for his dictatorial tendencies. There are widespread reports that Hashemi’s bodyguards implicated him after having been subjected to torture by security forces. 

Michael suggests that Hashemi may well be guilty of the charges against him which involve various abuses committed by his bodyguards. But such charges could be filed against the bodyguards of any prominent political figure in Iraq; almost all of them were guilty of excesses of one sort or another during Iraq’s dark years (2003-2008). It is hardly credible to prosecute Hashemi now while not filing any charges against, say, Moqtada al Sadr, a Shi’ite firebrand whose followers were responsible for mass atrocities. Or to file charges against Hashemi while releasing from prison Ali Mussa Daqduq, a Lebanese Hezbollah commander (and hence a Shi’ite) who was responsible for the murder of five U.S. soldiers in 2007.

All of this looks like Maliki is carrying out a personal and sectarian agenda, backed by Iranian agents, to consolidate power through his Shi’ite cronies while freezing out opposing Shi’ite factions, Sunnis, and Kurds. Michael may disagree, but it ultimately doesn’t matter how things look to outsiders like us. What counts far more is that Sunnis in Iraq–and outside of it see this, with considerable evidence, as an affront to their dignity and freedom and possibly a threat to their lives. Sunnis will not allow themselves to be pushed around indefinitely; Maliki has gotten away with his moves so far, in part because of the disunity of the opposition, but sooner or later he may go too far and push Iraq back into a civil war.

That is precisely why some of us wanted to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011–to act as a check on the tendencies of all factions in Iraq to go too far and trigger a devastating backlash. With our troops now gone we have far less leverage to affect the situation, but we must still use what influence we have to convince Maliki to pursue a more moderate course and not run roughshod over Iraq’s fragile democratic institutions.

 

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Don’t Confuse Power Consolidation with Dictatorship in Iraq

Since the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been steadily consolidating power. Political opponents cry foul, and raise the specter of dictatorship. Iraq may have tons of problems but, for the time being, dictatorship is not among them. True, Maliki is consolidating power, but any competent leader in Iraq would. Creating a functional, accountable government requires it.

The Iraqi constitution was an achievement, but it set Iraq down the path to paralyzed, dysfunctional government. Here’s how it works: The Iraqi people elect a parliament, the parliament chooses a president, the president chooses the prime minister, the prime minister appoints his cabinet, and then the Iraqi parliament ratifies the whole package. In practice, this sounds like checks-and-balances. In reality, the parliamentary blocs refuse to ratify the government unless they each get an allotment of ministries. Pundits used to complain that nothing could be worse than Israel’s system of cobbling together governments, but the situation in Iraq is worse. Compounding the problem is that many of the party slates are fractious. Party leaders cannot strike deals without risking fracturing their slate; politicians can flee their party after the election causing party numbers always to be in flux. It’s in vogue to describe Ayad Allawi, for example, as a secularist, but he populates his list with an untenable mix of unrepentant Sunni Islamists who would be equally at home in al-Qaeda as they are in Allawi’s Iraqiya Party, and “ex” Baathists who would be equally at home in Saddam’s palace as they would be in Allawi’s Jordanian villa or British state house.

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Since the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been steadily consolidating power. Political opponents cry foul, and raise the specter of dictatorship. Iraq may have tons of problems but, for the time being, dictatorship is not among them. True, Maliki is consolidating power, but any competent leader in Iraq would. Creating a functional, accountable government requires it.

The Iraqi constitution was an achievement, but it set Iraq down the path to paralyzed, dysfunctional government. Here’s how it works: The Iraqi people elect a parliament, the parliament chooses a president, the president chooses the prime minister, the prime minister appoints his cabinet, and then the Iraqi parliament ratifies the whole package. In practice, this sounds like checks-and-balances. In reality, the parliamentary blocs refuse to ratify the government unless they each get an allotment of ministries. Pundits used to complain that nothing could be worse than Israel’s system of cobbling together governments, but the situation in Iraq is worse. Compounding the problem is that many of the party slates are fractious. Party leaders cannot strike deals without risking fracturing their slate; politicians can flee their party after the election causing party numbers always to be in flux. It’s in vogue to describe Ayad Allawi, for example, as a secularist, but he populates his list with an untenable mix of unrepentant Sunni Islamists who would be equally at home in al-Qaeda as they are in Allawi’s Iraqiya Party, and “ex” Baathists who would be equally at home in Saddam’s palace as they would be in Allawi’s Jordanian villa or British state house.

Maliki is between a rock and a hard place. The constitutional system the Americans helped craft has given him a cabinet akin to an American one in which Karl Rove would work aside Al Sharpton, and Doug Feith and Samantha Power share a cubicle. To accuse Maliki of being a dictator for consolidating power and trying to implement an agenda is like accusing Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama of doing the same.

So what has Maliki done? Maliki, like Allawi and As-Sadr, created a shadow circle of advisers to whom he turns to craft policy; the ministers generally just collect their pensions. True, he has moved to arrest other Iraqi politicians like Tareq al-Hashemi. But, just because Maliki targeted Hashemi doesn’t mean that Hashemi wasn’t guilty. INTERPOL certainly believed the evidence against Hashemi as, frankly, do even many of Hashemi’s supporters.

Maliki successfully did what Allawi was unable to: form a government. Maliki is far from perfect and, like many other Iraqi candidates, has a serious corruption problem within his government. Allawi is the sour grapes candidate, however, and spreads money—mysteriously donated to him by Jordanians, Saudis, and others outside Iraq— around Washington and Europe to sow uncertainty. That Masud Barzani calls Maliki a dictator is risible, as Barzani remains the most autocratic figure in Iraq, basically Saddam without the mustache. That’s another story, however.

Now it’s time for Maliki to sink or swim. He should have his chance to succeed, and then he should be held accountable to the voters. The proper position of the United States would be to ensure the sanctity of the elections, the timing of which should be set in stone.

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Not Too Late for Active Role in Iraq

If you are to read only one article on where Iraq stands today, I heartily recommend this Foreign Affairs essay, “The Iraq We Left Behind: Welcome to the World’s Next Failed State,” by Ned Parker, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Baghdad who is now spending a year at the Council on Foreign Relations (where I am a senior fellow). Parker accurately sums up the country as follows:

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presides over a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population. The law exists as a weapon to be wielded against rivals and to hide the misdeeds of allies. The dream of an Iraq governed by elected leaders answerable to the people is rapidly fading away.

The Iraqi state cannot provide basic services, including regular electricity in summer, clean water, and decent health care; meanwhile, unemployment among young men hovers close to 30 percent, making them easy recruits for criminal gangs and militant factions. Although the level of violence is down from the worst days of the civil war in 2006 and 2007, the current pace of bombings and shootings is more than enough to leave most Iraqis on edge and deeply uncertain about their futures. They have lost any hope that the bloodshed will go away and simply live with their dread. Acrimony in the political realm and the violence in the cities create a destabilizing feedback loop, whereby the bloodshed sows mistrust in the halls of power and politicians are inclined to settle scores with their proxies in the streets.

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If you are to read only one article on where Iraq stands today, I heartily recommend this Foreign Affairs essay, “The Iraq We Left Behind: Welcome to the World’s Next Failed State,” by Ned Parker, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Baghdad who is now spending a year at the Council on Foreign Relations (where I am a senior fellow). Parker accurately sums up the country as follows:

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presides over a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population. The law exists as a weapon to be wielded against rivals and to hide the misdeeds of allies. The dream of an Iraq governed by elected leaders answerable to the people is rapidly fading away.

The Iraqi state cannot provide basic services, including regular electricity in summer, clean water, and decent health care; meanwhile, unemployment among young men hovers close to 30 percent, making them easy recruits for criminal gangs and militant factions. Although the level of violence is down from the worst days of the civil war in 2006 and 2007, the current pace of bombings and shootings is more than enough to leave most Iraqis on edge and deeply uncertain about their futures. They have lost any hope that the bloodshed will go away and simply live with their dread. Acrimony in the political realm and the violence in the cities create a destabilizing feedback loop, whereby the bloodshed sows mistrust in the halls of power and politicians are inclined to settle scores with their proxies in the streets.

How did we get to this bleak point? Parker is right to point the finger at the U.S. for failing “to capitalize on the gains of the U.S. troop surge.” Specifically, Parker points to a key error made by the Obama administration in the summer of 2010, “when the United States dropped the pretense of neutrality by backing Maliki for the post of prime minister over [Ayad] Allawi–even though Allawi’s party list had received more votes in the national elections held in March.” That gave Maliki the confidence to run roughshod over other political factions, especially the Sunnis, and yet “Washington quickly disengaged from actually ensuring that the provisions of the deal [struck between Maliki and Allawi] was implemented. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, the Obama administration’s leading figure on Iraq policy, was largely absent from Iraq for nearly a year as the power-sharing arrangement unraveled.”

I would argue that these cardinal errors were compounded by Obama and Biden’s unwillingness to go to the mat to ensure a continuing presence of U.S. troops after 2011. Their departure, after the premature breakdown of negotiations with Maliki, has given the prime minister an even freer hand which he has used to accumulate even more power, setting the conditions for a potentially lethal Sunni backlash. I believe that this  abandonment of Iraq could turn out to be one of the biggest blots on the administration’s record–to be exceeded only, perhaps, if the president goes on to similarly abandon Afghanistan.

But even now it is not too late for the U.S. to take a more active role in Iraq. As Parker notes, even without a continuing troop presence, the U.S. still retains some leverage from continuing weapons sales (which could be interrupted) and other levers at our disposal. It is high time the administration used whatever influence it still possess so as to avoid the worst.

 

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Iraqi Clerics May Issue Fatwa — Against Sectarian Violence

This is a promising development. A gathering of Iraqi Sunni, Shiite, and Christian leaders met in Copenhagen today to discuss whether to issue a religious decree condemning the recent tide of violence against Christians, AFP is reporting:

“I hope that we will be able to produce a joint Shiite-Sunni fatwa (religious decree) against violence towards Christians,” said Canon Andrew White, head of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME) and vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad.

“There is a total unity between the Muslims and Christians: we need to do something radical,” White told AFP on the sidelines of the three-day closed-door meeting that began Wednesday.

The emergency summit at a heavily guarded Copenhagen hotel, organised by FRRME and the Danish foreign ministry, comes on the heels of a string of attacks on Christians in Iraq, as well as in neighbouring countries.

It is time “to think seriously about steps that need to be taken to protect all the minority communities,” White insisted.

And it looks like the summit has drawn some influential participants, including Sheikh Abdul Latif Humayem (a top Sunni adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki), Shiite leader Sheik Abduhaeem al-Zubairi (the representative for Iraq’s Assyrian community), and Archbishop Avak Asadourian (leader of Iraq’s Christian Council).

“This group of leaders has the power and influence to negotiate on behalf of the people they represent, to deny legitimacy to the use of violence and to call authoritatively for reconciliation and peaceful solutions,” Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen told the AFP.

It’s interesting that Iraqi leaders are using their own cultural mechanisms to push the liberal idea of religious tolerance. At a time when there’s been a lot of negativity about the influence of Iran over the Iraqi government, this is a good sign for those who remain optimistic about the future of democracy in Iraq.

This is a promising development. A gathering of Iraqi Sunni, Shiite, and Christian leaders met in Copenhagen today to discuss whether to issue a religious decree condemning the recent tide of violence against Christians, AFP is reporting:

“I hope that we will be able to produce a joint Shiite-Sunni fatwa (religious decree) against violence towards Christians,” said Canon Andrew White, head of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME) and vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad.

“There is a total unity between the Muslims and Christians: we need to do something radical,” White told AFP on the sidelines of the three-day closed-door meeting that began Wednesday.

The emergency summit at a heavily guarded Copenhagen hotel, organised by FRRME and the Danish foreign ministry, comes on the heels of a string of attacks on Christians in Iraq, as well as in neighbouring countries.

It is time “to think seriously about steps that need to be taken to protect all the minority communities,” White insisted.

And it looks like the summit has drawn some influential participants, including Sheikh Abdul Latif Humayem (a top Sunni adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki), Shiite leader Sheik Abduhaeem al-Zubairi (the representative for Iraq’s Assyrian community), and Archbishop Avak Asadourian (leader of Iraq’s Christian Council).

“This group of leaders has the power and influence to negotiate on behalf of the people they represent, to deny legitimacy to the use of violence and to call authoritatively for reconciliation and peaceful solutions,” Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen told the AFP.

It’s interesting that Iraqi leaders are using their own cultural mechanisms to push the liberal idea of religious tolerance. At a time when there’s been a lot of negativity about the influence of Iran over the Iraqi government, this is a good sign for those who remain optimistic about the future of democracy in Iraq.

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“A Rough Version of Mr. Bush’s Dream May Yet Come True”

In its editorial today, “A Good Year in Iraq,” the Washington Post writes this:

AT THE beginning of this year, Iraq’s fragile new political order faced a momentous challenge. The country needed to hold credible democratic elections at a time when its army was still battling al-Qaeda and other domestic insurgents. The winners had to form a government in spite of deep rifts among leaders and sects, who just three years ago were fighting a civil war. And all this had to happen even as the United States reduced its troops from 150,000 to 50,000 and ended combat operations for those who remained.

The result was a long, painful, contentious, confusing and sometimes bloody year. But when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presented his new government to parliament on Tuesday, Iraq could fairly be said to have passed a major test. It is not yet the peaceful Arab democracy and force for good in the Middle East that President George W. Bush imagined when he decided on invasion eight years ago. But in the past 12 months it has taken some big steps in the right direction.

The editorial goes on to point out that (a) the election was judged free and fair, a very rare event in the Middle East; (b) measures to integrate former Sunni militiamen into the security forces or other government jobs have been implemented; (c) fears that Mr. Maliki would establish a dictatorship look to be exaggerated; (d) the economy is nearing a tipping point, with foreign oil companies refurbishing the fields of southern Iraq and the city of Basra, a militia-ruled jungle four years ago, beginning to boom; and (e) violence has dwindled to the lowest level Iraq probably has known in decades (in September 2006, there were more than 3,300 civilian deaths from violence; this month so far it has counted 62, making Iraq a country far safer than Mexico). Read More

In its editorial today, “A Good Year in Iraq,” the Washington Post writes this:

AT THE beginning of this year, Iraq’s fragile new political order faced a momentous challenge. The country needed to hold credible democratic elections at a time when its army was still battling al-Qaeda and other domestic insurgents. The winners had to form a government in spite of deep rifts among leaders and sects, who just three years ago were fighting a civil war. And all this had to happen even as the United States reduced its troops from 150,000 to 50,000 and ended combat operations for those who remained.

The result was a long, painful, contentious, confusing and sometimes bloody year. But when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presented his new government to parliament on Tuesday, Iraq could fairly be said to have passed a major test. It is not yet the peaceful Arab democracy and force for good in the Middle East that President George W. Bush imagined when he decided on invasion eight years ago. But in the past 12 months it has taken some big steps in the right direction.

The editorial goes on to point out that (a) the election was judged free and fair, a very rare event in the Middle East; (b) measures to integrate former Sunni militiamen into the security forces or other government jobs have been implemented; (c) fears that Mr. Maliki would establish a dictatorship look to be exaggerated; (d) the economy is nearing a tipping point, with foreign oil companies refurbishing the fields of southern Iraq and the city of Basra, a militia-ruled jungle four years ago, beginning to boom; and (e) violence has dwindled to the lowest level Iraq probably has known in decades (in September 2006, there were more than 3,300 civilian deaths from violence; this month so far it has counted 62, making Iraq a country far safer than Mexico).

The Post editorial concludes this way:

It’s still too early to draw conclusions about Iraq, though many opponents of the war did so long ago. Mr. Maliki’s government could easily go wrong; the coming year, which could end with the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops, will likely be just as challenging as this one. But the country’s political class has repeatedly chosen democracy over dictatorship and accommodation over violence. If that keeps up, a rough version of Mr. Bush’s dream may yet come true.

Four years ago this month may have been the low-water mark in Iraq, with the nation gripped by a low-grade but escalating civil war. The American public strongly opposed the war. Almost every Democratic lawmaker in Congress, with the honorable exception of Senator Joseph Lieberman, was in fierce opposition to both the war and what later became known as the “surge.” Republican lawmakers were losing their nerve as well. Three months earlier, in September 2006, Senator Mitch McConnell had asked for, and received, a private meeting with President Bush. Senator McConnell’s message was a simple one: the Iraq war’s unpopularity was going to cost the GOP control of Congress. “Mr. President,” McConnell said, “bring some troops home from Iraq.”

President Bush, to his everlasting credit, not only refused to bend; he increased the American commitment to Iraq and changed our counterinsurgency strategy. And while the situation in Iraq remains fragile and can be undone — and while problems still remain and need to be urgently addressed (including the terrible persecution of Christians occurring in Iraq right now) — this is a moment for our nation, and most especially our military, to take sober satisfaction in what has been achieved. It has not been an easy journey. But it has been a noble and estimable one.

There is no need here to rehearse the names of the few who did not buckle at the moment when the war seemed lost. They know who they are. In the words of Milton, they were “faithful found among the faithless.” Their faithfulness, and in many cases their courage, is being vindicated.

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Iraq’s Democracy Works but Needs Continued U.S. Presence for Long-Term Survival

Iraq continues to make progress — slow, halting, often frustrating, incomplete progress, but progress nonetheless. Nearly a year after elections were held, parliament has finally approved a new government, which includes representation from all the major blocs. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, showing an impressive canniness for hanging on to power, has managed to propitiate all the other major powerbrokers, including his archrival, Ayad Allawi, who won more seats than Maliki did. He has even cut a deal with the Sadrists, whom he battled as recently as 2008 — and without giving the Sadrists control of one of the really important ministries, such as Interior or Defense.

It may not be pretty, but Iraq is showing that it does have a functional democracy, thereby refuting the argument made by so many critics of the “surge” that its gains were transitory and unsustainable. The good news is that throughout the year-long political crisis that has followed the elections, Iraq’s major factions have mostly refrained from violence, preferring to settle their differences in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. There have been terrorist atrocities committed during the past year, but they have not upset Iraq’s political equilibrium, and the overall rate of violence has remained low despite a drawdown of American forces.

For all that, I remain concerned about what will happen in a year’s time if the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops are withdrawn. That appears to be an increasingly likely prospect, since there seems to be little enthusiasm on the part of either Maliki or Obama to negotiate an accord to allow a substantial body of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq post-2012. Iraq may very well be fine even without much American help. Certainly, its security forces continue to grow in size and competence. They don’t need nearly as much help as they once did, but nor are they yet capable of operating entirely on their own.

More important, the fragile peace of Iraqi politics constructed by General Petraeus in 2007-2008 needs years to set into concrete. The continued presence of U.S. troops would create some certainty about Iraq’s continued progress. Their departure will, on the contrary, raises the risks of Iraq once again falling apart. Admittedly, that risk is much lower than it was a few years ago, but there is a good deal to be said for an insurance policy — in the form of, say, 20,000 U.S. troops — to ensure that the gains that so many of our soldiers gave so much to achieve will last for the long-term.

Iraq continues to make progress — slow, halting, often frustrating, incomplete progress, but progress nonetheless. Nearly a year after elections were held, parliament has finally approved a new government, which includes representation from all the major blocs. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, showing an impressive canniness for hanging on to power, has managed to propitiate all the other major powerbrokers, including his archrival, Ayad Allawi, who won more seats than Maliki did. He has even cut a deal with the Sadrists, whom he battled as recently as 2008 — and without giving the Sadrists control of one of the really important ministries, such as Interior or Defense.

It may not be pretty, but Iraq is showing that it does have a functional democracy, thereby refuting the argument made by so many critics of the “surge” that its gains were transitory and unsustainable. The good news is that throughout the year-long political crisis that has followed the elections, Iraq’s major factions have mostly refrained from violence, preferring to settle their differences in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. There have been terrorist atrocities committed during the past year, but they have not upset Iraq’s political equilibrium, and the overall rate of violence has remained low despite a drawdown of American forces.

For all that, I remain concerned about what will happen in a year’s time if the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops are withdrawn. That appears to be an increasingly likely prospect, since there seems to be little enthusiasm on the part of either Maliki or Obama to negotiate an accord to allow a substantial body of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq post-2012. Iraq may very well be fine even without much American help. Certainly, its security forces continue to grow in size and competence. They don’t need nearly as much help as they once did, but nor are they yet capable of operating entirely on their own.

More important, the fragile peace of Iraqi politics constructed by General Petraeus in 2007-2008 needs years to set into concrete. The continued presence of U.S. troops would create some certainty about Iraq’s continued progress. Their departure will, on the contrary, raises the risks of Iraq once again falling apart. Admittedly, that risk is much lower than it was a few years ago, but there is a good deal to be said for an insurance policy — in the form of, say, 20,000 U.S. troops — to ensure that the gains that so many of our soldiers gave so much to achieve will last for the long-term.

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Changing of the Ambassadorial Guard

With Richard Holbrooke’s death, questions will inevitably be asked about the fate of the post he held: Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The job was created expressly for him on the theory that Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”) were a related problem set that required the appointment of a high-level diplomatic coordinator to handle. The expectation was that Holbrooke would emerge as a dominant force in AfPak policy to rival the NATO commander in Kabul. It never happened. In fact, by the time of his death, it was generally agreed that Holbrooke had largely been marginalized in the policy process.

Part of this was due to some missteps on his part, but the larger problem was that there is not really much of a role for an “SRAP”: it was always a theory more than an actual job description. What we need are capable ambassadors in Islamabad and Kabul who can work closely with our military commander in Kabul, General Petraeus. The model  here is the special relationship that Petraeus had with Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador in Baghdad during the surge. Their close collaboration greatly maximized the impact of the surge forces and convinced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki  to make hard decisions to cut off sectarian actors.

There is nothing similar in Kabul. General Stanley McChrystal famously feuded with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, leading to the elevation of the NATO representative, Mark Sedwill, to become McChrystal’s chief diplomatic partner. Sedwill is still in place, and he is a capable and shrewd diplomat, but he would be the first to acknowledge that, as a Brit, he cannot speak with the authority of the United States. Eikenberry also remains in place and has not gotten into any public dust-ups with Petraeus, but he has also burned his bridges to Hamid Karzai with the leak of numerous cables deprecating the Afghan president.

By April, Eikenberry will have completed two years in the job — longer than many last in such pressure-packed assignments. The priority now should not be to replace Holbrooke as the SRAP but rather to ensure that Eikenberry’s replacement will perform in Crocker-like fashion. In this regard, I can’t help but note that Crocker has also previously served as ambassador to Pakistan, so he is familiar with the region. Is there, I wonder, some way that President Obama could lure him out of retirement (he is currently dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M) for one more assignment to work with Petraeus to rescue another troubled war effort?

With Richard Holbrooke’s death, questions will inevitably be asked about the fate of the post he held: Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The job was created expressly for him on the theory that Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”) were a related problem set that required the appointment of a high-level diplomatic coordinator to handle. The expectation was that Holbrooke would emerge as a dominant force in AfPak policy to rival the NATO commander in Kabul. It never happened. In fact, by the time of his death, it was generally agreed that Holbrooke had largely been marginalized in the policy process.

Part of this was due to some missteps on his part, but the larger problem was that there is not really much of a role for an “SRAP”: it was always a theory more than an actual job description. What we need are capable ambassadors in Islamabad and Kabul who can work closely with our military commander in Kabul, General Petraeus. The model  here is the special relationship that Petraeus had with Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador in Baghdad during the surge. Their close collaboration greatly maximized the impact of the surge forces and convinced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki  to make hard decisions to cut off sectarian actors.

There is nothing similar in Kabul. General Stanley McChrystal famously feuded with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, leading to the elevation of the NATO representative, Mark Sedwill, to become McChrystal’s chief diplomatic partner. Sedwill is still in place, and he is a capable and shrewd diplomat, but he would be the first to acknowledge that, as a Brit, he cannot speak with the authority of the United States. Eikenberry also remains in place and has not gotten into any public dust-ups with Petraeus, but he has also burned his bridges to Hamid Karzai with the leak of numerous cables deprecating the Afghan president.

By April, Eikenberry will have completed two years in the job — longer than many last in such pressure-packed assignments. The priority now should not be to replace Holbrooke as the SRAP but rather to ensure that Eikenberry’s replacement will perform in Crocker-like fashion. In this regard, I can’t help but note that Crocker has also previously served as ambassador to Pakistan, so he is familiar with the region. Is there, I wonder, some way that President Obama could lure him out of retirement (he is currently dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M) for one more assignment to work with Petraeus to rescue another troubled war effort?

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Karzai’s Words, and His Actions

Hamid Karzai has caused considerable consternation with his weekend interview with the Washington Post. He told Post editors and reporters: “The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life…. It’s not desirable for the Afghan people either to have 100,000 or more foreign troops going around the country endlessly.” He also criticized “night raids”–Special Operations raids that occur at night–as he has in the past.

The Post reports that General Petraeus expressed “astonishment and disappointment” as his remarks which seem to fly in the face of NATO’s strategy. Today Karzai’s spokesman was rapidly backtracking, stressing that Karzai’s comments about the desirability of a troop pullout were “conditioned on the ability of the Afghan security forces to take responsibility.” The spokesman made clear that Karzai supports NATO’s goal to begin withdrawing in 2014.

This kerfuffle reminds me of many similar statements made over the years by Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. As I noted in this 2008 Washington Post op-ed, Maliki, too, has had a history of calling for U.S. troop withdrawals:

In May 2006, shortly after becoming prime minister, he claimed, “Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.”

In October 2006, when violence was spinning out of control, Maliki declared that it would be “only a matter of months” before his security forces could “take over the security portfolio entirely and keep some multinational forces only in a supporting role.”

President Bush wisely ignored Maliki. Instead of withdrawing U.S. troops, he sent more. The prime minister wasn’t happy. On Dec. 15, 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has flatly told Gen. George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, that he doesn’t want more U.S. personnel deployed to the country, according to U.S. military officials.” When the surge went ahead anyway, Maliki gave it an endorsement described in news accounts as “lukewarm.”

I suggested in the op-ed that it was wise to judge Maliki by what he did, not what he said. For all of his public doubts about the U.S. troop presence he generally supported American actions behind-the-scenes–although often only after considerable arm-twisting from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Karzai, too, should be judged by his actions, rather than by his occasional expressions of public frustration with the coalition. He has not done anything as dramatic as Maliki, who ordered his security forces to clear Basra and Sadr City of the Sadrist militia, but he has taken some positive steps such as agreeing to the setting up of the Afghan Local Police program to augment the Afghan security forces.

Moreover, some of his criticisms of international forces are on the mark–the U.S. and its allies have done much to fuel corruption in Afghanistan, as he complains, and their employment of local security forces has often been a contributor to instability. Yet at the end of the day Afghanistan would be far more insecure without an America troop presence, and that is something I suspect Karzai, for all his misguided public statements, actually realizes.

Hamid Karzai has caused considerable consternation with his weekend interview with the Washington Post. He told Post editors and reporters: “The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life…. It’s not desirable for the Afghan people either to have 100,000 or more foreign troops going around the country endlessly.” He also criticized “night raids”–Special Operations raids that occur at night–as he has in the past.

The Post reports that General Petraeus expressed “astonishment and disappointment” as his remarks which seem to fly in the face of NATO’s strategy. Today Karzai’s spokesman was rapidly backtracking, stressing that Karzai’s comments about the desirability of a troop pullout were “conditioned on the ability of the Afghan security forces to take responsibility.” The spokesman made clear that Karzai supports NATO’s goal to begin withdrawing in 2014.

This kerfuffle reminds me of many similar statements made over the years by Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. As I noted in this 2008 Washington Post op-ed, Maliki, too, has had a history of calling for U.S. troop withdrawals:

In May 2006, shortly after becoming prime minister, he claimed, “Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.”

In October 2006, when violence was spinning out of control, Maliki declared that it would be “only a matter of months” before his security forces could “take over the security portfolio entirely and keep some multinational forces only in a supporting role.”

President Bush wisely ignored Maliki. Instead of withdrawing U.S. troops, he sent more. The prime minister wasn’t happy. On Dec. 15, 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has flatly told Gen. George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, that he doesn’t want more U.S. personnel deployed to the country, according to U.S. military officials.” When the surge went ahead anyway, Maliki gave it an endorsement described in news accounts as “lukewarm.”

I suggested in the op-ed that it was wise to judge Maliki by what he did, not what he said. For all of his public doubts about the U.S. troop presence he generally supported American actions behind-the-scenes–although often only after considerable arm-twisting from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Karzai, too, should be judged by his actions, rather than by his occasional expressions of public frustration with the coalition. He has not done anything as dramatic as Maliki, who ordered his security forces to clear Basra and Sadr City of the Sadrist militia, but he has taken some positive steps such as agreeing to the setting up of the Afghan Local Police program to augment the Afghan security forces.

Moreover, some of his criticisms of international forces are on the mark–the U.S. and its allies have done much to fuel corruption in Afghanistan, as he complains, and their employment of local security forces has often been a contributor to instability. Yet at the end of the day Afghanistan would be far more insecure without an America troop presence, and that is something I suspect Karzai, for all his misguided public statements, actually realizes.

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A Coalition Government Is Formed in Iraq

So it appears that a government is finally going to be formed in Iraq, after eight agonizing months of politicking.

As usual, Iraqi politicos waited until the 11th hour and a bit beyond to reach a deal, but that they finally managed to bridge their differences is a hopeful sign for that troubled country’s future as an emerging democracy.

It’s hard to know what took so long, since the deal that has finally been reached is not too different from what was envisioned in the beginning: Nouri al-Maliki remains as prime minister, but Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc, which won the most votes, will get the speakership of parliament along with the leadership of a new committee that will oversee national security policy. The Kurds, meanwhile, retain the symbolic presidency, which will continue to be held by Jalal Talabani. There are more details to be ironed out, of course, including the exact distribution of cabinet seats; it will be important that the Sadrists be kept out of positions of responsibility.

However the posts are distributed, this will be an unwieldy coalition government that will hardly be a model of efficiency. But that’s preferable to the alternative. The wounds of civil war in Iraq are still too raw to risk having Allawi’s bloc go into opposition, as surely would have happened in a more mature parliamentary democracy. In Iraq, that would have risked giving Sunnis a feeling of disenfranchisement, which might have led them to take up arms again.

Painful as this government-formation process was, the good news is that Iraq hasn’t gone to pieces. There have been occasional, horrific terrorist acts, but overall violence has remained low. Economic development has continued, with the Wall Street Journal reporting today on how Basra has become an oil boomtown. Expect even greater oil riches to be tapped once the new government takes office and ensures some political stability.

That Iraq has continued to inch forward despite the paralysis of its politicos is a tribute to the good sense of the Iraqi people and to the growing competency of the Iraqi security forces — supported, lest we forget, by 50,000 U.S. troops who still remain. The Obama administration also deserves some props for finally getting down to business in Baghdad with a new ambassador focused on forming a government, eschewing the more hands-off posture of his predecessor.

The first order of business now is to ensure that the gains Iraq has made don’t evaporate in the future. That means negotiating a new U.S.-Iraqi security accord that will allow U.S. troops to remain post-2011 to train the Iraqi security forces and to act implicitly as a peacekeeping force to ensure that tensions don’t boil over into renewed violence.

So it appears that a government is finally going to be formed in Iraq, after eight agonizing months of politicking.

As usual, Iraqi politicos waited until the 11th hour and a bit beyond to reach a deal, but that they finally managed to bridge their differences is a hopeful sign for that troubled country’s future as an emerging democracy.

It’s hard to know what took so long, since the deal that has finally been reached is not too different from what was envisioned in the beginning: Nouri al-Maliki remains as prime minister, but Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc, which won the most votes, will get the speakership of parliament along with the leadership of a new committee that will oversee national security policy. The Kurds, meanwhile, retain the symbolic presidency, which will continue to be held by Jalal Talabani. There are more details to be ironed out, of course, including the exact distribution of cabinet seats; it will be important that the Sadrists be kept out of positions of responsibility.

However the posts are distributed, this will be an unwieldy coalition government that will hardly be a model of efficiency. But that’s preferable to the alternative. The wounds of civil war in Iraq are still too raw to risk having Allawi’s bloc go into opposition, as surely would have happened in a more mature parliamentary democracy. In Iraq, that would have risked giving Sunnis a feeling of disenfranchisement, which might have led them to take up arms again.

Painful as this government-formation process was, the good news is that Iraq hasn’t gone to pieces. There have been occasional, horrific terrorist acts, but overall violence has remained low. Economic development has continued, with the Wall Street Journal reporting today on how Basra has become an oil boomtown. Expect even greater oil riches to be tapped once the new government takes office and ensures some political stability.

That Iraq has continued to inch forward despite the paralysis of its politicos is a tribute to the good sense of the Iraqi people and to the growing competency of the Iraqi security forces — supported, lest we forget, by 50,000 U.S. troops who still remain. The Obama administration also deserves some props for finally getting down to business in Baghdad with a new ambassador focused on forming a government, eschewing the more hands-off posture of his predecessor.

The first order of business now is to ensure that the gains Iraq has made don’t evaporate in the future. That means negotiating a new U.S.-Iraqi security accord that will allow U.S. troops to remain post-2011 to train the Iraqi security forces and to act implicitly as a peacekeeping force to ensure that tensions don’t boil over into renewed violence.

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A Counter View to Fouad Ajami’s Skepticism Regarding Afghanistan

Fouad Ajami is one of the world’s most respected and influential analysts of the Middle East — and for good reason. He has consistently spoken hard truths about the Arab world that few of his colleagues in academia dare broach. And he has been a staunch supporter of the war effort in Iraq even through its darkest of days — a deeply unfashionable view that speaks to his intellectual fearlessness and iconoclasm. So when he expresses deep doubts about the viability of the American mission in Afghanistan, it is well worth paying attention — even if you don’t necessarily agree with hm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami castigates President Hamid Karzai for showing “little, if any, regard” for the “sacrifices” made by Americans to protect his country from the Taliban. He lashes at Karzai accepting cash from Iran — “He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity,” Ajami writes — and for his accusations that Americans are supporting private security companies that are killing Afghans, adding, “It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.” Ajami endorses the publicly leaked 2009 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which read: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” In disgust, he concludes, “Unlike the Third world clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy.” This causes Ajami to doubt the entire mission:

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war — and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty — there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan.

As I suggested before, I respect Ajami’s views but in this case I do not agree with him. I believe there is just as much nobility to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. We are, after all, fighting to make good on our post-9/11 promises to drive the Taliban out of power and establish a representative government in Afghanistan that will not sponsor terrorism or abuse its own people. The Taliban are as cruel as they come and sparing the people of Afghanistan from their misrule is a noble cause. So too is honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.

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Fouad Ajami is one of the world’s most respected and influential analysts of the Middle East — and for good reason. He has consistently spoken hard truths about the Arab world that few of his colleagues in academia dare broach. And he has been a staunch supporter of the war effort in Iraq even through its darkest of days — a deeply unfashionable view that speaks to his intellectual fearlessness and iconoclasm. So when he expresses deep doubts about the viability of the American mission in Afghanistan, it is well worth paying attention — even if you don’t necessarily agree with hm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami castigates President Hamid Karzai for showing “little, if any, regard” for the “sacrifices” made by Americans to protect his country from the Taliban. He lashes at Karzai accepting cash from Iran — “He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity,” Ajami writes — and for his accusations that Americans are supporting private security companies that are killing Afghans, adding, “It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.” Ajami endorses the publicly leaked 2009 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which read: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” In disgust, he concludes, “Unlike the Third world clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy.” This causes Ajami to doubt the entire mission:

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war — and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty — there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan.

As I suggested before, I respect Ajami’s views but in this case I do not agree with him. I believe there is just as much nobility to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. We are, after all, fighting to make good on our post-9/11 promises to drive the Taliban out of power and establish a representative government in Afghanistan that will not sponsor terrorism or abuse its own people. The Taliban are as cruel as they come and sparing the people of Afghanistan from their misrule is a noble cause. So too is honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.

The problem is that in carrying out this mission we must work with wholly imperfect allies. Karzai is no angel. But then neither is Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq — a leader whom Ajami presciently championed even when others scoffed at his potential to rise above his sectarian roots. In many ways, Maliki has been an even more troubling ally than Karzai. For all his faults, Karzai is not known to be personally sympathetic to the Taliban, who killed his father. By contrast, Maliki had a lot of sympathy for Shiite sectarianism. He has been surrounded by Iranian agents and Shiite extremists, who were deeply implicated in the work of the death squads that were killing hundreds of Sunnis every night in 2006-2007. It may be discouraging to hear that Karzai accepts a couple of million dollars in cash from Iran but is there any doubt that Maliki has taken far more money from Tehran? And not just money. As this article noted, Iran actually provided Maliki with his presidential jet, complete with Iranian pilots. Say what you will about Karzai, but at least he doesn’t routinely entrust his life to an Iranian aircraft.

Moreover, Maliki has been as notorious as Karzai for showing a lack of gratitude toward American efforts to save his county. As I noted in this 2008 op-ed, Maliki has had a pattern of dismissing the American contribution to Iraqi security, saying, for instance, in May 2006, that “[Iraqi] forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.” Maliki opposed the surge, which saved his country in 2007 and even when it succeeded refused to give us credit. As I noted:

In the famous interview with Der Spiegel last weekend, he was asked why Iraq has become more peaceful. He mentioned “many factors,” including “the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve,” “the progress being made by our security forces,” “the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias,” and “the economic recovery.” No mention of the surge.

Yet for all of Maliki’s maddening imperfections — which stand in high relief now as he ruthlessly maneuvers for another term — he showed ability to rise above his sectarian origins. He displayed real political courage in ordering his forces to attack the Sadrists in Basra and Sadr City in 2008. Now, of course, he is cutting deals with those same Sadrists. That, alas, is how the political game is played in unstable countries like Iraq — or Afghanistan. That should not cause us to despair of either country’s future.

If we could work with Maliki, we can certainly work with Karzai. The former, after all, does not speak English and spent years of exile living in Syria and Iran, two of the most anti-American states in the world. Karzai, by contrast, is a fluent English-speaker with several brothers who have lived in the U.S. for years and even hold U.S. citizenship. He is, in many ways, a more natural fit as an ally than Maliki. There is little doubt that he and his brothers are implicated in the corruption of Afghani politics, but at least, unlike Maliki, they are not cozying up to Iranian-backed death squads. To the extent that Karzai has cozied up to Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, it has been as a hedge against a precipitous American pullout. But Karzai also knows that the Iranians are double-dealing — they are supporting the Taliban too — which can give Karzai little confidence that Iran would be a reliable ally. At the end of the day, Karzai knows that his future and his country’s rests with the United States and NATO; that we are all that is keeping him from death or exile.

It would be nice if Karzai showed more political courage in working with us and refrained from denouncing us, but some of his denunciations have, alas, the ring of truth — and some of his actions are actually well intentioned. Take his attempts to close down private security companies that are terrorizing ordinary Afghanis and driving them into the arms of the Taliban. Most of these companies are, in fact, directly or indirectly, funded by American taxpayers — just as Karzai alleges. Many of them are also run by Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and by others linked to the Karzai clan. (See this report from the Institute for the Study of War for details.) So by closing down these firms, Karzai seems to be moving against his family’s economic interests. If he were simply interested in continuing to exploit this lucrative economic niche, he would leave the existing situation alone.

I don’t know what motivates Karzai but I suspect that, like most people, he is moved by a combination of noble and ignoble impulses — idealism and selfishness, self-interest and the public interest. He is no Adenaeur or De Gaulle or Ataturk or Washington — but then neither is Maliki. He is deeply imperfect, but he is the president of Afghanistan, and I do believe it is possible to work with him. Luckily, we have in Kabul the same general — David Petraeus — who skillfully worked with Maliki at a time when many Americans wrote him off as incorrigible. Already Petreaus has shown a similar ability to get useful concessions out of Karzai, for instance winning the president’s approval for setting up the Afghan Local Police, an initiative to supplement the Afghan Security Forces, which Karzai initially opposed.

Running through Ajami’s article is a deep skepticism not only about Karzai but also about Barack Obama. He criticizes Obama, rightly, for displaying irresolution. I too have been dismayed by the deadline Obama laid out for our withdrawal from Afghanistan — but I have been cheered to see, as I have noted in previous posts, that Obama is backing off that deadline. What foes for Karzai also goes for Obama: you go to war with the leaders you have — not the ones you would like to have. But I don’t believe that either Karzai or Obama is so flawed that it is impossible to prevail in Afghanistan — especially not when we have so many outstanding troops on the ground led by our greatest general.

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The Race to Baghdad

In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Americans think Iran has too much influence in Iraq. Sunnis, in both Iraq and the larger region, increasingly think Iran has too much influence there — and that’s what matters to developments on the ground. Iraqi Sunnis have friends in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but they are also a natural recruiting ground for al-Qaeda. A Sunni revolt against Iranian influence will not be carried out in the Iraqi editorial pages.

The pace of events has accelerated in the last two weeks. Iraq has been without a governing coalition since March, but on October 1, radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr — who has lived in Iran since 2007, studying with the country’s most senior clerics — announced his backing of Nouri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister and head of the caretaker government. The U.S. has asked Maliki to distance himself from Sadr as a condition of continued American support. But things aren’t that simple, primarily because President Obama has made it so clear that American support to an Iraqi government doesn’t mean what it meant two years ago. Obama has declared combat “over” in Iraq and is withdrawing troops as he promised. To function independently, however, what Maliki needs is the guarantee of active U.S. force at his back — and that is precisely what Obama is busy removing.

The UK Guardian has a remarkably detailed article from the weekend outlining the collusion of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in the Maliki-Sadr hook-up. (See companion piece here.) I’m routinely somewhat skeptical of Guardian stories, but in addition to its extensive detail, this one is bolstered by echoes in the Arabic press of the energetic shuttle diplomacy by the principal actors. The reaction from the region’s loose Sunni coalition certainly seems to validate the Guardian’s facts; as outlined by the Al-Ahram piece linked at the top, Iraqi Sunnis have kicked into overdrive a campaign for support from the Sunni nations (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey).

It’s against this background that the defection to al-Qaeda of the “Anbar Awakening” Sunnis must be understood. Almost every nation in the Middle East is trying to “fix” the outcome in Iraq — a reality that is largely invisible to Americans, but is one of the two main factors in the Sunni defection. The other is the perception that Obama’s America is inert and irrelevant to the power competition in Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran has launched an aggressive, activist phase in its regional policy, a trend amplified by Ahmadinejad’s triumphal visit to Lebanon last week. The U.S. could have averted the visit; that it did not has reinforced our Obama-era image of feckless passivity at the worst possible times.

According to the Guardian, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s condition for supporting the Maliki-Sadr coalition is a guarantee that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq in 2011. In the absence of clear, assertive U.S. policy, we will find ourselves increasingly boxed in by the plans of opponents who want to make our policy for us. In many cases, the opponents will be terrorists.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Americans think Iran has too much influence in Iraq. Sunnis, in both Iraq and the larger region, increasingly think Iran has too much influence there — and that’s what matters to developments on the ground. Iraqi Sunnis have friends in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but they are also a natural recruiting ground for al-Qaeda. A Sunni revolt against Iranian influence will not be carried out in the Iraqi editorial pages.

The pace of events has accelerated in the last two weeks. Iraq has been without a governing coalition since March, but on October 1, radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr — who has lived in Iran since 2007, studying with the country’s most senior clerics — announced his backing of Nouri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister and head of the caretaker government. The U.S. has asked Maliki to distance himself from Sadr as a condition of continued American support. But things aren’t that simple, primarily because President Obama has made it so clear that American support to an Iraqi government doesn’t mean what it meant two years ago. Obama has declared combat “over” in Iraq and is withdrawing troops as he promised. To function independently, however, what Maliki needs is the guarantee of active U.S. force at his back — and that is precisely what Obama is busy removing.

The UK Guardian has a remarkably detailed article from the weekend outlining the collusion of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in the Maliki-Sadr hook-up. (See companion piece here.) I’m routinely somewhat skeptical of Guardian stories, but in addition to its extensive detail, this one is bolstered by echoes in the Arabic press of the energetic shuttle diplomacy by the principal actors. The reaction from the region’s loose Sunni coalition certainly seems to validate the Guardian’s facts; as outlined by the Al-Ahram piece linked at the top, Iraqi Sunnis have kicked into overdrive a campaign for support from the Sunni nations (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey).

It’s against this background that the defection to al-Qaeda of the “Anbar Awakening” Sunnis must be understood. Almost every nation in the Middle East is trying to “fix” the outcome in Iraq — a reality that is largely invisible to Americans, but is one of the two main factors in the Sunni defection. The other is the perception that Obama’s America is inert and irrelevant to the power competition in Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran has launched an aggressive, activist phase in its regional policy, a trend amplified by Ahmadinejad’s triumphal visit to Lebanon last week. The U.S. could have averted the visit; that it did not has reinforced our Obama-era image of feckless passivity at the worst possible times.

According to the Guardian, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s condition for supporting the Maliki-Sadr coalition is a guarantee that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq in 2011. In the absence of clear, assertive U.S. policy, we will find ourselves increasingly boxed in by the plans of opponents who want to make our policy for us. In many cases, the opponents will be terrorists.

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Nouri al-Maliki’s Maneuvering

One cannot but be awed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s unbridled will to win another term. He has managed to make a deal with his sometime-enemies in the Sadrist movement and win their support — this, only two years after he had sent the Iraqi army to clear the Sadrist militia out of Basra and Sadr City. Maliki is personally unpopular, not only with the Sadrists but with pretty much everyone else in Iraq’s political elite. Yet he has managed to put himself into a position to become prime minister for another term. Unfortunately, Iraq is not close to actually forming a government, because he still has to reach some sort of accommodation with the Sunnis, who are now represented by a secular Shiite — Ayad Allawi. It seems likely that Allawi’s coalition will be accorded some cabinet posts in the new government, as will the Sadrists, the Kurds, and other prominent players. There is still much camel trading to be done, which could drag the protracted process of forming the new government formation into next year.

Is Maliki’s recent success good or bad from the American perspective? At this point, it’s still hard to say. Obviously, the fact that the Sadrists — the most anti-American faction in Iraq — will be part of the government isn’t good news. But nor would it have been good news if Maliki had made a deal with ISCI, another major Shiite party also seen as extremely close to Iran. Some analysts are suggesting that these latest developments mean that Iran is calling the shots in Iraqi politics. I wouldn’t be so sure. There is no question that Iran has an influence but it is hardly in charge. No one is. At some level, this is good news for a country like Iraq, which has been scarred by so many years of dictatorial misrule. But there is a thin line between inclusiveness and chaos and Iraq is now on the border between the two. The failure of a political class to agree on a coalition government is undermining public confidence and providing an opening to both Sunni and Shiite extremists.

I have some trepidation about seeing the power-hungry Maliki return for another term. But at this point, I just wish the Iraqi politicos would reach an agreement on a new government — any government. Their failure to do so is making a mockery of Iraq’s nascent democracy, which showed such great promise with the fair and open elections held in March.

One cannot but be awed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s unbridled will to win another term. He has managed to make a deal with his sometime-enemies in the Sadrist movement and win their support — this, only two years after he had sent the Iraqi army to clear the Sadrist militia out of Basra and Sadr City. Maliki is personally unpopular, not only with the Sadrists but with pretty much everyone else in Iraq’s political elite. Yet he has managed to put himself into a position to become prime minister for another term. Unfortunately, Iraq is not close to actually forming a government, because he still has to reach some sort of accommodation with the Sunnis, who are now represented by a secular Shiite — Ayad Allawi. It seems likely that Allawi’s coalition will be accorded some cabinet posts in the new government, as will the Sadrists, the Kurds, and other prominent players. There is still much camel trading to be done, which could drag the protracted process of forming the new government formation into next year.

Is Maliki’s recent success good or bad from the American perspective? At this point, it’s still hard to say. Obviously, the fact that the Sadrists — the most anti-American faction in Iraq — will be part of the government isn’t good news. But nor would it have been good news if Maliki had made a deal with ISCI, another major Shiite party also seen as extremely close to Iran. Some analysts are suggesting that these latest developments mean that Iran is calling the shots in Iraqi politics. I wouldn’t be so sure. There is no question that Iran has an influence but it is hardly in charge. No one is. At some level, this is good news for a country like Iraq, which has been scarred by so many years of dictatorial misrule. But there is a thin line between inclusiveness and chaos and Iraq is now on the border between the two. The failure of a political class to agree on a coalition government is undermining public confidence and providing an opening to both Sunni and Shiite extremists.

I have some trepidation about seeing the power-hungry Maliki return for another term. But at this point, I just wish the Iraqi politicos would reach an agreement on a new government — any government. Their failure to do so is making a mockery of Iraq’s nascent democracy, which showed such great promise with the fair and open elections held in March.

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Kurdistan, First Impressions

This whole week I’m in Kurdistan, or Iraqi Kurdistan, or northern Iraq, or whatever you want to call this nation-region within a country. There is not one speck of my being that fails to thrill to the prospect of a self-determined, democratic, pro-West, thriving Kurdistan. My preliminary impressions — and that’s all they are so far — have worked, however, to temper the romance ever so slightly.

For starters, there was the stark reminder of how difficult it can be to thrive, or even function, in this region. Around the time our plane was supposed to land in Erbil, the pilot informed all the passengers that “due to a political situation between Iraq and Turkey,” the airport at Erbil was closed for two hours. He assured us that we had enough fuel to hover or to land in Aleppo if need be. After the full two hours, we landed in Erbil, where everyone was tight-lipped about the details of the “political situation.”

Two flags stood side by side in the airport waiting area: the Kurdistan flag with its bursting sun and the Iraqi flag with “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic script. This is as one would expect. But the room’s other adornments revealed a certain incongruity. Two walls bore framed heroic portraits of Massoud Barzani, the Kurdistan regional government president, and Jalal Talibani, the president of Iraq and a revered Kurdish political figure. Images of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were conspicuously absent. Take that for what it’s worth, but the uneasy question of Kurdistan’s allegiance and independence is certainly a fundamental one.

When I saw yet another framed heroic portrait of KDP founder, Mustafa Barzani, in my hotel lobby, I was reminded, unfortunately, of earlier travels elsewhere. The ubiquity of leaders’ benevolent visages is a sure indicator of a personality cult. Hasn’t the region seen enough of those?

On the way out of the airport, there were definite signs of a booming nation: billboards advertising Nissan Maximas, Land Rovers, and a “New Iraq,” as well as construction sites, were everywhere.

Let’s hope for more billboards and fewer flattering portraits.

This whole week I’m in Kurdistan, or Iraqi Kurdistan, or northern Iraq, or whatever you want to call this nation-region within a country. There is not one speck of my being that fails to thrill to the prospect of a self-determined, democratic, pro-West, thriving Kurdistan. My preliminary impressions — and that’s all they are so far — have worked, however, to temper the romance ever so slightly.

For starters, there was the stark reminder of how difficult it can be to thrive, or even function, in this region. Around the time our plane was supposed to land in Erbil, the pilot informed all the passengers that “due to a political situation between Iraq and Turkey,” the airport at Erbil was closed for two hours. He assured us that we had enough fuel to hover or to land in Aleppo if need be. After the full two hours, we landed in Erbil, where everyone was tight-lipped about the details of the “political situation.”

Two flags stood side by side in the airport waiting area: the Kurdistan flag with its bursting sun and the Iraqi flag with “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic script. This is as one would expect. But the room’s other adornments revealed a certain incongruity. Two walls bore framed heroic portraits of Massoud Barzani, the Kurdistan regional government president, and Jalal Talibani, the president of Iraq and a revered Kurdish political figure. Images of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were conspicuously absent. Take that for what it’s worth, but the uneasy question of Kurdistan’s allegiance and independence is certainly a fundamental one.

When I saw yet another framed heroic portrait of KDP founder, Mustafa Barzani, in my hotel lobby, I was reminded, unfortunately, of earlier travels elsewhere. The ubiquity of leaders’ benevolent visages is a sure indicator of a personality cult. Hasn’t the region seen enough of those?

On the way out of the airport, there were definite signs of a booming nation: billboards advertising Nissan Maximas, Land Rovers, and a “New Iraq,” as well as construction sites, were everywhere.

Let’s hope for more billboards and fewer flattering portraits.

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Forming a Government in Iraq

Good to see that the de-Baathification campaign has been dropped in Iraq, at least for now. The effort to disqualify parliamentary candidates for supposed Baathist backgrounds was a truly poisonous effort engineered by Iran and executed by the opportunistic Ahmed Chalabi to rig the outcome of the Iraqi election. If it had succeeded in taking away votes from Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya slate, the result could have been a major backlash among Sunnis.

Since I have recently been critical of the Obama administration and U.S. diplomatic representatives in Baghdad for not doing more to resolve the post-election crisis, it is only fair to give credit where it is due and note that a behind-the-scenes American effort contributed to this important step forward. But there is much more that needs to be done.

The election results still aren’t certified. Only when that happens will the true jockeying to form a government begin. One of the key questions will be whether Nouri al-Maliki or his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, will get first chance to form a government. Going strictly by the election results, Allawi should get first shot. But Maliki has formed a post-election alliance between his State of Law slate and the Iraqi National Alliance, a group of sectarian Shiites close to Iran that finished a distant third in the balloting. An Iraqi judicial ruling would thus seem to suggest that the newly formed all-Shiite coalition should get first shot at government-formation, even though this would seem to run counter to the intentions of Iraqi voters who gave Allawi’s secular, nationalist slate the most seats.

Odds are that Allawi, a secular Shiite whose primary base of support is among Sunnis, can’t form a government in any case because of Shiite opposition, but it would be good to at least let him try so as to lessen charge of post-election manipulation. There is also serious cause to doubt whether Maliki can engineer a coalition that will keep him in the prime minister’s office. He has made many enemies and few friends among fellow Iraqi politicos, and his new coalition partners, the Sadrists, are adamantly oppose to his continued rule. Odds are that a lesser-known, compromise candidate will ultimately emerge as prime minister — just as Maliki himself came from nowhere to be chosen as prime minister in 2006.

While all this is going on, U.S. troop reductions are slated to continue at a rapid pace, down to just 50,000 soldiers by the end of August, thus lessening American ability to influence the outcome. That, in turn, will place a premium on smart, skillful diplomacy during what promises to be a very trying summer. Iraq has cleared one important hurdle, but many more remain.

Good to see that the de-Baathification campaign has been dropped in Iraq, at least for now. The effort to disqualify parliamentary candidates for supposed Baathist backgrounds was a truly poisonous effort engineered by Iran and executed by the opportunistic Ahmed Chalabi to rig the outcome of the Iraqi election. If it had succeeded in taking away votes from Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya slate, the result could have been a major backlash among Sunnis.

Since I have recently been critical of the Obama administration and U.S. diplomatic representatives in Baghdad for not doing more to resolve the post-election crisis, it is only fair to give credit where it is due and note that a behind-the-scenes American effort contributed to this important step forward. But there is much more that needs to be done.

The election results still aren’t certified. Only when that happens will the true jockeying to form a government begin. One of the key questions will be whether Nouri al-Maliki or his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, will get first chance to form a government. Going strictly by the election results, Allawi should get first shot. But Maliki has formed a post-election alliance between his State of Law slate and the Iraqi National Alliance, a group of sectarian Shiites close to Iran that finished a distant third in the balloting. An Iraqi judicial ruling would thus seem to suggest that the newly formed all-Shiite coalition should get first shot at government-formation, even though this would seem to run counter to the intentions of Iraqi voters who gave Allawi’s secular, nationalist slate the most seats.

Odds are that Allawi, a secular Shiite whose primary base of support is among Sunnis, can’t form a government in any case because of Shiite opposition, but it would be good to at least let him try so as to lessen charge of post-election manipulation. There is also serious cause to doubt whether Maliki can engineer a coalition that will keep him in the prime minister’s office. He has made many enemies and few friends among fellow Iraqi politicos, and his new coalition partners, the Sadrists, are adamantly oppose to his continued rule. Odds are that a lesser-known, compromise candidate will ultimately emerge as prime minister — just as Maliki himself came from nowhere to be chosen as prime minister in 2006.

While all this is going on, U.S. troop reductions are slated to continue at a rapid pace, down to just 50,000 soldiers by the end of August, thus lessening American ability to influence the outcome. That, in turn, will place a premium on smart, skillful diplomacy during what promises to be a very trying summer. Iraq has cleared one important hurdle, but many more remain.

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An Unusual Alignment of Interests

More than any other Arab head of state in the world, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has mastered the art of telling listeners what they want to hear.

Last week, he said his country is fully committed to peace in the Middle East, though he worries the Israel government isn’t. He knows this is what bien pensants in the West like to believe. He knows they find it refreshing that he can talk like a liberal while Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten apocalypse.

He also knows how to talk like the right kind of hardliner. Yesterday, he condemned the double suicide-bombing in Moscow’s underground metro and urged the international community to “fight terror around the globe.”

It’s no wonder, then, that some in Washington, Paris, and even Jerusalem think he’s a man they can do business with. All they have to do is convince him that his alliance with Iran is counterproductive, that it runs contrary to his self-evident interests and public pronouncements.

Syria, though, is the most aggressive state sponsor of terrorism in the world after Iran. Assad doesn’t even try to keep up the pretense when he isn’t preening before peace processors. Last week, he said Israel only understands force — a statement perfectly in line with his behavior. And just two days ago, he and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi urged the Palestinian Authority to scrap negotiations with Israel and return to its terrorist roots.

It’s hard to say if Western diplomats and foreign policy makers are actually suckered in by his act or if they’re just playing along because doing so suits them. Either way, they’d be wise to ignore him even when he makes the right noises and pay a little more heed to what other Arab leaders are saying instead. Their interests are far more in line with ours than Assad’s are.

Over the weekend, all, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, rejected Syria’s and Libya’s calls for armed attacks against Israel. Most aren’t interested in signing a treaty with Benjamin Netanyahu any time soon, but at least they don’t yearn for another Operation Cast Lead or a Third Lebanon War. The status quo ultimately isn’t sustainable, but it’s mostly non-violent right now. There’s nothing urgent about it as long as the Syrian- and Iranian-led resistance bloc isn’t fueling its missiles.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two most influential of the Sunni Arab regimes, flatly reject the idea of dialogue with Tehran while publicly supporting the peace process theater. Even if they’re no more sincere about the latter than Bashar al-Assad, as long as their rhetoric matches their immobility and conflict aversion, who cares?

Meanwhile, Iraqis gave Ayad Allawi and his slate of staunchly anti-Iranian candidates a plurality of votes in the recent election. The moderate Nouri al-Maliki came in second while the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance came in dead last. Iran tried to Lebanonize Iraq with its Sadrist militias but seems to have failed. The Saudis are profoundly relieved, and the rest of the Arabs outside Syria surely are, too.

So what we have here, for the most part, is an Arab Middle East that wants to put the Israeli conflict on ice and resist the resistance instead — which is more or less what the Israelis want to see happen. It’s an unusual alignment of interests, but it is authentic. Iran’s Khomeinist regime has been gunning for Arabs in the Middle East since it came to power — and not just in Lebanon and Iraq but also in the Gulf and North Africa.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are unreliable allies (and that’s being generous), but their interests really do overlap with our own and even with Israel’s once in a while. Assad, at the same time, can’t always be bothered even to pretend he shares interests with the U.S. and Israel. His government has been sanctioned and stigmatized for a reason, and it’s not because he’s misguided or misunderstood.

President Barack Obama clearly wants to tilt U.S. foreign policy more toward the Arabs, but he doesn’t have to do it at the expense of our alliance with Israel. Just start with what Washington, Jerusalem, and most of the Arab states have in common and build outward from there. The present alignment may only come round once in a century, so we best not blow it.

More than any other Arab head of state in the world, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has mastered the art of telling listeners what they want to hear.

Last week, he said his country is fully committed to peace in the Middle East, though he worries the Israel government isn’t. He knows this is what bien pensants in the West like to believe. He knows they find it refreshing that he can talk like a liberal while Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten apocalypse.

He also knows how to talk like the right kind of hardliner. Yesterday, he condemned the double suicide-bombing in Moscow’s underground metro and urged the international community to “fight terror around the globe.”

It’s no wonder, then, that some in Washington, Paris, and even Jerusalem think he’s a man they can do business with. All they have to do is convince him that his alliance with Iran is counterproductive, that it runs contrary to his self-evident interests and public pronouncements.

Syria, though, is the most aggressive state sponsor of terrorism in the world after Iran. Assad doesn’t even try to keep up the pretense when he isn’t preening before peace processors. Last week, he said Israel only understands force — a statement perfectly in line with his behavior. And just two days ago, he and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi urged the Palestinian Authority to scrap negotiations with Israel and return to its terrorist roots.

It’s hard to say if Western diplomats and foreign policy makers are actually suckered in by his act or if they’re just playing along because doing so suits them. Either way, they’d be wise to ignore him even when he makes the right noises and pay a little more heed to what other Arab leaders are saying instead. Their interests are far more in line with ours than Assad’s are.

Over the weekend, all, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, rejected Syria’s and Libya’s calls for armed attacks against Israel. Most aren’t interested in signing a treaty with Benjamin Netanyahu any time soon, but at least they don’t yearn for another Operation Cast Lead or a Third Lebanon War. The status quo ultimately isn’t sustainable, but it’s mostly non-violent right now. There’s nothing urgent about it as long as the Syrian- and Iranian-led resistance bloc isn’t fueling its missiles.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two most influential of the Sunni Arab regimes, flatly reject the idea of dialogue with Tehran while publicly supporting the peace process theater. Even if they’re no more sincere about the latter than Bashar al-Assad, as long as their rhetoric matches their immobility and conflict aversion, who cares?

Meanwhile, Iraqis gave Ayad Allawi and his slate of staunchly anti-Iranian candidates a plurality of votes in the recent election. The moderate Nouri al-Maliki came in second while the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance came in dead last. Iran tried to Lebanonize Iraq with its Sadrist militias but seems to have failed. The Saudis are profoundly relieved, and the rest of the Arabs outside Syria surely are, too.

So what we have here, for the most part, is an Arab Middle East that wants to put the Israeli conflict on ice and resist the resistance instead — which is more or less what the Israelis want to see happen. It’s an unusual alignment of interests, but it is authentic. Iran’s Khomeinist regime has been gunning for Arabs in the Middle East since it came to power — and not just in Lebanon and Iraq but also in the Gulf and North Africa.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are unreliable allies (and that’s being generous), but their interests really do overlap with our own and even with Israel’s once in a while. Assad, at the same time, can’t always be bothered even to pretend he shares interests with the U.S. and Israel. His government has been sanctioned and stigmatized for a reason, and it’s not because he’s misguided or misunderstood.

President Barack Obama clearly wants to tilt U.S. foreign policy more toward the Arabs, but he doesn’t have to do it at the expense of our alliance with Israel. Just start with what Washington, Jerusalem, and most of the Arab states have in common and build outward from there. The present alignment may only come round once in a century, so we best not blow it.

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