Commentary Magazine


Topic: Sunni Arabs

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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Must We Waste Another Year?

The United States is re-establishing ties with Damascus and hoping to lure Syria away from Iran, but Lebanese scholar Tony Badran warns the Obama administration that Syria’s President Bashar Assad is laying a trap. The U.S., he writes in NOW Lebanon, needs to avoid making concessions until Assad “makes verifiable and substantial concessions on key Washington demands, not least surrendering Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Otherwise, Assad may dictate the avenues, conditions and aims of the engagement process.”

Syria has been cunningly outwitting Americans and Europeans for decades, and most Western leaders seem entirely incapable of learning from or even noticing the mistakes of their predecessors. Assad is so sure of himself this time around — and, frankly, he’s right to be — that he’s already announced the failure of President Obama’s outreach program. Yesterday he openly ridiculed the administration’s policy in a joint press conference with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Syria will not abandon its alliance with Iran, nor will it cease and desist its support for terrorist groups, until at least one of the two governments in question has been replaced. The alliance works for both parties. While Assad’s secular Arab Socialist Baath Party ideology differs markedly from Ali Khamenei’s Velayat-e Faqih, “resistance” is at the molten core of each one. Syria’s and Iran’s lists of enemies — Sunni Arabs, Israel, and the United States — are identical.

Understand the lay of the land. Syria is no more likely to join the de facto American-French-Egyptian-Saudi-Israeli coalition than the U.S. is likely to defect to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. It’s as if the U.S. were trying to pry East Germany out of the Communist bloc during the Cold War before the Berlin Wall was destroyed.

No basket of carrots Barack Obama or anyone else can offer will change Assad’s calculation of his own strategic interests. His weak military and Soviet-style economy would instantly render his country as geopolitically impotent as Yemen if he scrapped his alliance with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Today, though, he’s the most powerful Arab ruler in the Levant. Because he contributes so much to the Middle East’s instability and starts so many fires in neighboring countries, he’s made himself an “indispensable” part of every fantasy solution Western diplomats can come up with. He wouldn’t be where he is without Iranian help, and that help will be more valuable than ever if and when Tehran produces nuclear weapons.

Last month Obama admitted he was “too optimistic” about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it’s “just really hard.” Prying Syria away from Iran won’t be any easier. As Tony Badran points out in his NOW Lebanon piece, the United States has been trying to drive the two countries apart now for more than 25 years.

Obama has not been paying attention if he thinks “engagement” with Syria hasn’t been tried. Badran alone has been documenting the futility of Western attempts to cut deals with Damascus ever since I started reading him, almost six years ago. The problem itself is much older than that, of course. It goes all the way back to the 1970s. Many of us who have been following Syria for some time were exhausted by the failure of “engagement” before we had ever even heard of Barack Obama.

The administration has already lost a year to the locusts with its “peace process” to nowhere and its “engagement” with Iran. A whole range of options exists between negotiating with murderers and invading their countries, and it’s long past time they were applied.

It won’t be Obama’s fault when his Syria strategy fails, but it is his fault that he’s wasting time trying. The president really ought to have learned by now that reaching out to terror-supporting tyrants in the Middle East is a mug’s game. His charm, sincerity, and inherent reasonableness count for little in a hard region where leaders almost everywhere rule at the point of a gun, and where the docile and the weak are bullied or destroyed by the ruthless.

The United States is re-establishing ties with Damascus and hoping to lure Syria away from Iran, but Lebanese scholar Tony Badran warns the Obama administration that Syria’s President Bashar Assad is laying a trap. The U.S., he writes in NOW Lebanon, needs to avoid making concessions until Assad “makes verifiable and substantial concessions on key Washington demands, not least surrendering Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Otherwise, Assad may dictate the avenues, conditions and aims of the engagement process.”

Syria has been cunningly outwitting Americans and Europeans for decades, and most Western leaders seem entirely incapable of learning from or even noticing the mistakes of their predecessors. Assad is so sure of himself this time around — and, frankly, he’s right to be — that he’s already announced the failure of President Obama’s outreach program. Yesterday he openly ridiculed the administration’s policy in a joint press conference with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Syria will not abandon its alliance with Iran, nor will it cease and desist its support for terrorist groups, until at least one of the two governments in question has been replaced. The alliance works for both parties. While Assad’s secular Arab Socialist Baath Party ideology differs markedly from Ali Khamenei’s Velayat-e Faqih, “resistance” is at the molten core of each one. Syria’s and Iran’s lists of enemies — Sunni Arabs, Israel, and the United States — are identical.

Understand the lay of the land. Syria is no more likely to join the de facto American-French-Egyptian-Saudi-Israeli coalition than the U.S. is likely to defect to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. It’s as if the U.S. were trying to pry East Germany out of the Communist bloc during the Cold War before the Berlin Wall was destroyed.

No basket of carrots Barack Obama or anyone else can offer will change Assad’s calculation of his own strategic interests. His weak military and Soviet-style economy would instantly render his country as geopolitically impotent as Yemen if he scrapped his alliance with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Today, though, he’s the most powerful Arab ruler in the Levant. Because he contributes so much to the Middle East’s instability and starts so many fires in neighboring countries, he’s made himself an “indispensable” part of every fantasy solution Western diplomats can come up with. He wouldn’t be where he is without Iranian help, and that help will be more valuable than ever if and when Tehran produces nuclear weapons.

Last month Obama admitted he was “too optimistic” about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it’s “just really hard.” Prying Syria away from Iran won’t be any easier. As Tony Badran points out in his NOW Lebanon piece, the United States has been trying to drive the two countries apart now for more than 25 years.

Obama has not been paying attention if he thinks “engagement” with Syria hasn’t been tried. Badran alone has been documenting the futility of Western attempts to cut deals with Damascus ever since I started reading him, almost six years ago. The problem itself is much older than that, of course. It goes all the way back to the 1970s. Many of us who have been following Syria for some time were exhausted by the failure of “engagement” before we had ever even heard of Barack Obama.

The administration has already lost a year to the locusts with its “peace process” to nowhere and its “engagement” with Iran. A whole range of options exists between negotiating with murderers and invading their countries, and it’s long past time they were applied.

It won’t be Obama’s fault when his Syria strategy fails, but it is his fault that he’s wasting time trying. The president really ought to have learned by now that reaching out to terror-supporting tyrants in the Middle East is a mug’s game. His charm, sincerity, and inherent reasonableness count for little in a hard region where leaders almost everywhere rule at the point of a gun, and where the docile and the weak are bullied or destroyed by the ruthless.

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