Commentary Magazine


Never Force Concessions Under Fire

When North Korean agents killed several senior South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, the United States did not demand that South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan compromise with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. And when, four years later, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jetliner, the White House did not suggest Seoul accelerate reunification talks.

When Hamas or Hezbollah launches rockets into Israel, the reaction of most congressmen isn’t to suggest that Israelis deserve to live in bomb shelters, or pre-school children deserve to be hit. Rather, there’s an understanding that countries have a right to defend themselves against terrorism rather than simply appease it. Many U.S. officials would think twice about denying either Israel or South Korea the means to defend themselves against terror threats: that’s why the United States has, in the past, rushed Patriot Missile batteries to both countries and sometimes has even re-deployed carrier strike groups to signal that terrorists would not beat allies.

How unfortunate, then, it is that so many proponents of a strong U.S.-Iraq relationship appear more inclined to blame the Iraqi government for the current violence than the terrorists who have for several years sought to win through violence what they could not at the ballot box. Violence is worsening in Iraq: Visiting Basra last summer, I was within earshot of a couple car bombs, the first time that happened to me since the bad old days of 2004 and 2005. The fruit venders and restaurant patrons in Basra had done nothing to deserve the attack; they were targeted simply because they were Shi’ites. It is just as easy to correlate the growth in terror to the civil war in Syria and the radicalization of the opposition as it is arrest warrants against one, two, or three Iraqi politicians.

As I discussed in a recent post about the roots of the current crisis, Iraqi politics are far more complicated than sectarian narrative or the all-Shi’ites-are-Iranian-puppets narrative would allow. The last thing that the United States should do is accept that the grievances of some Sunnis justify any terrorism whatsoever. If the population of al-Anbar does not like the current government and if they feel they have been systematically discriminated against, then they have two good recourses:

  • First, Anbaris can document and publicize widely very specific instances of abuse and then seek diplomatic pressure to force those changes. Granted, if countries like Saudi Arabia normalized relations with Iraq, the people of Anbar might be able to seek to encourage their diplomatic leverage. So long as Saudis (and Qataris and many Jordanians) deny the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and remain unwilling to engage with Baghdad in the manner they once did under Saddam Hussein, then it is understandable that the Iraqi government will have reason to doubt their good will.
  • Second, Anbaris can focus on the forthcoming elections in Iraq in order to maximize turnout and their leverage in the post-election coalition building. If they dislike Prime Minister Maliki, they might reach out more to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Ammar al-Hakim, and they might also further their relationship with Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, the remains of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Noshirwan Mustafa’s Gorran Movement. That would, of course, mean dropping the notion expressed by some more extreme voices that the best course for Iraq would be to return to a pre-2003 system which blessed minority, strongman rule.

Hagiography regarding the surge also undercuts effective U.S. efforts to quell the violence. The surge was an important military and psychological strategy—it convinced allies and adversaries alike that the United States was committed to victory (at least until we announced our withdrawal)—but in an Iraqi context, it was politically short-sighted. Certainly, some Sunni tribesmen and political leaders put down their arms so long as the money flowed and they received outsized privileges. They did not change their ideology or convert to American or democratic values; they just made a short-term calculation that their own survival meant accepting American and Iraqi government terms.

The problem with those switching sides is they seldom do so only once. This was a lesson that Gen. David Petraeus should have learned when he commanded the 101st Airborne in Mosul: he achieved quiet so long as he empowered and subsidized Islamists and Baathists, no matter that as soon as the money dried up, his appointees flipped back to the insurgency.

Bribing groups and factions is seldom a long-term solution and, indeed, hampers peace by creating incentives not to compromise or accept the new reality of post-Saddam Iraq absent special privileges. Yes, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should crackdown on corruption, sectarianism, and incitement which blight some of his allies. He should also reach out to all Iraqis regardless of ethnicity and sect. That said, he and his Shi’ite competitors have reached out to Sunni Arabs, Christians, and Kurds as they recognize that they will need to build a coalition after the next elections if they want to hold onto power.

But Maliki should never ignore terrorism or take a softer approach because its perpetrators might be Sunni. If Tariq al-Hashemi was guilty of murder, then he should face the consequences regardless of which mosque he attends. It would be counter-productive to accept any system in which the best way to avoid accountability for violence is to engage in further terrorism. That is a lesson the United States should have learned when U.S. forces had Shi’ite firebrand cleric and death squad leader Muqtada al-Sadr in their sites but chose to let him walk for fear of what his supporters might do if he were captured or killed. That decision enabled Muqtada al-Sadr and his gang to murder hundreds more.

Anbari politicians also need to dispense with the sectarian populism and religious incitement in which they too often engage. All Iraqis need to stop playing double games with militias and abuses. Al-Qaeda did not seize Ramadi and Fallujah because of a spontaneous reaction to the raid on the protest camp; they seized those cities because they planned to for a long time, infiltrated them, and stockpiled arms.

No ally should have to live with al-Qaeda or be denied the means to eliminate them. Rather than hold Iraqis hostage by denying the Iraqi government the means to respond effectively, the United States should instead provide whatever assistance is necessary coupled with real attention to guaranteeing Iraq’s next elections are free, fair, and will enjoy maximum participation.

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