Commentary Magazine


Should Maliki Be Granted Immunity?

One of the debates reportedly ongoing among Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his inner circle, and his political rivals is not only whether Maliki should retire, but what that retirement should look like. The knives are out for Maliki as fair-weather friends turn against him, though scapegoating him for the rise of the Islamic State still seems wrong: After all, those who say he should have reached out more to the Sunni Arab community ignore the fact that any such concessions would be irrelevant to the Islamic State, which embraces an uncompromising ideology. Much of the current uprising is also fueled by former Baathists and while some suggest that they could have been brought into a big tent, their tendency to operate in secret cells, coordinate with groups like the Islamic State, and embrace extreme sectarianism into which even Maliki does not engage suggests coopting them would not have brought the peace so many seek.

Nor is scapegoating him because he has become deferential to Iranian influence wise, for two reasons. First, it was the U.S. withdrawal that allowed Iranian influence to grow unabated and forced Maliki to make concessions to those who would remain. Until the U.S. withdrew, Maliki could use their presence and the need to balance the interests of both the United States and Iran in order to carve out independent space. And, second, if the problem is Qods Force chief Qassem Suleimani and unabated deference to Iran, then the United States should treat Iraqi Kurdish leaders with the same animosity with which they now treat Maliki. Suleimani is as frequent a visitor to Sulaimani and Erbil as he is to Baghdad and Basra.

That said, events have spun out of control on Maliki’s watch, he has grown more sectarian and paranoid in recent weeks, and even his own constituents acknowledge it is time for him to go.

While some Iraqis suggest Maliki should become a deputy president in order to maintain parliamentary immunity, Iraqi detractors suggest that parliament should not reward Maliki with such a post. They point out alleged corruption and abuses during his term.

With or without a follow-on position from the premiership, it would be wise to let Maliki retire both in peace and inside Iraq. While the long knives are out for Maliki, he has been no better nor worse than his immediate predecessors. The precedent of allowing a leader to retire would undercut the temptation of future rulers to feel that reelection is more about life than having a job. True, Iraqis say that many of those surrounding him, including his son, engaged in business which at best reflected a conflict of interest and at worst was outright corrupt. But whatever the animosity against Maliki—and much of it remains unfair or exaggerated—the value of allowing him to walk away would be a good precedent for Iraq’s future stability. And that future stability should be the goal of floundering U.S., Arab, and international policy.

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2 Responses to “Should Maliki Be Granted Immunity?”

  1. DAVID PATTEN says:

    Michael, it is great to read a sensible evaluation of Maliki. He is not the chauvinistic Shia authoritarian the American media makes him out to be. Nor is he a puppet of Iran; though with America and the Arab states turning their backs on Iraq, and ISIS invading the country, I imagine it has gotten much harder for him to exert any leverage in his dealings with Tehran. For the past eight years, however, Maliki has done a reasonably good job leading one of the most complex and tumultuous places on Earth. The real danger facing Iraq is the jihadist army that invaded it, and I’m not sure how the media’s narrative so easily lost focus on that.

    Reading the NYT and watching the news, I get the impression that Maliki’s critics think ISIS and its allies are reacting reasonably against Maliki’s alleged dictatorial behavior. The problem with this argument, as you observe, is that neither ISIS nor its Baathist supporters object to dictators. They object to democracy and they object to Shias. Iraq is not currently being threatened by aggrieved Sunnis who just want equal rights. Iraq is under attack from genocidal maniacs who want to return the world to medieval times (and some who just want to roll the clock back to the Saddam era). Had ISIS not invaded, there is no reason to doubt that Maliki’s more reasonable Sunni Arab critics would have continued working through the political process as they have been for years.

    You are also right in pointing out that scapegoating Maliki and leaving him in a position where his successor could prosecute him for alleged corruption and atrocities would be deeply problematic. How could Maliki be guaranteed that such an investigation wouldn’t just be used as a means to settle scores and eliminate him as a rival for power? As long as such a possibility exists, Maliki would be a fool to relinquish power without a fight, and Maliki is no fool.

  2. CHARLES BIRD says:

    I’m less concerned about his post-PM fate and more about him just getting out. He alienated pretty much the entire Sunni population, giving them no other recourse but to join the anti-Maliki insurgency. Why we’re not conditioning our military assistance on his leaving is somewhat baffling. While Obama said that we would not favor one sect over another, we are effectively aiding the Shiites over the Sunnis. Huge mistake.

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