Washington Post military correspondent Greg Jaffe has penned an important article examining what the current unrest in Baghdad might mean to President Obama’s strategy for Iraq. Basically speaking, he writes that Obama has come to depend on Prime Minister Haider Abadi to restore stability and usher in necessary reforms. There’s logic to this. Contrary to those who see all Shi‘ites as cut from the same cloth, there’s actually broad diversity to the Shi‘ite community, politically, religiously, culturally, and ethnically. Even with in Da`wa, the political party from which Abadi arose, there are major factions: Those like Abadi who spent their exile years in the United Kingdom seem much more at ease with the West and a more liberal model of government than those, like Abadi’s predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, who spent his exile years in Syria and Iran. Indeed, many Iraqis within government and the security forces criticize Abadi most for surrounding himself too much with pro-Western or more academic personalities rather than those accustomed to the rough-and-tumble hard politics that characterize Iraq.
On a more personal level, Abadi has a technocrat’s mind. His mastery of details—legal, technical, and economic—surpasses all of his predecessors. His major flaws, however, is indecisiveness and poor strategic decision-making when it comes to fulfilling his agenda. If a window open to achieve a reform or fulfill an aim, Abadi mulls his options until it is too late. When anti-corruption protestors first poured into the streets a year ago—and when Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani—threw his support to fundamental reform, Abadi did not seize the opportunity, breeding greater cynicism. Abadi is further hampered internally by his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki had led the victorious list during the last elections and so every member of Da`wa in parliament today owes their political fortune not to Abadi but rather to Maliki. While Maliki will not again become prime minister, the United States, alas, has not done him any favors. Discussion by various representatives and senators about direct provision of weaponry to Sunni tribes or the Kurdish peshmerga leads Abadi’s internal Shi‘ite opponents to castigate Abadi by arguing that his made a mistake by cooperating with the United States because Washington is only going to turn around an betray Baghdad. Tehran is all too happy to fan the flames of this conspiracy, arguing that the United States actually sponsors and supports the Islamic State.
The chaos in Baghdad comes just after a visit by Vice President Biden that was intended to help calm the political unrest and keep the battle against the Islamic State on track. As Biden’s plane was approaching Baghdad on Thursday, a senior administration official described the vice president’s visit — which was shrouded in secrecy prior to his arrival — as a “symbol of how much faith we have in Prime Minister Abadi.”
If the goal is to demonstrate faith in Abadi, then the White House and the U.S. Embassy are completely divorced from reality. Too often, American politicians forget that rhetoric meant for a U.S. domestic audience is heard around the world and retains its relevance long after the American audience—and perhaps the politician as well—has forgotten what he said. Every Iraqi knows Biden for one thing: Endorsing the division of Iraq into three ethnic and sectarian cantons. Biden’s goal may have been motivated by a desire to bash George W. Bush. He was simply using Iraq as a template upon which to play a domestic political game.
It was a silly proposal on its face. It would have only encouraged ethnic cleansing, legitimized Sunni Arab terrorism, and would not have increased stability. A homogenous Sunni Arab statelet, for example, would not have prevented the rise of the Islamic State but may even have eased it. More recently, Biden has walked back his support for the dismantling of Iraq, but that did little to change his reputation among Iraqis. Simply put, Biden is toxic in Iraq. The White House may not want to believe that, but the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad must realize it. If the Obama administration wanted to signal support for Abadi, literally any other official would have done the trick: Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, CIA direct John Brennan, any former Secretary of State or, better yet, all of them from across both parties to show true U.S. commitment. How sad it is that in the eighth year of Obama’s presidency, he and his top aides remain so tone deaf to the reality of Iraq and Iraqi politics. It is quite possible that rather than strengthen Abadi against the backdrop of a political crisis, the White House just pulled the carpet out from underneath him.
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