Peter Beinart is still real sorry about that whole Iraq War that he pushed a decade or so ago, and he gets why it’s upsetting (“infuriating” is the word he uses) to see the same gang of incompetent ideologues who caused Iraq to fall apart in the first place being invited back on TV to offer their sage and inevitably disastrous advice about What America Must Do Now. But he’s wondering why everybody wants to just blame the war for making Iraq a mess, when there’s all the not-war of the past few years that we should probably blame too, for some reason.
OK, let’s pause here for just a sec. Assume that Obama really did ignore Iraq. He’s also ignored Myanmar for the most part. Thailand too. Togo, haven’t heard much about them. And what the hell does Nauru (a country that is facing a literal existential threat, by the way) have to do to get on Obama’s radar? I guess what I’m asking is, when did “President of the United States” become “Custodian of Every Other Country on the Planet”? And by “custodian” I don’t mean “caretaker,” I mean “the guy at your high school who cleans up puke with sawdust for a wage that conservatives on the school board insist is ‘dangerously high’ despite the fact that he can barely afford to buy groceries.”
Anyway, let’s take a look at Beinart’s argument. What could Barack Obama have done to stop Iraq’s “increasingly dictatorial prime minister” in his tracks?
But sooner or later, honest liberals will have to admit that Obama’s Iraq policy has been a disaster. Since the president took office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has grown ever more tyrannical and ever more sectarian, driving his country’s Sunnis toward revolt. Since Obama took office, Iraq watchers—including those within his own administration—have warned that unless the United States pushed hard for inclusive government, the country would slide back into civil war. Yet the White House has been so eager to put Iraq in America’s rearview mirror that, publicly at least, it has given Maliki an almost-free pass. Until now, when it may be too late.
So he could have, um, he, uh, didn’t, er, his, ah, ooo, there’s one! “Pushed hard for inclusive government.” That’s something he could have done. He could have pushed the “make Iraqi government more inclusive” button on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, which releases tasty little pellets of food onto the Iraqi Prime Minister’s desk in Baghdad to reward him for not treating Sunnis like stateless outcasts. Plus he could have not “given Maliki an almost-free pass” to, I guess, govern the country whose people elected him to govern according to his own thinking. Because free elections are nice, but being free to do what America tells you to do is the real sweet spot.
Obama inherited an Iraq where better security had created an opportunity for better government. The Bush administration’s troop “surge” did not solve the country’s underlying divisions. But by retaking Sunni areas from insurgents, it gave Iraq’s politicians the chance to forge a government inclusive enough to keep the country together.
The problem was that Maliki wasn’t interested in such a government. Rather than integrate the Sunni Awakening fighters who had helped subdue al-Qaeda into Iraq’s army, Maliki arrested them. In the run-up to his 2010 reelection bid, Maliki’s Electoral Commission disqualified more than 500, mostly Sunni, candidates on charges that they had ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
Yes, as Scott Lemieux says, that bit I bolded there is the real nut of the thing. See, out here in the prison of the real world, we don’t actually have a device that dispenses tasty pellets to train the Iraqi PM to be nice and obey the rule of law, and the phrase “almost-free pass” is essentially meaningless. You can read to the end of Beinart’s piece if you really hate yourself that much, but you won’t find anything resembling an actual, specific thing that Obama should have done that would have made Maliki straighten up and fly right. In fact, even today when he’s staring down the barrel of an insurgency/invasion that’s conquered about a third of his country, when American aid seems contingent on him either stepping down or forming an inclusive unity government, Maliki still won’t budge. If he won’t (or, maybe, can’t?) change now in the face of a real threat, what was Obama going to do with him, or to him, three or four years ago?
When Iraqis went to the polls in March 2010, they gave a narrow plurality to the Iraqiya List, an alliance of parties that enjoyed significant Sunni support but was led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Under pressure from Maliki, however, an Iraqi judge allowed the prime minister’s Dawa Party—which had finished a close second—to form a government instead. According to Emma Sky, chief political adviser to General Raymond Odierno, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, American officials knew this violated Iraq’s constitution. But they never publicly challenged Maliki’s power grab, which was backed by Iran, perhaps because they believed his claim that Iraq’s Shiites would never accept a Sunni-aligned government. “The message” that America’s acquiescence “sent to Iraq’s people and politicians alike,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, “was that the United States under the new Obama administration was no longer going to enforce the rules of the democratic road…. [This] undermined the reform of Iraqi politics and resurrected the specter of the failed state and the civil war.” According to Filkins, one American diplomat in Iraq resigned in disgust.
Whoa, yeah, it is incredibly irresponsible that America didn’t directly involve itself in a constitutional crisis taking place in another sovereign nation. What do these Obama people think, that America is not the Federal Election Commission to the World? Just absurd. Once our acquiescence to the vagaries of the internal politics of, and I really can’t stress this enough, a wholly separate sovereign state became apparent, a loud and clear message was sent to the Iraqi people and Iraqi politicians that America wasn’t going to be all up in their business anymore, which was Bad, except that most Iraqis didn’t want America being all up in their business anymore, which makes it Good, but Bad too, or something. Come to think of it, is there any actual evidence that any such message was really sent, apart from the conjecture of a guy who wakes up every day and weeps a little over the fact that we’re not Doing War (well, not systematically, anyway) on anybody in the Middle East at the moment?
Under an agreement signed by George W. Bush, the U.S. was to withdraw forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. American military officials, fearful that Iraq might unravel without U.S. supervision, wanted to keep 20,000 to 25,000 troops in the country after that. Obama now claims that maintaining any residual force was impossible because Iraq’s parliament would not give U.S. soldiers immunity from prosecution. Given how unpopular America’s military presence was among ordinary Iraqis, that may well be true. But we can’t fully know because Obama—eager to tout a full withdrawal from Iraq in his reelection campaign—didn’t push hard to keep troops in the country. As a former senior White House official told Peter Baker of The New York Times, “We really didn’t want to be there and [Maliki] really didn’t want us there.… [Y]ou had a president who was going to be running for re-election, and getting out of Iraq was going to be a big statement.”
I mean, come on. “We can’t fully know”? This is what passes for Sensible Liberal Foreign Policy Analysis in the Atlantic? Maliki repeatedly told the administration that he didn’t have the votes in parliament to give American forces immunity from Iraqi law, and we weren’t interested in leaving American troops in a country where they were hated if they were going to be subject to the local legal system. Can we “fully know” that Maliki didn’t have the votes, or that there wasn’t some other way to approach this problem? I guess not, in the “how do I know the color blue to me is the same as the color blue to you, man?” sense. But is that kind of weaker-than-weaksauce analysis really worthy of the place that published Ta-Nehisi Coates’s excellent reparations case a few weeks ago?
Note, also too, that the SOFA negotiation story actually makes the “Obama could have stopped all this if he’d just been a little tougher on Maliki” argument weaker. Maliki, in that case, seems to have genuinely been forced to deny immunity to US forces by elements of his governing coalition that were even less keen on a continued US military presence than he was. This means that coercive US policy wouldn’t have just had to turn Maliki around on the idea of an inclusive government, it would have had to turn a good chunk of his political supporters on the idea as well, and they might have been even harder to turn.
On December 12, 2011, just days before the final U.S. troops departed Iraq, Maliki visited the White House. According to Nasr, he told Obama that Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, an Iraqiya leader and the highest-ranking Sunni in his government, supported terrorism. Maliki, argues Nasr, was testing Obama, probing to see how the U.S. would react if he began cleansing his government of Sunnis. Obama replied that it was a domestic Iraqi affair. After the meeting, Nasr claims, Maliki told aides, “See! The Americans don’t care.”
OH MY GOD OBAMA JUST GAVE UP HIS SECOND JOB AS GOVERNOR-GENERAL OF IRAQ, JUST LIKE THAT! I hate to break it to Beinart, but as despicable and bush league a move as Maliki’s treatment of Hashimi may have been, it was, in fact, a domestic Iraqi affair! That’s how domestic political squabbles go, and even when those squabbles involve unfair abuses of power, generally the most we can do is complain about it from afar. To wit: China criminalizes dissent from the ruling party routinely, but we still do business with them anyway.
Apart from explaining exactly what America could have done to change Maliki’s behavior and/or his political calculus, it would be nice if Beinart could explain what, exactly, makes the day-to-day operation of Iraq’s government our special American project. The only thing I can think of that could be spun into a justification of such a policy is the idea that the war and mismanaged recovery that broke the country in the first place were our fault. While that’s undeniably true, unfortunately for Beinart and the other Sensible Liberals it’s also an argument for less (as in, something approaching zero) American involvement in Iraqi affairs, not more. This really isn’t the Pottery Barn. When you break it, you shouldn’t get repeated chances to keep breaking it.