In the hours after Kim Jong Il’s death went viral, U.S. intelligence agencies found themselves under rapid-fire criticism for failing to time-stamp the death of North Korea’s dictator. Unnamed “supervisors” quickly jumped on the story, defining an intelligence failure as “leaving policymakers unprepared to deal with the scenarios.” Once a significant event occurs, “the key point” is “having a solid framework to assess what might come next."
Unlike Kim’s death, U.S. officials have a good idea when Nouri al-Maliki moved on two high-ranking Iraqi politicians. And unlike a standard response to the Korean peninsula, the Obama administration's entire framework in Iraq is crumbling by the year.
The administration naturally argues that it did plan to contain Iraq’s political fallout after the final withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. Speaking to the Daily Beast, Colin Kahl says the White House worked its phones all weekend to “cool down” al-Maliki’s decision-making. The message from the Pentagon’s recently-departed military adviser for Iraq: “everybody has to be careful right now.” Vice President Joe Biden also sprung into motion, privately and publicly walking al-Maliki back from an arrest warrant for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi.
Accused of funding a Sunni assassination squad against Shia politicians, al-Hashmi has denied the charge as he weathers Iraq’s political storm in President Jalal Talabani’s guesthouse. He also blames Washington for ignoring al-Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies until a national crisis erupted.
The ongoing breakdown in U.S.-Iraqi relations indicates that the Obama administration was ill-prepared for 2012’s transition. Biden’s politicking reinforced the chummy relationship between Washington and al-Maliki, overshadowing his talks with other political leaders, while the White House risked a dangerous argument by using Baghdad’s crisis to highlight Iraq’s political growth. Press secretary Jay Carney told reporters last week, “The key metric here is that those political disputes have increasingly been resolved through negotiation, not through violence, and elections were held, a government was established - these are all signs of important progress - all while violence declined significantly.”
That Iraq’s violence has “declined significantly” from 2006-2008 is a statistical truism. Instead of thousands, hundreds of Iraqi security personnel and civilians fall victim to insurgent and terrorist attacks each month (including a vicious string of bombings over the weekend). More encouraging is the vigorous popular energy that al-Maliki’s government failed to channel after 2010‘s parliamentary election - democratic tendencies with few roots in American influence. Many parts of the country are returning to a sense of normality without Saddam Hussein lurking in the shadows, but Iraqis complain about the lack of services, economic opportunity and political freedoms. Particularly unfortunate is Washington’s simultaneous support for al-Maliki and disengagement from Baghdad as a whole.
“There is no democracy in Iraq,” says his main Sunni rival, Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi.
Al-Maliki's current behavior should have been expected, as Mike Rogers told Reuters on Thursday. Joining his fellow Republicans, the House’s intelligence chairman warned “that the sudden rapid withdrawal with no troop presence on the ground was going to leave this vacuum that would be filled with the kind of problems that you're seeing.” GOP officials and presidential candidates spent December holding President Barack Obama personally accountable for a premature withdrawal, except this logic runs into a major obstacle. If al-Maliki feels politically exposed without U.S. combat troops, extending America’s military presence would empower him to continue consolidating power.
For starters many Iraqis want U.S. troops out of their country despite the potential consequences. The explosive issue could have divided Iraq’s parliament at an earlier date, a possibility that al-Maliki acknowledged by avoiding a vote. This outcome also opens the door to a power struggle (with Sunnis, Kurds and his own coalition) and consolidation of power, along with the inevitable criticism that Obama intervened too forcefully. Iraq’s urgent dilemma isn’t a lack of U.S. troops, but al-Maliki’s governing style and the administration's soft handling of him.
The United States "left Iraq in a terrible situation,” Hashemi told the Daily Beast on Tuesday. “We are just very much closer to an autocratic system, this is the country America has left us.”
No party is happy with al-Maliki outside his shrinking coalition. Muqtada al-Sadr would have led a populist rally against the extension of U.S. troops, and the Shia cleric seized on al-Maliki’s distractions to release his own “peace code” (he also called for Hashemi’s trial under parliamentary law). Sunnis have never trusted al-Maliki, one more reason to explore their own autonomous regions. Meanwhile the Kurds, whom Washington expects to broker a negotiated settlement, won’t hand Hashimi over since “he is our guest.”
Maintaining a military presence throughout al-Maliki’s term would have delayed an explosion, potentially increasing its magnitude and injecting U.S. troops in the process.
Pulling Obama from Iraq’s detail qualified as a rare moment of sensitivity. The GOP has demanded that he intervene in Baghdad’s parliament while ignoring his direct involvement in the latest crisis: his praise of al-Maliki and the defiant response of deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlak. Maybe al-Maliki was “waiting to pounce” on Hashimi once U.S. combat troops withdrew, but Mutlak’s declaration that al-Maliki is “worse than Saddam” traces straight to Obama’s rhetoric. He’s fortunate to escape the blame he deserves, but he also needs to engage the situation personally.
"There will be a day whereby the Americans will realize that they were deceived by al-Maliki,” Mutlak predicted, ”and they will regret that.”
Nevertheless, the administration is already paying a high price for growing too comfortable with al-Maliki and Iraq’s status quo. The premier confidently strutted his true colors by rejecting Iraqiya’s proposed boycott, threatening to replace its ministers with his own allies. However the Interior and Defense ministries don’t require replacements since he never gave them up, offering easy access to Iraq’s security forces. al-Maliki’s threat is real enough to keep Iraqiya “suspended” in Baghdad’s recessed parliament, but this atmosphere isn’t conducive to governing a country - let alone repairing a war-torn country.
The situation demands that Washington draw a hard line against al-Maliki and back him down into a true coalition government. Calling on “all sides to work together” isn’t going to work - al-Maliki must be openly confronted with building an equitable Iraq. If his behavior continues, Washington will enjoy the political and popular support to employ a range of political actions in Baghdad.
Scrounging up support inside America’s capital and across the country should be a greater challenge.