The debacle in Iraq isn’t President Barack Obama’s fault. It’s not the Republicans’ fault. Both bear some responsibility, but, overwhelmingly, it’s the fault of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
Some on the left suggest that President George W. Bush is at fault because he invaded Iraq in the first place. Sen. John McCain argues that the White House bears such responsibility that Obama should replace his national security team.
Let’s remember that Iraq isn’t a political prop. It’s a country whose 33 million people are on the edge of a precipice. Iraq is driven primarily by its own dynamic, and unfortunately, there are more problems in international relations than there are solutions.
The debate about who lost Iraq is an echo of the equally foolish debate in the mid-20th century about “who lost China.” China wasn’t ours to lose then, and Iraq isn’t ours to lose today.
The Democratic narrative is that Bush started the cascade of dominoes. The problem with that logic is that Obama administration officials were boasting just a couple of years ago about how peaceful and successful Iraq had become because of their fine work. At a minimum, they catastrophically misjudged the trend.
The Republican line is that by pulling out the last U.S. troops in December 2011, Obama allowed gains to evaporate and a hopeful story to unravel. Well, that’s conceivable, but unlikely. And al-Maliki seemed uncomfortable with the kind of reasonable status of forces agreement that would have enabled U.S. troops to remain.
Where Obama does bear some responsibility is in Syria, the staging area for the current mayhem in Iraq. In retrospect, Obama erred when he vetoed the proposal by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gen. David Petraeus to arm moderates in Syria.
No one can know if that would have succeeded. But it is clear that Obama’s policy, to the extent there was one, failed. Activists say that 160,000 have died in Syria, and President Bashar Assad has recovered momentum. In the absence of foreign support, some frustrated Syrian rebels quit units led by moderate commanders and joined the extremists, simply because then they would be better paid and better armed.
The upshot was that extremist forces, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant gained strength and established safe havens in northern Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant used these bases to assault northern Iraq in the last few days.
What happened next was stunning: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, with some 4,000 fighters, routed an Iraq army that has more than 200,000 active-duty soldiers. Several divisions disintegrated.
That’s where al-Maliki comes in, for this is a political, not military, story. For several years, al-Maliki has systematically marginalized Sunnis, weakened Sunni Awakening militias that had been a bulwark against extremists, and undermined the professionalism of the armed forces. Some Sunnis so feared their own government that they accepted the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as the lesser of two evils.
So al-Maliki created his own nemesis and ignored danger signs, blindly proceeding without wanting to hear the truth. In all this, he echoes Saddam Hussein.
In 2002, in the Saddam era, I published a searing anti-Saddam column while I was in Iraq. A senior government official summoned me to his office in Baghdad, as a portrait of Saddam stared down at us, and began a threatening tirade. It became apparent that this official hadn’t actually read the full column, so I nervously asked my Iraqi interpreter to read it to him in Arabic.
I was paying my interpreter a hefty daily rate, and, for financial reasons, he didn’t want to see me expelled or jailed. So, in rendering my column into Arabic, he skipped whole paragraphs and turned it into mush. Deflated, the government official let me off with a stern warning, and I was reminded of how megalomaniac regimes mislead themselves. In the same way, al-Maliki probably had no idea that his army was crumbling.
As the United States debates what to do, let’s remember al-Maliki’s central role in all this. Hawks are right that Iraq could be a catastrophe. We could see the establishment of a terrorist caliphate, untold deaths, soaring oil prices, more global terrorism.
In that context, hawks favor U.S. airstrikes. But such strikes also create risks, especially if our intelligence there is rusty. And although airstrikes might be necessary to slow the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, they’re not sufficient.
The crucial step, and the one we should apply diplomatic pressure to try to achieve, is for al-Maliki to step back and share power with Sunnis while accepting decentralization of government.
If al-Maliki does all that, it may still be possible to save Iraq. Without that, airstrikes would be a further waste.