Why US policy failed in Iraq

A fascinating post at the Washington Post by Ali Khedery:

To understand why is imploding, you must understand Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — and why the United States has supported him since 2006.

I have known Maliki, or Abu Isra, as he is known to people close to him, for more than a decade. I have traveled across three continents with him. I know his family and his inner circle. When Maliki was an obscure member of parliament, I was among the very few Americans in Baghdad who took his phone calls. In 2006, I helped introduce him to the U.S. ambassador, recommending him as a promising option for prime minister. In 2008, I organized his medevac when he fell ill, and I accompanied him for treatment in London, spending 18 hours a day with him at Wellington Hospital. In 2009, I lobbied skeptical regional royals to support Maliki’s government.

By 2010, however, I was urging the vice president of the United States and the White House senior staff to withdraw their support for Maliki. I had come to realize that if he remained in office, he would create a divisive, despotic and sectarian government that would rip the country apart and devastate American interests.

America stuck by Maliki. As a result, we now face strategic defeat in Iraq and perhaps in the broader Middle East.

Khedery argues that if the US has stopped supporting Maliki in 2010, then what has happened in the last few weeks may not have occured.

After the December 2005 parliamentary elections, U.S. Embassy officials combed the Iraqi elite for a leader who could crush the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, battle al-Qaeda, and unite Iraqis under the banner of nationalism and inclusive government. My colleague Jeffrey Beals and I were among the few Arabic-speaking Americans on good terms with the country’s leading figures. The only man we knew with any chance to win support from all Iraqi factions — and who seemed likely to be an effective leader — was Maliki. We argued that he would be acceptable to Iraq’s Shiite Islamists, around 50 percent of the population; that he was hard-working, decisive and largely free of corruption; and that he was politically weak and thus dependent on cooperating with other Iraqi leaders to hold together a coalition. 

Khedery says Maliki was the right pick in 2005, but then things went wrong:

With the Obama administration vowing to end Bush’s “dumb war,” and the continued distraction of the global economic crisis, Maliki seized an opportunity. He began a systematic campaign to destroy the Iraqi state and replace it with his private office and his political party. He sacked professional generals and replaced them with those personally loyal to him. He coerced Iraq’s chief justice to bar some of his rivals from participating in the elections in March 2010. After the results were announced and Maliki lost to a moderate, pro-Western coalition encompassing all of Iraq’s major ethno-sectarian groups, the judge issued a ruling that awarded Maliki the first chance to form a government, ushering in more tensions and violence.

So he started to go rogue around 2009.

After helping to bring him to power in 2006, I argued in 2010 that Maliki had to go. I felt guilty lobbying against my friend Abu Isra, but this was not personal. Vital U.S. interests were on the line. Thousands of American and Iraqi lives had been lost and trillions of dollars had been spent to help advance our national security, not the ambitions of one man or one party. The constitutional process had to be safeguarded, and we needed a sophisticated, unifying, economics-minded leader to rebuild Iraq after the security-focused Maliki crushed the militias and al-Qaeda.

In conversations with visiting White House senior staff members, the ambassador, the generals and other colleagues, I suggested Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi as a successor. A former Baathist, moderate Shiite Islamist and French-educated economist who had served as finance minister, Abdul Mahdi maintained excellent relations with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds as well as with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

And how high up did the lobbying go?

On Sept. 1, 2010, Vice President Biden was in Baghdad for the change-of-command ceremony that would see the departure of Gen. Ray Odierno and the arrival of Gen. Lloyd Austin as commander of U.S. forces. That night, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, I made a brief but impassioned argument against Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.

Biden was wrong, as he so often is.

But all the lobbying was for naught. By November, the White House had settled on its disastrous Iraq strategy. The Iraqi constitutional process and election results would be ignored, and America would throw its full support behind Maliki.

So they can’t say they were not warned. What happened next:

Within a short span, Maliki’s police state effectively purged most of them from politics, parking American-supplied M1A1 tanks outside the Sunni leaders’ homes before arresting them. Within hours of the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011, Maliki sought the arrest of his longtime rival Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, eventually sentencing him to death in absentia. The purge of Finance Minister Rafea al-Essawi followed a year later.

So what are we left with:

In short, Maliki’s one-man, one-Dawa-party Iraq looks a lot like Hussein’s one-man, one-Baath Party Iraq. But at least Hussein helped contain a strategic American enemy: Iran. And Washington didn’t spend $1 trillion propping him up. There is not much “democracy” left if one man and one party with close links to Iran control the judiciary, police, army, intelligence services, oil revenue, treasury and the central bank. Under these circumstances, renewed ethno-sectarian civil war in Iraq was not a possibility. It was a certainty.

I resigned in protest on Dec. 31, 2010. 

If only they had listened to him. What happened was not inevitable after the fall of Saddam. It came about through bad decisions.

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