Obama isn't the problem in Iraq. It's Maliki – and Iraqi politics

Iraqi politicians have proven for a decade now that they're pursuing their own interests – not American ones.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shake hands, Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, following their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington.
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In December 2008, President George W. Bush flew to Baghdad, where he was warmly greeted by the country's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The occasion was the signing of a document that called for US forces to be out of the country by the end of 2011.

President Bush explained the agreement at the time:

"This is a future of what we've been fighting for – a strong and capable democratic Iraq that will be a force of freedom and a force for peace in the heart of the Middle East; a country that will serve as a source for stability in a volatile region; a country that will deny a safe haven to al Qaeda. As a result of these successes, Mr. Prime Minister, the American people are safer.

We're also signing a Security Agreement, sometimes called a Status of Forces Agreement. The agreement provides American troops and Defense Department officials with authorizations and protections to continue supporting Iraq's democracy once the U.N. mandate expires at the end of this year. This agreement respects the sovereignty and the authority of Iraq's democracy. The agreement lays out a framework for the withdrawal of American forces in Iraq – a withdrawal that is possible because of the success of the surge."

Bush's predictions at the time were to prove untrue – except for one: That the US would withdraw its troops. 

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The historical revisionism on this point, almost entirely to score partisan points, has been relentless. Most of the architects of the Iraq war – from Paul Wolfowitz to Zalmay Khalilzad to John Bolton and Bill Kristol – have falsely asserted that Obama "decided" to withdraw all US combat forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. This deliberate distortion of the facts (Obama in fact wanted to keep a small force in the country but the Maliki government refused) is dangerous because it's part of a long American pattern of refusing to acknowledge Iraqi politics and interests when trying to understand the country.

"All US forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, water and airspace no later than the 31st of December of 2011," reads the Status of Forces Agreement signed by Bush with the Iraqi government. "The United States admits to the sovereign right of the Iraqi government to demand the departure of the US forces from Iraq at anytime."

At the time, the US expected a subsequent agreement would be reached to allow some troops to stay beyond that deadline. But first Bush, then Obama, failed to convince Maliki. The major stumbling block for these leaders was the standard US demand that its forces be immune from local prosecution. Maliki wouldn't budge on the issue, and probably couldn't have gotten parliament to go along anyway. So the US was forced to depart, as agreed.

The reason this remains important is because it highlights the fact that Iraqis are actual people, with their own interests, not clay dolls ready to have US interests and demands imprinted upon them.

The US overthrew Saddam Hussein's Baath party, which routinely used state terror against its enemies. That included most notably Shiite Islamists like Maliki, who escaped into exile when the Baath Party cracked down on his Dawa Party, torturing to death hundreds of former Maliki comrades who weren't lucky enough to escape the country.

The US then set up a political system that delivered Maliki and his allies to power, and after that, Maliki had little more use for American assistance. Constant US nagging about political reconciliation and the need for federalism to address the interests of Iraqi minorities, like the Sunni Arabs and Kurds, was an annoyance to Maliki. He was determined to create a new Iraqi order that allowed Shiite Islamists to dominate. With oil revenue in hand, he had little need for US money, so American leverage on that front was negligible. And he had a spiffy new army, built with US money and packed with loyalists and commanders who owed their positions to Maliki.

Maliki's calculation that his army could get the job done has been proven to be an enormous mistake, as was his confidence that he could keep Iraq's Sunni Arabs under his thumb indefinitely. But those were his miscalculations to make, and they were enabled by a US design set in motion by Bush-era neocons who are today rushing to talk shows and op-ed pages to register their outrage over Obama allowing all of this to happen.

Exhibit A is John Bolton, who took to Fox News radio this week to attack Obama over Iraq. “He ignored all the potential consequences,” Mr. Bolton said of the US troop withdrawal. “The fact was the continuing presence of US troops in Iraq was critical to sustaining the victories that we won.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. All wars must end, and the US had already been in Iraq for 8 years at that point. The US plan, which Bolton was intimately involved in creating, was to return sovereignty to Iraq and to encourage democratic elections. That happened, and it gave Maliki the power to kick us out of the country.

Should Obama have reoccupied Iraq, overthrown the Maliki government, and then started from scratch? Bolton and his colleagues don't say, but it's implied in their position. 

Now there are calls for the US to engineer Maliki's departure from leadership. This week, Republican Sen. John McCain said Obama should "make it... very clear to Maliki that his time is up." Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said, "The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation." The Obama administration seems to be coming around to this position as well.

While the collapse of Iraq's army in much of the northern half of the country – and the loss of cities and towns like Mosul and Tikrit, and the oil refining center of Baiji, just north of Baghdad – may give the US some leverage over Maliki, he may not be inclined to commit political suicide. He already mobilized Shiite militias to fight the Sunni Arab uprising, and the political lesson he drew from the uprising appears to be that he was not tough enough.

Maliki is now requesting air-strikes from the same US military he previously sent packing, but he has so far shown no willingness to reform his governing approach. US involvement could lead to civilian casualties and a greater focus on American interests from the jihadi Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which until now has been consumed with fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The US brought the current Iraqi government to power, promised it would respect Iraq's sovereignty, and now finds that controlling Iraqi politics is well beyond its ability. That was something agreed to long ago.

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