The dangerous fantasy that Iraq was on the brink of a new democratic era in 2010 – if only the Obama administration had leaned harder on Iraq's politicians – just won't die. And it's a matter of more than historical interest, with America announcing today further support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, and amid ongoing efforts to find a military solution to the civil war in Syria.
The oft-told premise is that the US had enormous amounts of "leverage" over Iraqi politicians that Barack Obama simply refused to exercise and that had he done so, he would have left Iraq safe and prosperous, and prevented the rise of the Islamic State. And so you end far from the Obama-era notion that "getting neck deep in Middle Eastern wars can be a dangerous thing."
Perhaps the politicians and people of Libya, or Syria, or Yemen, will prove to be clay in the hands of a future American leader too? Which implies what what went wrong in Iraq was merely the wrong president, at the wrong time. At least, that's the impression given from reading the works of powerful people who were involved in the US war effort in Iraq from 2003-2010.
Emma Sky's piece for Politico today – How Obama Abandoned Democracy in Iraq – is the latest entry in the genre. Ms. Sky worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority at the start of the Iraq occupation and then from 2007-2010 was the top political adviser to Gen. Ray Odierno, the senior US officer in Iraq. She tees her Politico piece up by saying that defeat in Iraq was snatched from the jaws of victory. (She now teaches at Yale's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.)
"Recall that violence declined drastically during the 2007 U.S. troop surge, and that for the next couple of years both Iraq and the West felt that the country was going in the right direction," she writes. "But the seeds of Iraq’s unraveling were sown in 2010, when the United States did not uphold the election results and failed to broker the formation of a new Iraqi government. As an adviser to the top U.S. general in Iraq, I was a witness."
Sky's problem is that she imagines powers that the US – whether under Obama or any other president – simply doesn't have. Yes, the "surge" of tens of thousands of additional troops into Iraq, coupled with a new-found American willingness to pay Sunni Arab tribes to take up arms against Al Qaeda in Iraq, did tamp down the country's sectarian bloodletting.
But that "security" was always going to be ephemeral without wise political leadership – from Iraqis.
Into the corridors of power
What does Sky mean by the US "upholding the election results?" Apparently the US should have forced the country's newly-elected parliament to give the premiership to former Baathist Iyad Allawi, whose coalition had won the most seats but far from an outright majority.
Mr. Allawi's secular and Sunni-Arab leaning Iraqiya coalition had won 91 seats in parliament – 28 percent of the total – two seats ahead of the Shiite Islamist State of Law coalition, led by then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Mr. Maliki had been supported in his rise to power by US officials, but fell out of favor due to his sectarian-governing style and friendly relations with Tehran.
While the Iraqi constitution said that Allawi had first pass at forming a governing a coalition, he didn't have a majority that could guarantee success. Such is parliamentary democracy. In the case of Iraq, there was also plenty of Iraqi politicking and maneuvering behind the scenes.
However, Sky suggests the US could have done something about it and alleges that then Ambassador Chris Hill had decided that Iraq needed a Shiite "strongman" and that Maliki fit the bill.
She also says that Vice President Joe Biden backed Maliki during the coalition-building period, with the Obama administration worried about US political damage from extended political turmoil in Iraq. Perhaps. But she fails to offer a plausible explanation for why Iraq's Shiite Islamist parties (once State of Law hooked up with the second largest Shiite political block they controlled 49 percent of seats) would have allowed a leader hostile to their interests to take power.
The Bush administration had already signed a binding agreement with Maliki to leave the country at the end of 2011, and from the perspective of Maliki and his people, the US no longer had much of value to give them. By starting the story in 2010, Sky tries to blame the State Department and the Obama White House for what's become of Iraq. This is misleading.
Al Qaeda in Iraq came to be after the US invaded in March 2003, removing a Sunni Arab strongman who hated jihadis as much as he oppressed Iraq's Shiite Arab majority. Al Qaeda in Iraq gave birth to the Islamic State, one of the most potent Sunni jihadi forces in history.
With the destruction of the secular Baath regime and Iraq's army, followed by an aggressive lustration campaign that threw tens of thousands of Iraqi civil servants and officers out of work, the US created a Sunni resistance army in waiting that didn't wait for very long. With the emergence of the clandestine Shiite Islamist parties from the shadows – many of whose leaders had survived the brutality of the Hussein years under Iran's protection – a sectarian mindset was almost inevitable for Iraq's new politics.
By 2010, when Sky writes that Iraqis were yearning for sectarian reconciliation, at least 150,000 people lay dead, tortured to death with drills, killed with their families by IEDs in markets, or killed by the massive car bombs that ripped through mosques during Friday prayers.
Reconciliation was in fact a very tough sell in a country that had gone through so much sectarian trauma, so recently.