December 21, 2011
President Obama’s just-departed military adviser for Iraq says the administration has tried to pressure Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reconsider an arrest warrant on terror charges for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi that has inflamed tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and left U.S. officials worried that key players will abandon a political process that has sustained the country’s fragile peace for years.
Is Iraq unraveling just weeks after President Obama pulled all troops out of the country, against the advice of his military and in defiance of critics? Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute tells me this morning: “Indicting a vice president and killing his bodyguards is out there, even by Iraqi standards. Maliki must have had these moves in mind even while meeting with Obama last week and before. And the Kurds are protecting Hashemi, so there’s obviously broad-based Kurd-Sunni opposition to Maliki’s power-grab. Not yet a civil war, but a pretty brutal punctuation to the ‘end’ of the war.”
That view is widely held by critics of Obama’s decision. Fred Kagan, whose strategic advice and public advocacy was a critical part of the surge’s success, emails me: “The collapse of Iraq in the wake of the withdrawal of US forces is already underway. Maliki appears to be working actively to drive the Sunni Arabs out of government entirely. Federalist movements in the main Sunni provinces of Diyala, Salahuddin, and Anbar are gaining strength. Shi’a militias have already reappeared on the streets manning checkpoints. The situation is dire and deteriorating more rapidly than most people expected it would.”
But this is hardly the only error that Obama has made with regard to Iraq. Conservative policy analyst Gary Schmitt, also at AEI, observes: “While everyone is focused on the American troops leaving and Maliki’s behavior in the run up and the immediate aftermath, we shouldn’t forget the ‘hands off’ approach taken by the Obama team when it came to Maliki’s finagling his way back into the prime minister’s office after the 2010 election with the banning of nearly 500 opposition candidates and in spite of the fact that his party came in second in the election.” Emboldened by that move, Maliki is now consolidating power and using to settle sectarian scores. “He now holds the PM’s chair, and has made himself the defense and interior minister. The seeds of today’s crisis were laid much earlier,” says Schmitt.
Taking a step back, Obama’s handling of the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan reflects an indifference to the strategic implications of his moves. The drawdowns are political decisions, made to calm his base and fulfill foolish campaign promises. And they are timed to help his election prospects. But if Iraq descends into chaos, and we lose ground we previously cleared of terrorist networks in Afghanistan, Obama will rightly reap the blame. Moreover, he will have sacrificed the country’s national security interests for ephemeral political gain, yet another blot on his already spotty record.