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The Invasion of Iraq: The Obama Administration’s Failure to Check al-Maliki

I have been in the process of describing the evolution of my views on the Iraqi invasion. In my last post, I described how the Bush administration, through blunders, had reduced what could have been enormous net benefits from the invasion into limited net benefits.

Here I want to briefly describe the Obama administration’s blunders in Iraq that finally led me to conclude that the invasion had been a mistake. If the Bush administration was, as I have said, incompetent, the Obama administration has been far worse – grossly negligent, at best.

The Obama administration was unwilling to take the actions in Iraq that were necessary to sustain the benefits produced by the Bush administration. In my view, there were two sets of errors: the administration’s failure to check Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s behavior while the United States was still in Iraq and then the U.S  withdrawing from Iraq.

Let’s start with the first problem. Here I rely on the discussion by Peter Beinart in the Atlantic:

Obama inherited an Iraq where better security had created an opportunity for better government. The Bush administration’s troop “surge” did not solve the country’s underlying divisions. But by retaking Sunni areas from insurgents, it gave Iraq’s politicians the chance to forge a government inclusive enough to keep the country together.

The problem was that Maliki wasn’t interested in such a government. Rather than integrate the Sunni Awakening fighters who had helped subdue al-Qaeda into Iraq’s army, Maliki arrested them. In the run-up to his 2010 reelection bid, Maliki’s Electoral Commission disqualified more than 500, mostly Sunni, candidates on charges that they had ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

For the Obama administration, however, tangling with Maliki meant investing time and energy in Iraq, a country it desperately wanted to pivot away from. . . .

When Iraqis went to the polls in March 2010, they gave a narrow plurality to the Iraqiya List, an alliance of parties that enjoyed significant Sunni support but was led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Under pressure from Maliki, however, an Iraqi judge allowed the prime minister’s Dawa Party—which had finished a close second—to form a government instead. According to Emma Sky, chief political adviser to General Raymond Odierno, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, American officials knew this violated Iraq’s constitution. But they never publicly challenged Maliki’s power grab, which was backed by Iran . . . . “The message” that America’s acquiescence “sent to Iraq’s people and politicians alike,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, “was that the United States under the new Obama administration was no longer going to enforce the rules of the democratic road. . . . [This] undermined the reform of Iraqi politics and resurrected the specter of the failed state and the civil war.”

By that fall, to its credit, the United States had helped craft an agreement in which Maliki remained prime minister but Iraqiya controlled key ministries. Yet as Ned Parker, the Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad, later detailed, “Washington quickly disengaged from actually ensuring that the provisions of the deal were implemented.” In his book, The Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr, who worked at the State Department at the time, notes that the “fragile power-sharing arrangement . . . required close American management. But the Obama administration had no time or energy for that. Instead it anxiously eyed the exits, with its one thought to get out. It stopped protecting the political process just when talk of American withdrawal turned the heat back up under the long-simmering power struggle that pitted the Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds against one another.”

So the first problem with the Obama administration is that it was unwilling to stay involved in Iraq to maintain the benefits produced by the Bush administration. The United States should have been doing what it could to ensure that the Iraqiya List came to control the government. In that way, a tradition of power-sharing and rotation would have been begun and centrist forces would have been empowered. But the administration’s smart diplomacy was, as usual, not very smart.

In my next post, I will conclude by discussing the second error of the Obama administration and my bottom line on the Iraqi invasion.

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