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.

Reader Discussion

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on July 31, 2014 at 13:38:50 pm

Rappaport offers a fair criticism of the policy pursued by the Obama Administration -- but he doesn't extend the blame far enough. The real villain here is ... the American people.

Obama was quite clear: He thought the Iraq War was a boondoggle from the beginning. He thought it has been sold to the American people based on lies. ("We know where the weapons of mass destruction are." "It should take a few weeks or a few months -- not a few years.") And he thought that the US had already invested enough, and he planned to get us out.

This was his platform, and this was the policy the American people chose when they elected him. Maybe Obama was unwise to make this his platform; maybe the American people were unwise to choose Obama. But he did, and they did. If anything, the American people have grounds to be upset that Obama delayed withdrawing US forces as long as he did.

As a secondary matter, I observe that Rappaport's analysis notes circumstance -- but makes no mention of time. Imagine that the facts Rappaport was describing did not pertain to 2010, but to 2020, or 2030, or 2050. Would he still be saying "Oh, everything might have worked out if only we'd prolong our occupation just a little longer..."? The Iraq War has been the longest war in US history; at what point do you day "Enough!"? As far as I can tell from Rappaport's analysis -- never. So long as we can keep reporting "Peace is at hand!" we should keep pouring in our blood and treasure without limit.

And maybe that's the right answer. A coolly rational argument might say that we should always be open to placing another wager at the table if the cards look favorable, no matter how much we have lost at the table in the past.

But, for better or worse, the US public didn't see it that way. If Rappaport wants to blame someone, let's put the blame where it lies: with the American voter.

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on July 31, 2014 at 19:10:52 pm


You do have a point re: the American electorate!

Yet, I think it would be fair to ponder the following"

Were the American people to have been asked in 2008 if they would prefer our "ending this" boondoogle" by a complete disengagement of both forces and "diplomatic" (such as they were) personnel with the result that any benefit derived from previous efforts would be reversed?" - what do you suppose the answer would have been?

Thus, I think Rappaport's assertion that our "smart diplomacy" failed us is on target. A Truly smart diplomatic effort would have taken cognizance of the electorate weariness while ensuring that sustained efforts were made to keep Maliki, et al. in line.

I say this knowing that given my previous comments on Mike's earlier posts that the likelihood of a western style democracy arising in Iraq was fanciful. But goodness gracious, even if the man has a pair of deuces, don't take the second deuce away from him. He may conclude that he really never had a chance.

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