Shadow Government

Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat in Iraq’s Elections

When Iraq holds nationwide parliamentary elections on Wednesday, is it possible for Washington to secure a victory for the Iraqi people and enhance U.S. interests? The answer depends on awareness of past bipartisan mistakes, effects of those blunders, and willingness to use U.S. leverage more wisely than after prior Iraqi elections.

Following 2006 parliamentary elections, President George W. Bush's ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, helped select Nouri al-Maliki to become prime minister. After Khalilzad's intervention, Sunni and Kurdish politicians endorsed Maliki's candidacy, and within three months, he became Iraq's prime minister.

In 2010 parliamentary elections, Maliki came in second to Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition. But Washington foolishly joined Tehran to assist Maliki form the new government. Fortunately, Sunnis and Kurds are less likely to side with him in 2014, but Washington may be sticking with Maliki.

Prior to a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in 2011, President Barack Obama stated that the United States "must be as careful getting out of Iraq as it was reckless going in." But he hastily drew down the U.S. military when Baghdad resisted providing immunity to the American troops that would be a residual presence. Obama, however, failed to follow his own principle. Maliki capitalized on the American drawdown to reinforce the hold of his Shiite government in Baghdad, over Kurdistan in the north, and the Sunni heartland in the west.

Partly due to an absence of U.S. military power but also because of Maliki's sacrifice of Iraq's stability for his personal gain, Iraq is on a path to disintegration. If there is another Maliki term and he pursues similar policies, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) may move toward secession and an al Qaeda affiliate might become more powerful in Sunni areas of Iraq -- rupturing the country into three parts.

After speaking with many Iraqi Sunni leaders, Struan Stevenson, a senior member of the European Parliament who chairs the Delegation for Relations with Iraq, said, "Iraq is plummeting rapidly towards civil war." This assessment is shared by American analysts. Stevenson laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of Maliki. In response to peaceful Sunni demonstrations in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, he ordered massive military onslaughts. A January report from the Center on Research on Globalization, a Canadian research and media organization claimed, "Men, women and children are being massacred in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi in relentless bombing raids, rocket attacks, and tank battles, under the pretext that these people are all members or supporters of Al Qaeda."

There also is the problem of an Arab-Kurdish city, Kirkuk, in which Baghdad has huge political differences with the KRG. Partly as a result, Ali Balu, a senior energy advisor in the KRG, stated that the autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq would declare independence within five years.

Maliki has also tried to impose restrictions on the Kurdish share of the country's economy. Kurdistan sits on approximately 45 billion barrels of oil reserves and over 110 trillion cubic feet of gas. Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani has warned that the Kurds would seek independence if Baghdad continues to violate Kurdish constitutional privileges. They consist of the right to export oil and receive 17 percent of the national budget.

The KRG views Washington as contributing too much to Baghdad's rearmament without using U.S. leverage in favor of more inclusive politics. Moreover, it sees these arms as a threat to its security and as reinforcing the paradox that Washington's policy is closer to Tehran's than to its own.

Sunnis and Kurds also differ from Baghdad in its mistreatment of Iranian dissidents held under prison-like conditions in Camp Liberty, Iraq. Iraqi MP Neda al-Jabouri, a member of the Iraqiya coalition leadership, criticized inhumane conditions in Liberty and described this camp as a prison. And Iraqi MP Qasem Mohamed from the Kurdish Coalition said he is against the blockade on refugees in Camp Liberty, especially banning of food, medicine, and humanitarian needs for their daily lives.

After the 2014 Iraqi elections, Obama will have two options: First is support Maliki as Obama did in 2010, which is unacceptable to the Iraqis and would transform Iraq into a satrap of Iran; second is to support the Iraqi people's growing coalition against Maliki.

Ayad Allawi captured two more seats than Maliki's faction in 2010, and yet Maliki received the mandate to form a government. Just as Washington backed Tehran's preference for Maliki then, it is in the interests of the Iraqi and American people to align with the Kurds in support of the democratic opposition, including Allawi, now. In this way, Obama might snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Mr. President, Leave the Strawman in Manila

President Barack Obama's defensive remarks yesterday in Manila trying to explain his foreign policy strategy have garnered substantial headlines. His refusal to describe any strategic principles and priorities was notable, as was this lament:

Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force ... why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget? ... Frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.

The president's comments were revealing of how he perceives himself and his approach to national security. Part of that self-image depends on a continuing caricature of his predecessor, George W. Bush. As a partisan matter this is not surprising, given that a big part of then-Senator Obama's campaign success in 2008 came from his critique of the Bush foreign policy. However, now that Obama is well into his second term, it is evident to just about everyone except those willfully trapped in the White House bubble that the sell-by date of the strawman expired long ago.

For those willing to take a closer, more objective look, the Obama foreign policy has actually been more militarized than the president acknowledges, while the Bush foreign policy was much less militarized than the current White House caricatures of it. Yesterday I gave a lecture on the recent decades of American foreign policy, and I began by asking the audience these two questions:

First, which American president did all of the following?

  • Launched a war without Congressional authorization against a Middle Eastern dictator accused of WMD possession and tyrannizing his own people, then failed to plan for post-conflict reconstruction while terrorists proliferated and the country fell into chaos;
  • engaged in unilateral use of force and targeted killings without U.N. sanction against suspected terrorists, including American citizens;
  • made extraordinary claims for executive power as commander-in-chief;
  • called for the spread of democracy in the Middle East;
  • kept terrorist suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay.

The answer is President Obama.

Second, which American president did all of the following?

  • Resisted strong appeals to attack Syria over its WMD program;
  • refused to attack Iran over its nuclear program, while instead pursuing multilateral negotiations and a diplomatic settlement;
  • refused to attack North Korea over its nuclear program, while instead pursuing multilateral negotiations and a diplomatic settlement;
  • worked to close Guantanamo Bay;
  • signed an agreement with the government of Iraq for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces.

The answer is President George W. Bush.

Lest the above be misconstrued, of course many of the bullet points that I ascribe to one administration could easily be applied to the other. Obama has also refused to use force on many occasions, and Bush invaded Iraq and pursued an aggressive counterterrorism policy. My point is simply that caricatures depend on cherry-picking a few data points, rather than doing the harder work of evaluating the full range of an Administration's policies. Obama no doubt hopes that today's pundits and tomorrow's scholars will take such a fair and comprehensive approach in studying his administration. It would help if he would do the same for his predecessor.

The president's larger reluctance to articulate a doctrine or set of principles guiding his foreign policy is understandable on one level, as such doctrines can be overrated and unduly confining. But in the case of this administration, I continue to worry that it reflects a continuing approach to national security policy that is reactive, ad hoc, and unduly shaped by domestic political concerns. I have suggested before that the search for an "Obama Doctrine" is futile since Obama himself has not devoted sufficient attention to foreign policy to develop one. His dismissive response to the press query is perhaps an inadvertent confirmation of this theory. Hopefully the Administration's forthcoming National Security Strategy will help answer some of these questions.

There is one other irony in the president's lament yesterday about the criticisms of his foreign policy. Contrary to his caricature, his administration's main failing has not been the refusal to employ American military force, but rather a failure of diplomacy. Effective diplomacy includes the full spectrum of tools ranging from personal relationships with foreign leaders, to making credible commitments with allies and adversaries, to robust economic measures (including the carrots of free trade agreements and the sticks of sanctions), to security assistance that does not involve American forces. A common denominator across the range of challenges facing this White House -- including Syria, Ukraine, Iran, and Asia -- has been the insufficient use of robust diplomacy. Addressing that deficit would be a good start in redeeming the final two and a half years of the administration.

TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images