Nouri al-Maliki’s departure is good news. Still, as Dexter Filkins has explained (see chapter 5), had the Obama administration repudiated Maliki’s 2011 power grab, today’s crisis might have been averted.
Nevertheless, just because Maliki is gone, no one should assume Iraq is saved. Absent a new comprehensive American strategy, Iraq will continue tumbling toward implosion. Our recognition of this fact matters because Iraq holds profound importance for America.
Regardless, this isn’t just about the security of Iraq. It’s also about the stability of the broader Middle East. As long as Middle Eastern states continue to view Iraq through the lens of sectarian fear, they will continue to shape their political strategies in that irrational context. If Iraq’s problems remain unaddressed, it will replicate what has happened in Syria.
The ultimate truth is that only America has the influence, intent, and capability to save Iraq. Be under no illusions: For Iran, Iraq is just an opportunity for theocratic expansion. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk with Iran, but we mustn’t delude ourselves that the ayatollahs share our interest in a cross-sectarian Iraqi democracy. Again, however, there is hope. As Bing West notes, only the United States has the aviation, logistical, and intelligence capabilities and professional ethos that Iraq’s government so desperately requires. This is the ace in our negotiating pocket. Moreover, the professionalism and skill of America’s diplomats and military personnel in Iraq has long been evident. The interlocutor roles played by David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker in pre-2011 Iraq were instrumental in saving the country from collapse. Building trust, they brought Iraqis together. Today, America has similar public servants on hand in Baghdad. We must give them the flexibility and support to do their jobs.
Neither will a necessary American strategy be clean-cut. Alongside America’s honest hand of friendship to those who seek a cross-sectarian democratic future for all Iraq’s citizens, the CIA will have to be at the heart of U.S. policy in Baghdad. Put simply, Obama will have to authorize the CIA to cajole, bribe, and blackmail Iranian allies like the Sadrist movement toward cooperation.
Of course, the alternative to these hard choices is for America to do nothing. But we can predict where such a choice will lead. Replace al-Abadi with Maliki and read this.