In Iraq, Obama Loses Interest in a Winnable War


If President Obama is “out of Afghanistan psychologically,” as Bob Woodward reports in his new book, one can only imagine how thoroughly detached he is from Iraq.

He should start paying some attention. The news last week that the Sadrists have thrown their weight behind Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, putting him on the verge of securing a governing coalition, is close to the worst possible outcome of the Iraqi election and the aftermath.

First, it would marginalize Iraqiya, the party that won a plurality and has the most appeal to the Sunnis we want to feel vested in the new Iraqi state, lest they return to insurgency and al-Qaeda. Worse, it would do it on the strength of the support of Moqtada al-Sadr, a rabidly anti-American cleric closely allied with Iran, whose price for supporting Maliki is likely to include control of key ministries in the next government. The last time the Sadrists were given a measure of control over the instruments of state, they transformed them into tools to wage sectarian war against the Sunnis.

The current state of play is not quite Iran’s ideal outcome. It would have preferred a few other candidates for prime minister before Maliki, but otherwise Tehran ought to be pleased. It has a chance to exclude the Sunnis, put Sadr at the center of the Iraqi government, and reconstitute a version of the Iraqi government that brought the country to the brink of destruction from 2005–07. If the Sadrists are kingmakers, it ensures that the faction most determined to see us out of the country entirely — and thus not present to provide a counterbalance to Iran — will have tremendous influence.

There’s still a chance the worst can be averted. Maliki could still cut Iraqiya in on a deal. The Kurds or the other major Shia party, led by Ammar al-Hakim, could upset Maliki’s plans, as could a statement of disapproval from Ayotallah Sistani. Iraqi politicians have a knack for pulling back from the brink at the last moment, but we should have done more to have avoided getting to this pass.

Obama came into office determined to declare the Iraq War over and come home. We engaged in a mad rush to go from 100,000 to 50,000 troops, which drastically decreased our leverage; at the same time we had a passive ambassador on the ground who was content to let events drift. Lately Joe Biden has been more involved, but our impatience for the Iraqis to finally form a government may have overwhelmed considerations about its composition. There are obviously limits to our control of Iraqi politics, but we should be using every possible instrument of persuasion to forestall the creation of a government that could be the predicate for renewed ethnic conflict.

The sacrifice of American troops during the surge bequeathed to President Obama a winnable war in Iraq. At this rate, we’ll read in the next Woodward book all the details of how he let it slip away.