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.
First, unless Iraq is able to stanch the politicization of sectarianism currently infecting its political discourse, the Islami State and its extremist opposites will continue to grow in power. Unrestrained, these groups will burn the Middle East and will then push westward. It needn’t be this way. After all, the great myth of Iraq is that its people are defined by sectarian hatred. As I’ve noted before, the truth is very different. The problem, however, is the binary choice that Iraq’s present dystopia offers its citizens. When you’re a Sunni who has to choose between a power-drill team from the Shiite AAH terrorist group or an Islamic state goon offering protection for the price of freedom, you choose the latter. The opposite calculation is true for Shiites. For Iraqi Kurds, the answer to this chaos is to further isolate themselves from their fellow citizens. Iraq’s other minorities? Just ask the Yazidi.
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.
None of this will be easy. Prime minister–designate Haider al-Abadi is no Thomas Jefferson. He shares his Dawa-party affiliation with Maliki. And although he spent many years in the U.K., Dawa’s members retain an imbued mistrust of Sunni political aspirations. He offers hope, but if we fail to support him, he’ll fall into the hands of Iran, and he’ll reinforce sectarian divisions.
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.