How the Obama Administration Removed Iraq’s Largest Political Obstacle
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse November 2, 2014
How Did It Come To This?
At some point during Obama’s second term of his presidency, he and his Administration realized that Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was part of the problem, not part of the solution. It did not help that when the administration realized this, violence in Iraq was increasing to levels not seen since the height of the near-civil-war experienced in 2006-2007 during Bush’s second term and only seriously reduced with the so-called “Surge” of Gen. David Petraeus and the “Sunni Awakening” with its “Sons of Iraq.” The combination of increased U.S. military effort and increased political effort towards enlisting Sunni Arab Iraqis to fight extremists, especially in Iraq’s western Anbar province on Syria’s border, saw the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia and similar extremist Sunni groups that had alienated local Sunnis with their brutality and extreme form of Islam; sure, the old Baathists were still there, ready to fight the Iraqi government again under certain conditions and timing, but long before the U.S. formally withdrew late in 2011, the horror of al-Qaeda operating with impunity in Iraq was over, its activities falling into the status of a mere nuisance, while the overall security situation in Iraq was vastly better than the peak of violence and civilian casualties happening before the surge, with record-low numbers of civilian deaths.
Long before the U.S. formally withdrew late in 2011, the horror of al-Qaeda operating with impunity in Iraq was over, its activities falling into the status of a mere nuisance.
During that conflict with U.S. troops and Iraqis Sunnis, in a move that got little attention at the time, al-Qaeda in Iraq started calling itself, along with several allies, “The Islamic State (of Iraq).” At the time, this would have sounded like a joke, so far was the group from having anything like a state. In the roughly three-year period since the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. troops from Iraq, a process which saw the final formal withdrawal of U.S. troops in December 2011, up through December 2013, this changed, and the story of the Islamic State’s rise has far more to do with the dynamics and happenings inside Syria and Iraq over these three years than anything the U.S. did—or did not—do. In particular, the dynamics inside Syria have spilled over into Iraq in a way that has devastated the security situation there. Pieces arguing to the contrary are extremely misleading and ignore the agency and roles of actors such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Iraq’s Maliki (though it would admittedly be silly to argue that the U.S. does not bear the most overall responsibility for the big-picture situation in Iraq over the course of the last decade and then some).
During this roughly three-year period, things got really bad in both Syria and Iraq. Obama came close to, but ultimately backed down from, direct intervention in Syria against Assad in September 2013, deferring to a Russian proposal to disarm Assad’s chemical weapons peacefully and opting for meager, tepid, and inconsistent support for certain rebel groups in Syria. Meanwhile, in Iraq, as Maliki’s policies exploded sectarian tensions and proceeded to erase all the gains from the U.S. “Surge” and the “Sunni Awakening,” Maliki’s government increasingly and repeatedly called on the U.S. for help, in terms of both direct action and support. Unlike Syria, where Obama felt really torn, feeling compelled to act but with his personality and beliefs clearly not inclined for military adventurism of the type for which George W. Bush, neocons, and Republicans are quite enthusiastic, with Iraq, Obama clearly and unequivocally wanted to play no direct role. He was elected to get out of Iraq, and that is what he did, Maliki’s pleas be damned. Obama had no ear or appetite for any Iraqi intervention.
The same had been the case for Syria, but the chemical attacks in the summer of 2013 had awoken Obama to the ugly reality of the Syrian Civil War: the region was so divided in who supported who, and Russia so active in its support for Assad, that the war—now involving repeated use of chemical weapons—would go on and on without the U.S. intervening to end it. Yet the U.S. Congress and the American people were very against intervention, with silly comparisons to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 being bandied about the airwaves and blogosphere. Obama felt compelled to act, but he clearly didn’t want to; when Russia put forth a plan to disarm Assad of chemical weapons—a plan that I have argued was designed to keep Assad in power and prevent U.S. strikes against his regime—the side of Obama that did not want to intervene seized on the initiative as a way to back away from talks of “red lines” and “strikes” for Assad.
In both Syria and Iraq, then, Obama started off as extremely disinclined to intervene directly in either country, but then horrors of the war perpetrated against civilians, especially WMD attacks, compelled Obama to seriously consider action. Obama came to that threshold of intervention in Syria and blinked (not without good reason, but I believe he ultimately should have acted then in a limited military way against Assad’s regime as I explain in this five-part series here), then backed away. (Personally, I think that Obama made a huge mistake in not following through with his threats here, a view shared with the recently-former Obama Administration Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. I believe that it was not Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq that was a determining factor in the chaos in Iraq today, but, rather, his decision to more or less stay on the sidelines in the Syria conflict that has contributed more to the deteriorating security in the region, but that is not the focus of this article).
I believe that it was not Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq that was a determining factor in the chaos in Iraq today, but, rather, his decision to more or less stay on the sidelines in the Syria conflict that has contributed more to the deteriorating security in the region.
When Obama was confronted by a somewhat similar horror in Iraq, he finally did decide to act. And herein lies one of the shrewdest, most complicated, and most deft moves of Obama’s entire presidency, particularly within his very stalled second term.
To Intervene, or Not to Intervene, That Is the Question
By the summer of 2014, there were two very strong cases to be made on Iraq confronting Obama: one for intervention, one against intervention, with the Administration considering both.
In the for column, the former al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia groups calling themselves first the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant/al-Sham (ISIS or ISIL) and now just Islamic State (IS) might possibly have been the worst, most brutal, most powerful terrorist organization in the history of the world at that point. The group now controlled huge swaths of Syria and had taken over huge swaths of Iraq in a just a few months, the Iraqi army was melting away in the face of the ISIS onslaught, Baghdad itself was under threat, the group had indicated that Lebanon and Jordan were next, infiltrating and carrying out attacks in Lebanon and seizing the border crossing between Iraq and Jordan, from which it seems it is also probing Jordan’s border defenses, and the chaos and violence could have spread to even other countries. Baghdad could even possibly have fallen and Iraq’s government with it. Too much blood and treasure had been expended in Iraq by the U.S. for the U.S. to just sit back and watch this happen. And Iraq and the U.S. were supposed to be allies. In addition, the Kurdish people in northern Iraqi Kurdistan had been allies with the U.S. for decades and they were under threat. And world oil markets and production were being threatened. Finally, and certainly not least among the reasons, ISIS was murdering and abusing thousands in ways that even al-Qaeda thought went too far. Christians, Yazidis, Shiites, other minorities, and even Sunnis that were not subscribing to ISIS’s rule and extreme, murderous, barbaric interpretation of Islam have been and could still be victims, potentially on a mass scale. By early August, tens of thousands of Yazidis who had fled to a mountain because they were given the choice by ISIS to convert to Sunni Islam or be exterminated or sold into slavery were surrounded and were without food, water, shelter, or any way to defend themselves.
In the against column, to reiterate, the U.S. had little responsibility for what had happened of late in Iraq (the overall situation from 2003 on, clearly, yes it bore a lot of responsibility for that, but not the specific developments of the last few years). Maliki had done his best to stoke an insurgency and alienate and/or persecute Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds; the main reason that ISIS made any serious gains in Iraq’s Anbar province is because Maliki had betrayed those Sunnis there who had fought for the U.S. and Maliki’s government during the Surge, and betrayed them to the degree that the Sunnis in Iraq’s west were in open rebellion against Maliki and seeking allies; in came ISIS, filling that vacuum created by Maliki’s terrible and oppressive policies. Maliki wanted Kurdish support for his government against ISIS, but was unwilling to grant them any political concessions. Any help to Maliki’s government at this time would have solidified Maliki’s position and made him even less likely than he already was to work with or include or lessen the pressure on Sunnis and Kurds. Even worse, U.S. aid could potentially be directed by Maliki against his Sunni and Kurdish citizens and political opponents with legitimate grievances, not just ISIS. America, as it had in Lebanon in the 1980s when it unwittingly became a puppet of Lebanese Christians and had its power used against Muslims and Druze without realizing it, could become a party to the conflict and responsible for Maliki’s oppression of non-Shiite Muslims in Iraq, especially the Sunnis, further driving them into ISIS’s fold. In addition, helping Maliki would basically further all the political trends in Iraq that had allowed ISIS to gain so much in power there in the first place, further fragmenting an already disintegrating nation and creating more problems for the U.S., the region, and the world. U.S. support would also strengthen an Iraqi government that was in line with Iran in many ways and had resisted accommodating the U.S. government when it came to a whole array of issues. Helping Maliki’s government would thus provide little advancement for U.S. interests other than blunting ISIS’s advance in the short-term, and could cause more damage in the long-term.
Obama, himself a black man and his worldview exposed to the colonial struggles of Kenya and Indonesia, among others, was no stranger to the fact that in the Cold War, the U.S. and the Russians generally cared little about how their allies treated their own people and everything about whose side they were on. Thus, mass murder, mass torture, and mass oppression were to be overlooked if the “son of a bitch” leader was “our son of a bitch.” But this approach had helped create and had helped lead to many problems, including 9/11 and radical, terrorist Islam. How could Obama really help Maliki without being partly responsible for terrible things he was doing to Sunnis, things which drove them into the arms of ISIS? And yet, how could the U.S. not do something to help the people of Iraq—including 40,000 defenseless Yazidi civilians who could all perish or be killed in a matter of days—or the country of Iraq in the face of such a reckless and violent onslaught and possible formal disintegration?
The Solution: Local Politics First, or No Cavalry
Obama brilliantly approved and executed a plan that minimized the potential pitfalls and maximized the potential payoffs of both action and inaction. For one thing, he decided that in the process of helping Iraqis in this fight, he would do everything possible to avoid helping Maliki and his regime directly. As a result, Obama did not aid Maliki directly, instead opting for a three-tiered approach: 1.) putting intense pressure on Maliki at first to accommodate Sunnis and Shiites, and, when that failed, putting intense pressure on him to step down while signaling a readiness to Iraq in general to offer much more robust support for Iraq should Iraq’s factions unite behind someone else, and someone else less divisive, which in itself put enormous pressure on Maliki’s supporters; 2.) U.S. forces would intervene selectively and directly, rather than give much equipment and firepower to Maliki so that he could abuse that power; and 3.) America would support the Kurdish north, bypassing the Iraqi central government and Maliki, as well as the rest of Iraq and Maliki’s political base, until a political breakthrough occurred. Such involvement would be in stark contrast to the 2003 full-scale ground invasion and occupation of the Bush Administration, but also to the Surge as well, the gains of which has been carelessly wasted by by Maliki.
Clearly, then, one of main goals behind Obama’s approach was for Maliki to be removed as part of the problem (either by becoming part of the solution of stepping down) and to give non-Shiite Iraqis at least a hope that someone better might respect and listen to them more, thus giving Iraq at least a chance to begin to mend its sectarian wounds and to be able to have U.S. forces intervene against ISIS in a way that could save lives and halt its advance without further stoking Iraq’s spreading sectarian flames.
Clearly, then, one of main goals behind Obama’s approach was for Maliki to be removed as part of the problem (either by becoming part of the solution or stepping down) and to give non-Shiite Iraqis at least a hope that someone better might respect and listen to them more, thus giving Iraq at least a chance to begin to mend its sectarian wounds and to be able to have U.S. forces intervene against ISIS in a way that could save lives and halt its advance without further stoking Iraq’s spreading sectarian flames. This would also avoid aiding a budding neo-tyrant in Maliki; and, as events played out, along these lines the Obama Administration’s plan was a perfect success. Obama for months even before ISIS’s devastating advance resisted calls by both Republicans and Maliki to aid Maliki’s regime directly, well aware of the increasingly sectarian nature of his rule, his ignoring of the Kurds, and his particularly cruelty towards the Sunnis. His constant pressure on Maliki to govern more inclusively coming to naught, he and his administration finally began to distance themselves from Maliki in the second half of June.
At the same time, the Obama Administration made clear to Iraq’s Shiite leaders that any kind of robust help would not be forthcoming until Maliki was gone. After the middle of June, Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the Administration went from urging Maliki to cooperate with Sunnis and Kurds to dropping his name altogether from the conversation in only a matter of days, with Obama declining to endorse Maliki, preferring instead to talk about Iraqi leadership in the abstract, very much signaling both that it was the time, and that the Administration was ready, for another leader. This was apparently matched by behind-the-scenes encouragement for Iraqi officials to find a replacement for Maliki, a process which began at this time. This swift and sudden transition was mirrored by similar statements and non-endorsements of Maliki from senior Iraqi Shiite clerics, including the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But even without America’s prodding, some important Shiites in Iraq had already publicly noted Maliki was part of the problem, not part of the solution. The cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose family had a long history of resistance in Iraq, going back at least to his great-grandfather who led a revolt against the British after WWI, and through the Saddam era, when Sadr’s father organized against Saddam and was assassinated in 1999, most likely by Saddam’s regime, had risen after the 2003 U.S. invasion to become one of the most prominent Shiites in Iraq. Part cleric, part militia leader, part community leader, part militant, Sadr had publicly sparred with Maliki over the years and was still doing so in 2014. As Maliki’s consummate failurebecame apparent in the face of ISIS’s rapid advance, other Shiites followed Sadr’s lead, to even include members of Maliki’s own party as the end of June approached.
Even without America’s prodding, some important Shiites in Iraq had already publicly noted Maliki was part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The Beginning of Maliki’s End
At this point, the U.S. only had unarmed and a few armed drones flying over Iraq, but not engaging ISIS, in addition to assessors and some advisors, hardly anything Maliki could use to increase his position in relation to rivals or oppress the Sunnis and Kurds; Obama was still very reluctant to openly aid Maliki’s government at this time and had rejected recent pleas for robust, direct airstrikes. Maliki, for his part, resisted all pressure from other nations and from within Iraq to accommodate Sunnis and Kurds, actions which only further inflamed Iraq’s dire circumstances. And even while he knew many of his own Shiites were distancing themselves from him, early in July Maliki announced he was seeking a third term, breaking a promise he made not to. Just days after Maliki announced this, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani sent a private letter to the leaders of Maliki’s own party, Dawa, telling them “I see the need to speed up the selection of a new prime minister who has wide national acceptance;” shortly after they received this letter, Dawa’s leadership voted 10-1 to find a replacement for Maliki. A few days after this, the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq publicly called on Maliki to step down.
As political contenders and factions scrambled and argued for weeks to find a (relatively) suitable replacement for Maliki and form a new government throughout July, the situation only became worse and worse as far as security, killing, massive numbers of refugees, and an emerging humanitarian catastrophe, yet Maliki still stubbornly refused to compromise. More territory was falling to ISIS and the Kurds themselves coming under intense pressure. With no progress on the political front, even Maliki’s closest allies, including the Shiite Iranian regime (arguable even a bigger supporter of him than the U.S.), began to distance themselves from him and abandon him.
The Obama Administration Makes Its Move: Checkmate on Maliki
Tens of thousands of Yazidis were running out of time, though, and facing genocide, and ISIS kept making gains, even threatening Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. With intense pressure coming at Maliki from all angles, Obama announced on August 7 that U.S. forces would carry out limited air strikes in Iraq aimed at halting ISIS’s advance. Many of these initial strikes were in the north, helping the Kurds and the Yazidis. Obama was careful to let Iraq’s other factions know that deeper U.S. involvement would be contingent on a resolution to Iraq’s political impasse, would still be limited, but also that involvement could be long in duration. Just a few days after these strikes began, after seeing tantalizing benefits of U.S. airstrikes in the north averting catastrophes, and after a defiant Maliki reiterated yet again that he was seeking a third term and publicly appealed to the Iraqi Army to aid him in his bid to remain in power, on August 11 the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad, after roughly two months of intense wrangling, finally picked a successor to Maliki, Dr. Haider al-Abadi. Obama immediately offered him his support and noted that this could lead to greater U.S. assistance as had been advertised, remarking this was a “promising step forward” while Kerry warned Malikithat it was time for him to step aside and not to try to use force to stay in power. Maliki defied this pressure and redeployed military units to Baghdad as whispers of a coup began to be heard. But even Iran publicly came out against him (after some behind the scenes lobbying from Grand Ayatollah Sistani) and much of the Iraqi Army indicated it would not stand behind him. After this happened, Maliki appeared to back away from using force and said he would instead try to block Dr. Abadi’s nomination through Iraq’s courts, a path that had worked in Malik’s favor repeatedly in the past. With tanks and Iraqi Special Forces flooding the Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government, on Maliki’s orders, the country seemed to be facing its darkest day since the American invasion in 2003.
And here, with Iraq in the middle of a Sunni rebellion, invaded by an ISIS on the outskirts of Baghdad, and facing a coup, Maliki finally agreed on August 14 to step aside in favor of Dr. Abadi instead of becoming a Shiite Saddam.
And here, with Iraq in the middle of a Sunni rebellion, invaded by an ISIS on the outskirts of Baghdad, and facing a coup, Maliki finally agreed on August 14 to step aside in favor of Dr. Abadi instead of becoming a Shiite Saddam.
There are still many dark days ahead for Iraq and its long-suffering people, and the damage from what can very fairly be termed the “biggest mistake in American history”—the 2003 invasion of Iraq of the George W. Bush Administration—will be felt for a generation or more in this part of the world. America’s overall responsibility for the big picture in Iraq is undeniable. Yet as I noted before, the U.S. is not some deity of a puppet-master. Individuals and leaders ultimately make their own decisions in many situations, and Maliki was certainly no puppet and never acted like one. And now, the man who has done more than any single person in the past several years to further fragment Iraq, drive Iraqi Sunnis into the arms of ISIS, facilitate the rise of ISIS in Iraq, and who offered no prospect for an Iraq inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds, has stepped aside. At least now, there is a chance of moving forward politically, even in the midst of awful violence engulfing even some the most previously peaceful parts of Iraq. Dr. Abadi is a still Shiite, but all of his signals have been suggesting he will try much harder than his predecessor to unite, rather than divide. Now, under Dr. Abadi, international and American support for Iraq’s government has greatly increased. Dr. Abadi himself has already set a different tone: he has already halted the bombing of populated cities that ISIS controls, in part as part of an effort to avoid civilian casualties and further alienating the mainly Sunni civilians under ISIS control. He has demonstrated real inclusiveness, nominating and getting confirmed a Sunni for Defense Minister, alongside the Interior Minister one of the two most important security positions in Iraq (though admittedly after some delay and infighting). This is in stark contrast to Maliki, who held both ministries himself since 2010 along with being Prime Minister. This is a major concession to Sunni Iraqis worried that the Army would continue to be used to oppress then. Dr. Abadi’s task won’t be easy, but Iraqis seem to be willing to place some hope in him, especially compared with Maliki.
A Rare Win for Embattled President and an Embattled Team
And this was all part of the Obama Administration’s plan since the ISIS crisis in Iraq began. Obviously it would have been better if the path was smoother. It could be argued that the U.S. should have begun airstrikes earlier, perhaps saving more of those being killed by ISIS, but on other hand, that might have relieved pressure on Maliki and his supporters and kept him and his divisiveness in power. I am certainly not arguing that the execution was flawless or perfect. But in the face of an unprecedented situation in Iraq, the Obama Administration realized that it was the divisiveness of Maliki’s politics in Iraq that needed to change for any hope for Iraq’s security in the long-run. That mean he had to change, or he had to go, and everything the U.S. did was designed to produce one of those two outcomes. Ayatollahs and tribal leaders and all manners of people, including Europeans and Iranians, were part of an intense behind the scenes diplomatic-ballet-of-a-process (or perhaps mosh pit is a better term?), pushed and prodded along by the U.S. and shaped by it each step of the way. The Obama Administration united Iraq, Iran and others against the biggest obstacle to political progress, and now that the obstacle is removed, Iraqis of all stripes—Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, and others—are genuinely giving Dr. Abadi a chance. So is America and the international community, to the tune of a whole host of dozens of nations that are willing to share a stake in the security and future of Iraq, including nations like Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark, and many Middle Eastern nations. This change at the top by itself does not solve any of Iraq’s major problems, and some problems might be unsolvable, some of the damage may be permanent, but it does mean that Iraq can start to try to work towards solutions or at least manage these problems. When the dust from the major fighting finally settles, Dr. Abadi is far better able to lead all Iraqis forward than Maliki if his early actions are any indication. Orchestrating this vital first step in Iraq moving forward and healing was no small accomplishment at all. And the Obama Administration had a lot of help, from Sistani to Iran to Maliki’s own political party. But it was the U.S. leading the way politically from the start, uniting all these disparate actors in pushing Maliki out peacefully, without a coup or a revolution.
Ayatollahs and tribal leaders and all manners of people, including Europeans and Iranians, were part of an intense behind the scenes diplomatic-ballet-of-a-process (or perhaps mosh pit is a better term?), pushed and prodded along by the U.S. and shaped by it each step of the way. The Obama Administration united Iraq, Iran and others against the biggest obstacle to political progress, and now that the obstacle is removed, Iraqis of all stripes—Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, and others—are genuinely giving Dr. Abadi a chance.
So let’s give credit where credit is due. President Obama and his team have struggled in many ways lately, but here they deserve a pat on the back and the gratitude of millions. It is sad that it took such horrendous, terrifying, and genocidal circumstances for Iraq’s political leaders to do what needed to be done, and needed to be done years ago. Let us hope, especially for the sake of the Iraqi people, that they give Dr. Abadi the support he needs without such acrobatic diplomatic efforts on behalf of the U.S.
See previous related article by same author: