At least the Nixon administration got something of a “decent interval” before North Vietnam betrayed their exit strategy from Southeast Asia.
The Obama administration did not even get that from the Iraqis. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki did not even wait till the last American troops had crossed the line into Kuwait—not even till he had gotten off the plane that brought him back from his recent trip to Washington—to mount a brazen and phenomenally dangerous coup against his primary political foes. For those who have not been keeping up with current events, a cursory overview of the crisis in Baghdad may be in order. Throughout the fall, Iraq’s four Sunni-dominated provinces (Al-Anbar, Salah Ad-Din, Ninewah, and Diyala) have been signaling that they will seek regional status, as allowed by the federalism procedures of Iraq’s constitution. Doing so would allow them to distance themselves from Baghdad, which the Sunnis see as increasingly dominated by an increasingly autocratic prime minister in Maliki. As if to prove their point, Maliki has insisted that any such moves would be illegal, despite the fact that they are clearly mandated by the constitution.
Last week, on the heels of his trip to the White House, Maliki decided to take action. He accused Sunni Vice President Tariq Al Hashimi (a recent, but now vocal, convert to Sunni federalism) and Finance Minister Rafe Al Issawi, both prominent leaders of Maliki’s main political rival, the Iraqiyyah party, of being behind a failed terrorist attack that Maliki’s people insist was aimed at the prime minister himself—despite the absence of any evidence either that it was aimed at him or that Hashimi and Issawi were involved. Maliki deployed tanks to both of their houses and then issued a warrant for Hashimi’s arrest.
He then announced that the cabinet had deposed Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, another important Sunni leader of Iraqiyyah and another proponent of Sunni federalism. Again, the Iraqi constitution clearly stipulates that removing the deputy prime minister requires a vote in parliament, and Maliki and his staff have simply asserted that this is not so. The prime minister also aired videotaped “confessions” by two of Hashimi’s bodyguards, who had previously been arrested by Maliki’s security people, in which they claimed that Hashimi was involved in various acts of terrorism dating back to 2008. Not surprisingly, various Sunnis insist that the confessions were produced by torture.
The crisis is extremely dangerous for the United States. Dangerous for President Obama politically, because his administration’s risky decisions regarding the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq were based on their determination that Iraq was stable and democratising and therefore no longer needed a large US military presence. Dangerous for the country’s vital interests, because Maliki’s brazen attack on key Sunni political leaders has an uncomfortably high likelihood of sending Iraq spiraling into a new civil war.
One of the most frightening aspects of the crisis has been that although American interests are clearly threatened, events so far suggest that we have almost no ability to guide its outcome.
With the withdrawal of American troops, Maliki and his coterie are flat-out ignoring Washington’s requests, demands, and desires. Starting on December 17th, Vice President Joe Biden, Director of Central Intelligence David Petraeus, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, and Ambassador Jim Jeffrey have all weighed in with a wide variety of Iraqis, all to no effect. The US has been urging Prime Minister Maliki to tone down his attacks, stop making inflammatory accusations, desist from taking any more incendiary steps, and generally de-escalate the crisis.
Instead, Maliki has done the exact opposite.
So what is going to happen in Iraq? Who knows. It probably won’t be good. It could easily be disastrous, and the United States is now along for the ride without much say in any of it.