April 4, 2012

U.S. Policy in Iraq Suffering From Political Drift

Despite a high level of support to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, the country's ongoing destabilization has guided some American lawmakers to a simplistic military conclusion: President Barack Obama should have left behind a residual force. Other pundits and analysts praise Obama's "decision" to remove U.S. troops on schedule, but the weakness of U.S. policy has always been political on nature. Politics obstructed a renewed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and politics are responsible for the current stalemate in Baghdad.

The administration hasn't adapted between now and last December, when Obama welcomed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the White House and showered him with praise. Obama has so far escaped responsibility for contributing to Baghdad's crisis; Deputy Vice President Saleh al-Mutlaq responded by branding al-Maliki as a dictator, and the latter followed with threats to hold a no-confidence vote. By this time al-Maliki had already locked horns with Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, another official working under Iraqiya's umbrella, over allegations that al-Hashimi funded a Sunni death squad. While the charges may be true, al-Maliki's refusal to implement a power-sharing agreement with Iraqiya's Ayad Allawi pushed the bloc into a fundamental standoff with the Premier.

Allawi, who never received a promised national security post, directly refuted Obama's statements in January and recently told The Washington Times, "The policymakers [in Washington] promised to support this, but ultimately and unfortunately, none of this has happened, and the United States forgot about this power-sharing completely."

These factors had no impact on the White House's latest readout with al-Maliki.
President Obama called Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki today to congratulate the Iraqi people on the success of the Arab Summit hosted in Baghdad last week, and on Iraq’s continued reintegration into the region as a sovereign, independent state. The two leaders discussed the United States and Iraq’s joint efforts to advance peace and security in the region as strategic partners. The discussion also covered the political situation in Iraq, and a range of other shared interests. President Obama expressed the United States’ firm commitment to a unified, democratic Iraq as defined by Iraq’s constitution, as well as his support for Prime Minister Maliki’s participation in the ongoing dialogue convened by President Talabani tasked to reconcile Iraqi political blocs in a flexible and open manner.
Obama can afford to glance over Iraq because the cumulative effects of George Bush's surge averted a civil meltdown. The conflict remains at a "manageable" intensity and "only" 112 Iraqis - 78 civilians, 22 policemen and 12 soldiers - became the casualties of insurgent attacks in March. The lowest figure since U.S. and international forces entered the country in 2003 also reduced last March's total by half, with Baghdad's AL conference functioning as an end-of-the-month bonus. Less encouraging is the persistent nature of Iraq's militancy and the diversion of violence into Baghdad's political sphere.

The White House's cookie-cutter rhetoric - "reconcile Iraqi political blocs in a flexible and open manner" - stands as its own evidence of mismanagement. Obama is praising al-Maliki for attempting to resolve problems that he started and for holding a conference that non-Shia officials claim he reluctantly submitted to. “All matters will be resolved according to the constitution,” al-Maliki told reporters over the weekend, but few steps have been taken to build confidence ahead of the meetings. Iraqiya unsuccessfully warned the Obama administration of this non-transparent atmosphere after the summit's preliminary phase collapsed: "There is no need for the preparatory meetings, particularly they were unable to name the conference, date and agenda."

Viewing Hashimi and al-Mutlaq's cases as politically exaggerated, Iraqiya demands that both issues be resolved before the National Conference in order to keep the summit on track: implementation of a standing power-sharing agreement. However al-Maliki wasn't willing to discuss al-Hashimi's case anyway, instead considering him to be an independent judiciary issue. Allawi told reporters last week, "Three months have now passed, and nothing has been done on these points." Today the conference was delayed "indefinitely" due to "mounting difference" with al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, with holds 89 parliamentary seats to Iraqiya's 91.

“It is better to postpone the conference until we reach a way out of the standoff,” said Parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi.

Meanwhile a secure hosting of the Arab League is juxtaposed by the reality that al-Maliki remains a supporter of Bashar al-Assad. Iraq is one of several Arab nations that adheres to a strict non-interventionist policy in Syria, and among the most vocal proponents of negotiating with the regime. al-Maliki has recently worked to appease Riyadh by signing a prisoner exchange, but the two powers remain uneasy neighbors as the region splits down Sunni and Shia lines. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar received al-Hashimi over the weekend, infuriating al-Maliki to the point that he threatened to call Interpol.

Most importantly, Iraqis don't believe that their country is near a sovereign state yet - the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are all accused of meddling in the country's affairs. America and Iran (in that order) recently topped the list of perceived threats during a poll conducted by Doha's Arab Center For Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). With most Americans either happy to be gone from Iraq or angry that U.S. troops left too soon, Obama and his National Security Council are clearly skilled at shoveling Iraq into a dark corner (like Afghanistan) and papering over the deficiencies in Washington's response. Allawi explicitly told The Washington Times, “I think the United States deliberately is taking Iraq out of the screen because there is a gross failure in Iraq.”

Demonstrating how overwhelmed the Obama administration is, the State Department's Victoria Nuland responded, “We strongly disagree with [Mr. Allawi‘s] characterization of our relationship with the government of Iraq and the role we have played to keep the Iraqi political process on track.”

Allawi is hardly the only politician to view Baghdad's situation this way; Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, will deliver a similar message to Obama when they meet in the coming days. Barzani says he's pleased with the improvement in the Kurds' political clout, but sees a letdown in U.S. diplomatic activity following the withdrawal of military forces. “That question is still on the table," he said of America's commitment to a free and sovereign Iraq. Barzani counts himself among those who fears that al-Maliki's rule verges on a dictatorship.

“There may be some people who do not want to call it a crisis, but it is a crisis," he said. "This is not the Iraq we struggled for: We are seeing the consolidation of power under one party and one ruler.”

Under the present conditions, U.S. policy will continue to bleed influence so long as Washington accepts al-Maliki's status quo. At worst, the refusal to challenge al-Maliki could open the door to another potential cycle of instability. Allawi remains open to three alternatives: a "true partnership," appointing a new Premier from al-Maliki's party, or new elections. If none of these scenarios play out, Allawi has threatened to launch "peaceful demonstrations" against the government - and Iraqis have already tasted al-Maliki's response to the Arab revolutions.

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