During the past week, we have circulated articles on the mess in Iraq by two FPRI scholars, Barak Mendelsohn in Foreign Affairs and on CNN and Michael Noonan in US News and World Report. Here is a response by FPRI Senior Fellow Andrew Garfield.
I have enjoyed reading the articles on Iraq that you have been sending out over the last few days. They are thoughtful and I can agree with much of what the FPRI scholars say, certainly far more than what is available in the mainstream media, whose analysis seems to devolve along partisan political lines: either it’s all Bush’s fault or it’s all Obama’s fault.
There are two important things that are missed here. Obama does share the blame and this situation cannot be improved by helping Maliki and his Iranian allies to recapture the country and crush the Sunni.
Obama’s Share of the Blame
The Bush Administration’s failures with regard to Iraq are well documented and do not need to be repeated here. However, the Obama Administration is not blameless. When we were negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement, the Obama Administration had only one card to play: if Maliki did not sign, he would be on his own. My belief is that Maliki knew that once he called Obama’s bluff, Obama would back down. Obama’s supporters claim that he hung tough and pulled US forces out, which is true. But that really did not matter because we continued to pour billions of dollars of military assistance into the country, propping Maliki up and allowing him the freedom to severely repress the Sunni. The Obama Administration circumvented the SOFA process by outsourcing our military assistance to defense contractors and retired military. In other words, we continued to provide Maliki with all the military advisors and equipment he needed through the likes of DynCorp (instead of SOCOM). The Administration must have known that Maliki was undermining his military by firing Sunni officers and escalating his government’s punishment and disenfranchisement of the Sunni. It was inevitable that such treatment would result in another Sunni uprising that would be exploited by extremists. The Administration was thus complicit in creating the very situation we are now having to deal with. Yes, to cite Mendelsohn, this is a situation the Iraqis brought on themselves. But the Obama administration can also be faulted: you don’t back a bad guy to the hilt while he is doing something criminal and remain innocent yourself.
Tell Maliki He’s on His Own, Unless . . .
We need to stop thinking of this in terms of a political or terrorist situation. This is a nasty religious and ethnic sectarian conflict that we cannot resolve. Everyone forgets that it was nearly as bad in 2006, especially after the Samara Mosque was blown up by Sunni extremists. The only way we stopped it was by surging our forces and deploying tens of thousands of combat troops onto Iraq’s streets. Even then, what really turned things around was our buying/bribing enough of the more secular Sunni so that they joined the Sunni Awakening and turned on the extremists. That is unlikely to happen this time unless ISIS gets so bad that the moderate Sunni fear them more than the Shia. Helping a Shia army crush a Sunni rebellion is not going to stabilize Iraq. It might, as Mendelsohn said, buy time but it could well be at huge cost to us especially with our Sunni allies in the region.
The US has a role to play in this deteriorating situation and a responsibility to act. But that does not mean sending military advisors to help a Shia army crush the Sunni. We can dress it up and say we are fighting ISIS but in reality Sunni civilians will suffer now and in the long term, if Maliki continues his policy of repression underwritten by a US bailout. Indeed, the retaliations have already started and there have been numerous terrible examples of Shia retribution, mostly against ordinary Sunni civilians.
The only sensible way for the U.S. to proceed is to begin by placing the blame squarely on Maliki. The emergence of ISIS is a direct result of his repression of the Sunni. Any support that we provide him from this day forth should therefore be entirely conditional on his calling an immediate ceasefire and peace conference with moderate Sunni and making major concessions to the Sunni, providing them with the assurances they will rightly demand if they are to again “awaken” and join the government in fighting the extremists. Fighting will continue against ISIS during this time and we may have to support that but only to hold the line while the political concessions to the moderate Sunni are made. This demand must be backed up with the real threat that all U.S. support, both official and commercial, will be withdrawn if the Sunni continue to be discriminated against. We should also impose one further condition. We must demand that Maliki sign a new SOFA so that our assistance can be provided within the context of a clear legal framework. Remember that the SOFA was not signed because Maliki refused to agree to legal immunity for our troops. So right now we would be sending military advisors into a situation where they may have no legal protection from arrest and prosecution under Iraqi law. When telling Maliki he is on his own if he does not agree to our terms, we should also remind him that he will be held accountable as a war criminal if his troops use excessive force in restoring the situation.
President Obama needs to make this deal the centerpiece of a very public campaign that highlights the fact that Maliki has brought this on himself, that the Sunni are the innocent victims of this situation — attacked from both sides, the Shia on one side and ISIS on the other — and that the US will not take sides in a sectarian conflict. We are willing to provide all the help all Iraqis need to defeat ISIS but only by including the moderate Sunni majority in the solution. If Maliki refuses, then he should be on his own. And this has to be part of a wider strategy that includes Syria. Sometimes it is better to take a principled stand and let a situation play out than dive in and make things worse.