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Defeat in Iraq

President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops is the mother of all disasters

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Many, most prominently the White House, now argue that this denouement was made inevitable by the mis-behavior or unreasonableness of the Iraqis. That argument is not merely false, but also fundamentally obscures serious errors in the Obama administration’s policy toward Iraq. Those mistakes encouraged the failure of the negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence, the failure of the Iraqi state, and the collapse of the fragile intersectarian accord that a great deal of blood had been shed to achieve. It is important to review the administration’s errors for the historical record and for an understanding of both the state-of-play within Iraq today and the trends that threaten to unravel American strategy throughout the Middle East.

Forming an Iraqi government

Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary election was critical for securing and furthering political changes already underway after the security gains of the American surge in 2007-08. The emphatic anti-incumbent results of Iraq’s provincial elections in January 2009 had raised a serious challenge to the popularity Prime Minister Maliki had earned by defeating the Shiite militias in Baghdad and Basra in 2008. Since then, he and numerous provincial governors and councils had failed to improve the quality of government for ordinary Iraqis. The defeat of incumbents had left room for new political parties, including those representing Sunni populations in vital provinces such as Nineveh. Nationalist, secular rhetoric characterized the provincial elections and continued to predominate in the summer and early fall of 2009. The Shiite parties had been unable to form an alliance—either with one another or with the Kurdish or Sunni parties—prior to the spring 2010 election, so there was no unified Shiite bloc, as there had been in the 2006 parliamentary election. This made it possible to imagine cross-sectarian political coalitions for the first time.

Cross-sectarian parties, government inclusive of minor-ities, a peaceful transfer of power, and secular political principles were thus all very much within Iraq’s reach in the summer of 2009. But those possibilities were threatening to incumbents, many of whom sought to prevent change. Rather than protecting these delicate political trends, however, the United States adopted a hands-off posture during the lead-up to the March 2010 parliamentary election and the protracted period of government-formation that followed. The United States greatly diminished its own leverage and permitted political developments that both undermined its previous achievements and complicated efforts to negotiate the troop extension that was essential to U.S. national security interests.

The United States adopted a meek position, for example, on early, sectarian attempts to eliminate popular Sunni candidates in late 2009 and early 2010. The Iraqi political environment became highly charged when, on January 7, 2010, the Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC, informally known as the de-Baathification commission) announced a ban on roughly 500 candidates. The decision was highly controversial and shrouded in secrecy. The names of the banned candidates were not initially made public, nor were the methods of determining who was disqualified. Nor was it clear that the AJC was a legally constituted body that could make binding decisions on who ran for office. The move was especially controversial as the committee was led by two individuals, Ahmad Chalabi and Ali Faisal al-Lami, who were themselves candidates. Al-Lami had spent a year in U.S. custody for his links to Iranian-backed militia groups, and he’d been released only months before the announcement.

Vice President Biden visited Iraq at the height of the de-Baathification controversy in what many hoped was an effort to resolve the crisis. Yet, during his visit he said, “I want to make clear I am not here to resolve that issue [of the banned candidates]. This is for Iraqis, not for me. I am confident that Iraq’s leaders are seized with this issue and are working for a final, just solution. .  .  . The United States condemns the crimes of the previous regime, and we fully support Iraq’s constitutional ban on the return to power of Saddam’s Baath party.” This unwillingness to push back against an overtly sectarian maneuver not only diminished U.S. standing, but also meant that the issue would continue to plague the electoral process.

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