We interrupt President Obama’s celebration of keeping a campaign promise to bring you news from Iraq, where a political crisis has been unfolding since just hours after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta departed on Thursday. The ethno-sectarian settlement achieved at such cost to Iraqis and Americans is unraveling rapidly. The principal Sunni bloc has withdrawn its members from the Iraqi Parliament and is threatening to withdraw from the government altogether within two weeks unless Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki adheres to the written commitments he made during the negotiations to form a government.
Maliki prompted their action by arresting and torturing the bodyguards of Sunni vice president Tariq al Hashemi. Multiple unconfirmed reports indicate that on Thursday night, Maliki moved elements of the Baghdad Brigade, commanded by his son, to surround the residences of Sunni political figures, including Hashemi. In retaliation for the Sunni parliamentarians' walkout, Maliki has demanded a no-confidence vote for Sunni deputy prime minister Salah Mutlaq, and indicated his intent to bring charges against Hashemi and others for conspiring to assassinate him.
The crisis is not confined to Baghdad. Fearful of the moves Maliki had already made to consolidate autocratic rule under the fist of his Shi’a Dawa Party, Sunni provincial leaders in Salahuddin and Diyala Provinces have declared their intention to form federal autonomous regions. Maliki has angrily rejected their rights to do so. Communities have reportedly begun mobilizing to defend themselves against potential sectarian conflict in Diyala. Vice President Joe Biden and Ambassador James Jeffrey have reportedly been working the phones to manage the crisis, but their efforts do not appear to be bearing any fruit.
Some will say that the failure of the Iraqi political and sectarian settlement was inevitable, that the “surge”—as they predicted—produced only temporary results, and that Iraq was irretrievably lost the moment American forces invaded in 2003. Those arguments are simply wrong. The ethno-sectarian settlement endured tremendous tests from its tentative establishment in 2007 until President Obama announced the end of American presence in Iraq. Its endurance was unquestionably underwritten by the presence of American troops, who provided critical double-guarantees: they guaranteed Maliki against the Sunni coup d’état he evidently fears so much, and they guaranteed the Sunni Arabs against precisely the sort of vengeful misuse of Iraq’s security forces now occurring. Interestingly, they continued to be effective in that guarantor’s role even after they had withdrawn from combat operations, were taking virtually no casualties, and were not even moving around the country very much. It may be that an American military presence of 10,000-15,000 troops (as General Lloyd Austin ultimately suggested) would have been required for a long time to help the settlement not only endure, but harden into something that could stand on its own. Such a presence would still have been smaller than what the U.S. has in Korea today—and has had there for 60 years. The decision to abandon Iraq entirely will stand as one of the monumental strategic follies of the 21st century, and the cost of that disastrous choice are already emerging starkly.
American options for trying to mitigate the damage are limited, but nevertheless important. The U.S. should immediately threaten to withhold assistance, including the shipment of military aircraft Iraq recently ordered, if Maliki does not back down and adhere to the commitments he made to the Sunni bloc. Washington should engage Ankara energetically to enforce a common front toward the Kurds. Kurdish parliamentarians—and security forces—remain key players in this drama, but they have been acting selfishly and fearfully, always with one eye on the door out of Iraq and into independence. Many Kurdish leaders apparently believe that even if the U.S. will not back them, Turkey will. But it is no more in Turkey’s interest than in ours to see Iraq once more in flames. Now is the time for some smart power in the region.
Above all, however, now is the time to show that this administration actually cares about what happens in Iraq. It is not enough for the vice president to phone it in. The secretary of state should go to Baghdad, not to celebrate our withdrawal, but to play an active role in mediating the aftermath. Obama should invite Maliki and his Sunni and Kurdish counterparts to a summit somewhere in the West to hash this out. If not, we will no doubt be treated to yet another series of visits by Iraqi leaders to Tehran as the Iranians again demonstrate their willingness to engage where Americans withdraw.
One definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Another might be doing the same thing in changing circumstances and expecting the same result. Previous Iraqi crises like this one have tended to dampen themselves out and resolve toward unsteady accommodation. But none of those crises occurred in the absence of American troops and interest. Will this crisis dampen itself down, or will it flare up into the renewal of communal and regional conflict, undoing all that has been accomplished over the last eight years? It would be good to see the Obama administration put its back into trying to shape the answer to that question rather than watching to see what happens.
Frederick W. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.