Commentary

Don’t Blame Maliki For America’s Iraq Problems

The emerging consensus on Iraq is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is to blame for failing to produce a political outcome that would reduce the violence. In fact, Maliki is only the latest in a long string of scapegoats that the Bush administration, its supporters in Congress and pro-war pundits have used to mask the truth in Iraq: that the war was a bad idea to begin with, and that it unleashed forces we can’t control.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” sternly declared that Maliki has to “come to grips with the private militias and get them out of business,” and that he should “give more authority to the Iraqi army.”

Delaware Democrat Sen. Joe Biden proposed that the administration tell Maliki, “look, Jack, let’s get something straight here. … You’ve got to deal with the militias, and you’ve got to give the Sunnis a piece of the action. …”

Warner and Biden make an impossibly complex problem sound like a slam dunk. The senators talk as though resolving Iraq’s deep and severe political divisions and ending the civil war is merely a question of will: all the Iraqi leadership has to do is decide to fix things, and they can be fixed.

All the while, hawks look for places to shake off the blame. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum claims that “Iran is the problem in Iraq.” For Texas, Republican Rep. Sam Johnson, “Syria is the problem.”

And remember the fate of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Mr. Maliki’s predecessor as prime minister? After U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned him that President Bush “doesn’t want, doesn’t support, doesn’t accept” his leadership, Jaafari was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by Maliki. Jaafari’s sin, in the eyes of the Bush administration, was his failure to stop the sectarian violence and disarm Shiite militias.

Now the problems that contributed to Jaafari’s downfall have been passed on to Maliki. Columnist Charles Krauthammer has argued that “the Maliki government is a failure,” and the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes chimed in to agree that “the fundamental problem is the Iraqi government.”

Meanwhile, Reuters has reported that the Bush administration and the Pentagon have begun pressuring Maliki to disarm Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, even though, as Reuters admits, “Maliki’s political fortunes depend on the support he gets from Muqtada’s group in parliament.”

How do Washington’s wise men propose that Maliki square this circle? The very idea that the fragile Iraqi government has the capacity to bail the Bush administration out of the mess it has made is facile. The government that the administration continually refers to as a “national unity” government is anything but unified.

Moreover, the Iraqi government is subject to radical forces that can overrule any decisions it makes. The Shiite coalition in Iraq’s parliament has the ability to make or break policy decisions, and Sadr’s people represent the biggest portion of the Shiite bloc. So simply pressuring Maliki to make “hard decisions” overlooks the fundamental political reality in Iraq.

If Maliki seriously moved, for example, to disarm the Mahdi Army, he could face several negative outcomes: the mutiny of the forces attempting to disarm Sadr; open, well-armed resistance from Sadr, which could escalate the civil war in Iraq; or, if he should fail, the risk of suffering the same fate as Jaafari. All of these dangers are compounded by the fact that much of the Iraqi security force is infiltrated by members of the very Shiite militias that it would be tasked with disarming.

The real problem in Iraq is not Iran or Syria, it wasn’t Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and it isn’t Nuri al-Maliki. It isn’t the case that a few external actors are undermining an otherwise sound strategy. Bush’s ideology-as-strategy model is the problem.

If the Bush administration had properly predicted the difficulty of the mission in Iraq, it probably wouldn’t have gone in the first place. As ridiculous as it now seems, the original war plan had the U.S. drawing down its military presence in Iraq to 30,000 troops by September 2003.

Now, instead of trying to craft a responsible exit strategy, the Bush administration and supporters of its war policy spend their time trying to find scapegoats for the catastrophe that it has created. For an administration that likes to talk about responsibility, its behavior is quite the opposite.

Justin Logan is a foreign policy analyst a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.