January 9, 2014 10:10AM

U.S. Leverage over Iraqis? When Did We Have That?

Today's Wall Street Journal features a front-page story (may be paywalled) on the civil war raging in Iraq. The headline observes that the United States has minimal leverage in Iraq, and that American officials fear that they will therefore be unable to halt the war, at least not any time soon.

Despair over our supposed "lost leverage" has been building for a while. Late last month, Max Boot lamented "the tragedy of Maliki's Iraq" and opined "Maliki needs to implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign...whose central feature must be outreach to the estranged Sunnis." "The tragedy," Boot concluded, "is that Maliki lacks the acumen to do that–and the U.S. lacks the leverage to compel him, because of the ill-advised pullout of American forces at the end of 2011."

Such recommendations are based on two fundamental misconceptions: 1) That Americans once had leverage over the Iraqis, and that we lost it around the time U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq; and, 2) that there is a durable political solution within reach, if only we had the gumption to go back in.

Instead, the hard fighting of brave Americans to secure Iraq's future have been, in the inimitable Boot's words, "squandered by politicos in Baghdad and Washington." 

Boot ignores there was no public appetite for leaving U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011, and there is even less enthusiasm for sending them back in today. If he wants to criticize politicos in Baghdad and Washington, he must also criticize the voters who elected them. Otherwise, he is effectively howling at the moon.

Thankfully, there is intelligent, informed commentary on what is happening in Iraq, commentary that recognizes political realities in Iraq, and doesn't succumb to fantasies about the United States' magical democracy-making powers. I especially appreciated the New America Foundation's Douglas Ollivant's piece at ForeignPolicy.com. His advice to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Fight. There is no talk in Ollivant's piece about American soldiers fighting for him.

The central problem in Anbar province and other Sunni-dominated areas, Ollivant writes: 

is that significant numbers of Anbaris have not yet reconciled themselves to the loss of power -- and the privileges that came with it -- after the fall of Saddam Hussein. This has spawned two results: demonstrations to express demands that are politically impossible outside an authoritarian system and a return to the violence that al Qaeda has been trying for years to precipitate.


So when analysts (or U.S. senators) suggest that Maliki meet the protesters' demands, what are they really saying? Do they mean he should take extraconstitutional measures to bring about preferred policies such as limiting de-Baathification or regularizing how oil is produced and its revenues distributed -- two legislative initiatives that Iraq's lawfully elected parliament failed to approve? 


This is not to say that Maliki and his government are blameless. There are no doubt actions the prime minister has taken that he wishes he could take back. Politicians make mistakes and miscalculate. But the fact remains that a terrorist force is blowing up thousands of Iraqi citizens. What kind of responsible elected official would just sit around and do nothing?

(Read the whole thing here.)

Maliki represents a constituency within Iraq, certainly not perfectly, as Ollivant notes, but well enough to get elected. Those who note that he was actually defeated in 2010, but managed to hold onto power illegally, cannot point to a credible alternative leader who might have been able to lead Iraq out of this dark period through negotiations. Any such person would surely be confronted by rejectionists who would rather fight than make concessions to their enemies. 

Achieving peace and reconciliation in Iraq is going to be very hard. I'd say impossible, at least for a while. And, most importantly, it will be done by Iraqis, not by Americans on behalf of Iraqis. Remember that the next time you hear people talking about the leverage that Americans once had over Iraqis, and that we could get that leverage back, if only we had U.S. troops on the ground.