Opinion

The Great Debate

With or without Maliki, Iraq will tear itself apart

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The word out of Washington is Nouri al-Maliki must go. A new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will unify Iraq with American help.

We’ve seen this movie before — an attempt at a quick fix of Iraq’s problems. Like every other quick fix tried, this one will fail, too. The United States is ignoring the inevitable: Iraq will eventually dissolve into separate nation-states. Efforts are needed to manage that process, not to hope it will go away.

Some history. Following the regime change of 2003 and the elimination of Saddam Hussein, the United States failed to create any civil structure to fill the vacuum. Religious, ethnic, tribal and geographic tensions in Iraq were unleashed (I’ll label it all Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd as shorthand, though the reality is much more complex.) A U.S.-patched-together “government” (the Governing Council, of which Abadi was a part) accomplished little more than marking the first failed quick fix in the Iraq story.

Desperate to install a “legitimate” government, the United States helped slip Maliki — who they knew little about — into power via the Sunni-boycotted elections of 2006. Maliki did little to encourage the Sunnis to become part of the central power structure, and the insurgency kicked into hyperdrive. Maliki refused to embrace the surge’s signature Anbar Awakening, another quick fix designed to “create the political space” needed to unify a nation perhaps only George W. Bush still believed existed.

Despite Maliki throwing the last serious U.S. reconciliation plan under the bus, America stood by and watched the Iranians broker a deal after the 2010 elections that gave Maliki another four years as prime minister. American eyes were on the exit, and Maliki was the devil we knew — a quick fix to declare enough democracy in Iraq so we could get out.

Iraq airstrikes: You read the news, now get the context

Relatives mourn the death of a Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter, killed during clashes with Islamic State fighters in the Iraqi city of Rabia on the Iraqi-Syrian border, during his funeral in Ras al-Ain

Once you read the latest news about the U.S. airstrikes and humanitarian drops in Iraq, turn to commentary for the context you need to fully understand what is happening and how we got here. Here is a quick tour:

You can start with incisive background from Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at the Guardian. He provides additional framework for the Obama administration’s decision to use air power. It’s about far more than protecting U.S. advisers in Irbil, Ackerman says. He lays out why the White House felt compelled to protect the pro-U.S. Kurds against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Ackerman then looks at the possible military hardware involved. His reporting continues today with Dan Roberts here.

While you’re on the Guardian site, read the explainer about the Yazidis, the Iraqi religious minority sect besieged atop Mount Sinjar.

If at first you don’t succeed in Iraq, Surge, Surge again

Major-General Hertling, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, walks during a battlefield circulation patrol on the streets in Mosul

America’s new strategy for resolving the Sunni-Shi’ite crisis in Iraq? The Surge — again.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey sounds as if he were reading off the 2007 script, echoing the divide-and-conquer strategy that was the basis for the Surge: “If you can separate those [Sunni] groups,” Dempsey said, “then the problem becomes manageable and understandable.”

So, Washington is now sending U.S. officials to meet with Sunni tribal leaders and others. The ultimate goal — after hopefully forcing out foreign fighters from within Sunni ranks in 2014, as in 2007 — is political reconciliation between Sunni and Shi’ite.

If Iraq must be divided, here’s the right way to do it

Shi'ite volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight ISIL, hold a sign during a graduation ceremony in Najaf

As Iraq spirals toward chaos and its Kurdish region talks independence, the issue of partition, or federalism, has resurfaced. This is a concept that then-Senator Joe Biden strongly advocated in 2006. Though it would be difficult to accomplish, federalism could still be a helpful element as Iraqis struggle through their current tragic mess.

The appeal of federalism could grow if Iraqi leaders in Baghdad cannot agree soon on a government of national unity, ideally one without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has proven so divisive. Whether a “soft partition” — meaning the creation of a Sunni autonomous zone to complement the existing Kurdish one — or “hard partition” –meaning the formal redrawing of regional lines — it would seem a natural idea. Not only because of the recent violence, which has caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes, but also the arbitrariness with which state borders were drawn by the European powers after World War One.

We did a study of the possible soft partition of Iraq in 2007, and found that the new Sunni autonomous zone would need the following:

from John Lloyd:

Are we at war? And why can’t we be sure anymore?

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron poses for group photograph taken with G8 leaders at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen

The question -- “Are we at war?” -- seems absurd. Surely, we would know it if we were. But maybe we’re in a new era -- and wars are creeping up on us.

In the decade after the collapse of communism, the United States and its allies seemed invulnerable to challenges, from military to technological to economic. All changed in the 2000s, the dawning of the third millennium: an Age of Disruption. Russia, under a president smarting publicly at the loss of the Soviet empire, has now delivered an answer to decline: aggressive claims on lost territories.

China, admired for its free-market-driven growth since the 1980s, is feared for the strategic expansion that now accompanies it. This happens in its own region: a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remains tense. It is also at work far beyond -- in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America -- where it seeks energy and natural resources.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

World War One: First war was impossible, then inevitable

British troops advance during the battle of the Somme in this 1916 handout picture

Why does the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand -- the event that lit the fuse of World War One 100 years ago Saturday -- still resonate so powerfully? Virtually nobody believes World War Three will be triggered by recent the military conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq or the China seas, yet many factors today mirror those that led to the catastrophe in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

The pace of globalization was almost as dramatic and confusing in 1914 as it is today. Fear of random terrorism was also widespread -- the black-hatted anarchist clutching a fizzing bomb was a cartoon cliché then just as the Islamic jihadist is today. Yet the crucial parallel may be the complacent certainty that economic interdependence and prosperity had made war inconceivable -- at least in Europe.

An undated archive picture shows German soldiers offering to surrender to French troops, seen from a listening post in a trench at Massiges, northeastern FranceA 1910 best-selling book, The Great Illusion, used economic arguments to demonstrate that territorial conquest had become unprofitable, and therefore global capitalism had removed the risk of major wars. This view, broadly analogous to the modern factoid that there has never been a war between two countries with a MacDonald’s outlet, became so well established that, less than a year before the Great War broke out, the Economist reassured its readers with an editorial titled “War Becomes Impossible in Civilized World.”

from Mark Leonard:

Decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East could make for some strange bedfellows

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Thirty-five years ago Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran chanting “death to America.” But today Iran wants to work with the United States to stabilize Iraq while negotiating a deal on its nuclear program. The journey from death threats to diplomacy is both a triumph of U.S. statecraft and a symbol of its declining power.

When I spoke to thinkers, politicians and business people on a recent trip to Tehran, I was struck by the strong consensus that America’s hegemony in the Middle East and in global affairs is giving way to a multipolar order in which power is more widely shared and where its nature is changing. Not long ago, they said, the United States bestrode the Middle East as a unipolar power, the main source of order and disorder, the biggest consumer of hydrocarbons and the most active military power. It was not for nothing that it was nicknamed the “Great Satan.” But today the United States is but one of many players in the region’s security struggles, and its purchases of oil are eclipsed by China’s.

The real Great Satan for today’s Iran is Saudi Arabia. As Nasser Hadian, a professor at Tehran University, explained to me in an interview last week: “It is the Saudis who are challenging us almost everywhere – increasing their oil output and bringing down the prices; forming a GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) oriented against Iran; challenging us in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Syria and building infrastructure inside Iran.”

Is this Obama’s ‘malaise’ moment?

Obama addresses the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington

Malaise is back.

President Barack Obama’s situation is getting perilously close to President Jimmy Carter’s in 1979.

Americans see little evidence of an economic recovery, more and more workers are giving up hope of ever finding a job, the burden of student loan debt — now larger than credit-card debt — is crushing the hopes of young people, the president’s signature achievement, healthcare reform, is broadly unpopular, our borders are overrun by migrant children, Iraq is falling apart, Syria and Ukraine are in turmoil and the president seems hapless and ineffectual.

“Malaise” was the term used in 1979 to describe the deep pessimism Americans felt about the way things were going in the country.  That year, inflation was soaring, unemployment was rising, the United States faced a debilitating energy crisis, a tax revolt had broken out, Americans were waiting in long gas lines, and Iran had a revolution, further roiling the Middle East.

Should U.S. work with Iran in Iraq? Yes, if it wants to take on the real challenge: China

A member of the Kurdish security forces takes up position with his weapon while guarding an oil refinery, on the outskirts of Mosul

To work with Iran or not to work with Iran? That’s the question dogging Washington as Iraq descends into chaos, reminding America that its mission there was never truly accomplished.

As Sunni militants move toward Baghdad, and Iran’s supreme leader condemns U.S. involvement in the conflict, reaching out to Iran is less about changing America’s regional alignments, and more about defining its primary goal in the Middle East: Does America want stability, or does it want domination?

If Washington’s goal is stability, then cooperating with Iran makes sense because Tehran needs a stable Iraq and has valuable intelligence and political influence that can advance U.S. security. Iran has invested heavily in maintaining Iraq’s geographic unity under a Shi’ite-led government over whom it holds significant influence. For Iran, a stable Iraq led by an ally is better than an unstable Iraq led by Sunni jihadists who hate Iran more than they hate America. For that reason, Rouhani and others in Tehran had expressed willingness to cooperate with Washington against the jihadists.

from Ian Bremmer:

Obama isn’t the only one with a passive-aggressive foreign policy

 China's President Xi speaks during his meeting with U.S. President Obama, on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit, in The Hague

America and China are the world’s two major powers, with the largest economies and militaries. The stakes are high for them to practice what they preach on foreign policy: their words and actions influence the global economy, as well as the behavior of allies and enemies.

The problem: Xi Jinping and Barack Obama want to have their foreign policy cake and eat it, too. For both leaders, international engagement isn’t top of mind: they want to downplay their global leadership roles in order to focus on more pressing concerns at home.

But at the same time, they have certain priorities that they’re willing to pursue unilaterally and aggressively abroad. This inconsistency gets them both in hot water. It leaves other countries guessing, it undermines global collaboration, and it allows crises like Ukraine and Iraq to burn hotter, for longer, more often.

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