Into the Fog

Through Iraq’s recent unfolding crisis, the US position has been that no progress is possible until Baghdad forms an inclusive rather than sectarian government which commands confidence from each of Iraq’s three ethno-religious communities – Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs. This is undoubtedly right as far as it goes: ISIS’s success rolling over Iraq’s Sunni heartlands was at least made much easier – perhaps possible – by Sunni estrangement from the government in Baghdad. But what if that government simply cannot or will not be formed?

This afternoon there are conflicting reports out of Baghdad. Some are calling it a coup. And it may be that. We’re in that early phase where there’s a cacophony of accounts bubbling on Twitter. Whether they’re accurate is unclear, as is what they would mean if they are. It’s not even totally clear what would constitute a coup under present circumstances. But the upshot seems clear: Prime Minister Maliki is refusing to leave the stage. And there seems to be a wide consensus that that vaunted, fabled ‘inclusive’ government will never come into being as long as Maliki commands the stage.

So he’s not going – though he’s set off what may prove to be a high enough stakes gamble that anything may now be possible. But in our view, his going is the starting point of progress on almost any front. And any greater ability on our part to push things forward to a more promising end begins with his departure. And this paralysis is occurring while the country is not only falling apart in some figurative sense but being torn apart violently, with whole ancient communities under threat along with various other brutalities.

So again, I put this forward as a question because there are so many layers of this country and region that I’m out of my depth on. But is it time to set aside the idea of a unified Iraqi state? Many of you will rightly say, this is hardly our decision. And I agree with that. But our policy inevitably looks toward and tries to shape what we see as the preferred outcome. The US and Europe tried to keep Yugoslavia together until it obviously couldn’t be kept and then we gave up trying. At the moment we’ve kept our closest friends, the Iraqi Kurds, on a tight leash and actually have a tanker of their oil held off the coast of Texas, all to help along the move toward unity in Baghdad, which Maliki seems set on preventing.

We’re told that Maliki missed the opportunity he was given with the Sunni Awakening in 2007-08 and went back to a Shia sectarian approach to governance, in essence triggering another uprising on the order of the one from the last decade, just now in a different guise and turbocharged by the immolation of Syria. This is no defense of Maliki. But what if he’s just the symptom – the symptom of a state that can’t be held together without the tyrannical grip we liberated it from more than a decade ago?

Here’s a strong rejoinder to the argument I’m asking about from Ziad al-Ali, writing in The New York Times, who points to the corruption of Iraq’s political class as the key to the country’s present undoing, rather than ethnic or sectarian divisions. It’s worth reading. But I wonder.

President Obama’s critics are now having a field day second guessing his decision to leave Iraq and be content with leaving no ‘residual’ military force in the country. We probably wouldn’t be in quite this situation if American troops were still in there, though who knows? But this was half the point of leaving – that the alternative was to stay more or less forever as a light lid on a polity that needs a few tens of thousands of US troops on hand to keep it from driving off the rails.

At what point do we say this can’t be put back together? And maybe we shouldn’t try? Not that we simply throw up our hands but consider ways to advance our interests and those of our allies outside the straight jacket of the Iraqi state.