Don’t Call Him Our Boy In Baghdad

by Dish Staff

Iraqi Minister of Communication Haider a

David F. Schmitz hopes the US government has finally learned a thing or two from its experience at trying and failing to manage clients like Nouri al-Maliki and won’t make the same mistakes with his successor, Haider al-Abadi. There’s a broader lesson to be learned here, he argues, about the limits of our superpowers as a superpower:

Now that Iraq has a new leader who is said to be an amiable technocrat without Maliki’s overriding partisan agenda, can the United States escape its past as a poor puppeteer? Can Washington find a way to help Abadi rather than hinder him, empowering his government to take on the Islamic State without seeming to dictate its choices ? The Obama administration says it supports Abadi because it wants to see the democratic process upheld, and there is nothing wrong with this position. There’s no reason to think the Obama administration, no matter how many hundreds of advisers it sends or airstrikes it launches, will have any more success than the Bush administration did in stabilizing Iraq, because the underlying problem remains: It’s almost possible to get a foreign leader to do what is best for you, rather than what he believes is best for him, no matter how much money you throw his way or how hard you twist his arm.

The United States can still play a positive role, but instead of the business of building puppets, we should be more in the business of cultivation—helping good leaders to grow. Success in Iraq or Afghanistan can only come if an indigenous force and leader emerges with local support, and then only if the United States doesn’t demand that they reflect the will of Washington and the goals of the United States in all of their actions and policies.

Christopher Preble is on the same page. Abadi’s problems are many and daunting, he writes, but making them our problems won’t help solve them:

Abadi will need to find a way to form an inclusive coalition government, one that protects the rights of Sunnis and appeases the Kurds’ desire for autonomy, while maintaining support from Iraqi Shiites. This is a tall order. … Americans should wish Iraq’s new leader well, but policymakers should resist the urge to try to micromanage political events in Iraq. Even the appearance of U.S. influence over Abadi will undermine his legitimacy and thus could be counterproductive. Besides, it isn’t obvious that U.S. action—and only U.S. action—is essential to turning things around in Iraq.

Taking a closer look at those problems, Martin Chulov argues that bridging Iraq’s sectarian divide will be Abadi’s most daunting challenge:

Abadi has told followers his first job as prime minister will be to convince those Sunnis who have endorsed Isis in its attempt to establish a caliphate across Syria and Iraq that an Iraqi nation within its current borders remains a better option. Regional and Iraqi officials have encouraged Abadi to start by revitalising the demoralised national military and overhauling state institutions that have been co-opted by warlords and political blocs over the past decade. Many barely function. Abadi also aims to revive relations with Sunni Arab neighbours, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which boycotted Maliki’s government for close to seven years. Maliki, in turn, had accused Riyadh of bankrolling extremism in Iraq.

“He was such a divisive, polarising figure,” said one senior Saudi official of the ousted leader. “A new start was essential to even beginning to sort out this mess.”

But Ghaith Abdul Ahad resists the temptation to blame Maliki, and only Maliki, for running Iraq into the ground. At least to some extent, the problem is structural:

Maliki was not alone in his corruption, nepotism and oppression. In Iraq’s national unity government, ministries run by Maliki’s opponents are as corrupt as ministries run by his allies. Yes, he dominated the army, but every other party and sect had its own share of positions that were sold to the highest bidder. Detainees were freed by bribing officials who belonged to different parties. Ministers who publicly opposed Maliki never left his government because it generated so much wealth and power. Iraq’s division into fiefdoms, where each party greedily consumed its spoils, has created a country in which an oligarchy of a few thousand ministers, government officials, generals, militia commanders and all those people blessed with much-sought-after green zone badges – Sunnis, Shias and Kurds – have a monopoly on resources, leaving the rest of the nation with nothing much but the blame game.

Meanwhile, Ali Hashem spotlights Iran’s role in Abadi’s designation as prime minister, which suggests the level of interest with which Tehran is engaging the Iraq crisis:

During the weeks of talks, Iran’s secretary of national security, Adm. Ali Shamkhani, led the Iranian efforts on the ground. He visited Iraq on July 18 and met main leaders in Baghdad, Najaf and Erbil. Shamkhani was given a green light from Khamenei to try to end the crisis at any price. He was aware that the situation isn’t the same as before: Iran is no longer defending its regional security borders, but rather its direct borders; the Islamic State (IS) is now in Diyala, which borders Iran; and the last city that fell under IS control is Jalawla, less than 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Iranian border.

In Tehran, the murmurs that Shamkhani will oversee the Iraq file have gotten louder. This is an indication that Iran is about to adopt a new policy, given Shamkhani’s historic relations with the Gulf countries and Iraq, his wide experience in dealing politically with regional conflicts and his closeness to Khamenei, all without ignoring the fact that he’s an Iranian of Arab origins.

(Photo: Haider al-Abadi by Jean-Philippe Kziazek/AFP/Getty Images)