President Obama has said that more U.S. help to Iraq in fighting ISIS depends on the Iraqis forming an inclusive government. But the American strategy to push the Iraqi political process appears to be backfiring, analysts say—and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has decided to fight to the end to hold onto power.
U.S. officials said late Sunday night that Maliki was being unreasonable when he accused Iraqi President Fouad Massoum of engaging in a “coup” by not selecting a new prime minister by Sunday midnight, the end of a constitutionally mandated deadline. Massoum’s failure to act left Maliki as the only choice for prime minister, according to Malik’s logic, a proposition U.S. officials sharply disagree with as they try to show Maliki the exit. (On Monday in Baghdad, Massoum finally appointed Haider al-Abadi to be Iraq's next Prime Minister.)
While reports pour in from Baghdad of tanks and special forces in the streets, the Obama administration is now openly supporting anyone but Maliki to take over the prime minister post. In the American view, Maliki helped stoke the Sunni-Shia tensions that have turbocharged ISIS’s rise. But the U.S. bears some responsibility for the current political crisis, analysts said. Washington has been harping on Baghdad to complete formation of an “inclusive” government, pushing for the clock on the deadline to begin, rushing and thereby dooming the delicate process.
“This crisis was very predictable. In some ways, Washington is to blame by rushing the process and thinking that the faster democratic processes happen, the more stable the outcome,” said Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former State Department official. “These things are delicate. If you put too much strain and pressure on fragile political systems, they’re going to explode in your face.”
The Obama administration’s months-long, behind-the-scenes effort to prevent Maliki from beginning a third term as prime minister spilled out into public view Sunday night when State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk tweeted that the U.S. wanted to see a prime minister nominee who could build national consensus—in other words, not Maliki.
Iraq’s political process has been plagued by bouts of inaction, sectarian infighting, and overall dysfunction ever since it was established during the U.S. occupation. American officials, especially Vice President Joe Biden and McGurk, backed Maliki over other contenders following elections in 2006 because they hoped he would steer the political process towards negotiated solutions that protected minorities. He didn’t. Closely coordinated with Iran, Maliki consolidated Shia control and expanded his own personal powers.
“The United States fully supports President Fuad Masum in his role as guarantor of the Iraqi Constitution,” State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a Sunday night statement, confirming McGurk’s tweet officially dumping Maliki. “We reaffirm our support for a process to select a Prime Minister who can represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people by building a national consensus and governing in an inclusive manner. We reject any effort to achieve outcomes through coercion or manipulation of the constitutional or judicial process.”
U.S. officials said Sunday night there was still time for a new prime minister candidate to emerge; after all, Iraqi political deadlines have proven to be debatable and fungible. But the pressure from Washington to get a government together fast didn’t allow for negotiations that would have produced a government that was sustainable and that had a chance to convince Maliki to leave on his own accord, Mardini said. (Putting the last Iraqi government together required almost 10 months’ worth of negotiations in 2010.)
“The U.S. should’ve handled the situation more delicately realizing the stakes and consequences. They pressured all sides to rush, rush, rush and start the clock on forming a government,” he said. “Unfortunately, time and time again, Washington appears to have very little foresight about the second-order consequences of its actions and rhetoric. Before starting the train, make sure the tracks are built.”
There are two viable candidates and one particularly viable emerging successor to Maliki who still could be nominated for prime minister, even if the 15-day deadline for government formation has technically passed, U.S. officials believe. Officials wouldn’t name names, but the candidate would probably come from the Shia National Alliance, which is a shaky alliance between of Maliki’s State of Law coalition and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), led by Muktada al-Sadr, among others.
Even without U.S. pressure, a deal to replace Maliki would have been difficult for the State of Law coalition and the Iraqi National Alliance to strike. Few other candidates command support across the broad spectrum of Shia political groups. Iran had been reported to sour on Maliki, but Tehran’s intentions, and its ability to impact the process, are still not well understood.
U.S. officials don’t believe the political crisis will spill over into armed conflict between forces loyal to Maliki and other Iraqi government forces in the very near term. But they acknowledge that the situation is getting more and more tense, just as the U.S. has begun to strike ISIS in northern Iraq and the Islamic extremist group spreads its brand of ultra-violence into more Iraqi cities.
President Obama himself leaned on the Iraqi political elite to form a government fast when he said Saturday that more expansive U.S. military action against ISIS would not be considered until the government formation process was finished. After the selection of the Kurdish President and the Sunni Speaker of Parlaimant, the selection of a Shia Prime Minister is the last major hurdle.
“So we're going to be pushing very hard to encourage Iraqis to get their government together. Until we do that, it is going to be hard to get the unity of effort that allows us to not just play defense but also engage in some offense,” Obama said Saturday before leaving for his August vacation.
In fact, the Obama administration began pushing Maliki aside in June, according to officials and analysts, after the ISIS takeover of Mosul shocked the administration into realizing their multi-year investment in turning Maliki into a true democratically minded leader had failed.
There have been warnings to the Obama administration that simply appointing a prime minister would not quickly produce the inclusive government the president says could lead to further U.S. military support. Critics says the administration has favored the quick appearance of unity over the hard work of real power sharing, which would take much longer.
“The White House is hopeful that a new prime minister could be nominated this weekend. Even if that occurs, it probably will take Iraqis many more weeks to agree on a common political program, if they are able to do so at all,” the Washington Post wrote in an editorial this week. “Kurds and Sunnis are demanding a major decentralization of power, and one of the ‘other countries’ that the United States must balance is Iran, which seeks to perpetuate Shiite dominance in Baghdad. Meanwhile, as senior Kurdish leaders told the administration in a visit to Washington last month, Iraqi army and Kurdish forces probably cannot defeat the Islamic State on their own.”
U.S. officials are in close contact with Iraqis on all sides, furiously trying to salvage the political process before it flames out for good. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is continuing to strike ISIS near Erbil, where hundreds of American citizens live, and near Mount Sinjar, where thousands of starving Yazidi minorities are trying to escape.
But officials acknowledge that the U.S. military mission in Iraq is creeping well past the authorization that Obama sent to Congress last Friday and might have to expand even more if Iraq and its allies are to repel ISIS’s advance. Obama already expanded the mission when he said the U.S. would fight to protect Iraq’s critical infrastructure, and officials said Sunday the U.S. might fight to defend other key installations if they were threatened, such as the Baghdad airport.
U.S. officials believe that international forces are eventually going to have to take the fight to ISIS, attacking its supply lines and strongholds, even in Syria. (There’s no consensus inside the administration on whether that should be done by the U.S. or other international partners, however.) The U.S. also has to do more to cut off ISIS’s supply of foreign fighters, officials said.
But in Obama’s view, the U.S. role is dependent on the leaders in Baghdad proving to Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities they will have political power and influence in Iraq. Maliki’s last stand is showing that may not be possible in the near term.
“The nature of this problem is not one that a U.S. military can solve,” said Obama. "We can assist—and our military obviously can play an extraordinarily important role in bolstering efforts of a Iraqi partner as they make the right steps to keep their country together. But we can't do it for them.”