President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met at the White House on Monday to map out the future relationship between the two countries now that American combat troops will be out of Iraq by the end of this month.
While the president proclaimed that we leave Iraq with our “heads held high,” the re-emergence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the increasing influence of Iran on Iraqi affairs, troubling indications of increased oppression by Maliki’s government, and the unstable political situation all point to the rising probability that the 4,400 Americans who died in Iraq may have given their lives in vain.
Indeed, the Washington Post editorial board took the president to task for drawing a “too rosy” picture of Iraq in his remarks following the meeting with Maliki. During those remarks, the president stated no less than 5 times that the war was over, as if he was reminding voters that he kept his “promise” to end the conflict.
Beyond that, there was a strange disconnect between the president’s words and the reality on the ground in Iraq. For example, Obama described Iraq as “sovereign, self-reliant, and democratic” despite the fact that it is clear that Iranian influence is guiding Iraqi foreign policy, that the Iraqi government will rely heavily on America for economic and military aid for the foreseeable future, and that the country is hardly “democratic” in any meaningful sense of the word. Freedom House, which rates countries based on their political and civil liberties, lists Iraq as “Not Free” (“Free” and “Partially Free” are the other designations), and gives the Iraqi government a grade of 5 out of 7 for political freedoms and 6 out of 7 for civil liberties – with 1 being the best grade and 7 the worst.
Iraq is not an electoral democracy. Although it has conducted meaningful elections, political participation and decision-making in the country remain seriously impaired by sectarian and insurgent violence, widespread corruption, and the influence of foreign powers.
Obama also stated that Iraq was “working” to build “efficient and independent and transparent” institutions despite the fact that the Iraqi government is considered wildly corrupt and secretive by Freedom House.
But this didn’t stop the president from trying to cover himself in glory for ending a war he opposed and negotiating a withdrawal that is a disaster. In what CBS News referred to as a “victory lap,” the president used the occasion of Maliki’s visit as part of a carefully staged series of events to publicize the end of the war. The show began on Saturday with the president thanking service members attending the Army-Navy football game and continued with his appearance on 60 Minutes Sunday evening.
Following his meetings with Maliki, the president and prime minister traveled to Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath laying ceremony. Then on Wednesday, the president will be at Fort Bragg addressing the troops, continuing his self-congratulatory tour. While 78% of Americans approve of the withdrawal from Iraq, many analysts believe that the White House didn’t try hard enough to maintain a minimum security force to not only protect Americans still in Iraq, but to deter Iran from stirring up trouble.
This is significant because not only is there the threat of Iran fomenting sectarian strife through its Shia militas, but al-Qaeda in Iraq appears to be making a comeback. One American military observer said that the terrorists may be confined to the north of the country, but carry out about “30 attacks a week” across the country. Just two weeks ago, a car bomb blew up outside of a prison, killing at least 19 and wounded dozens. Two other bombings killed 15 more in Baghdad and another 19 in Basra. The most spectacular recent attack was in August when more than 70 Shia pilgrims were massacred in several different suicide bomb attacks during Ramadan.
Even the heavily fortified Green Zone has not been immune to violence. A mortar round, apparently aimed at assassinating the speaker of parliament, was fired into the walled-off compound near the parliament building.
The threat to civil society posed by al-Qaeda and the Shia militias is why some lawmakers criticized the visit of Prime Minister Maliki. Senator John McCain said that “the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki today cannot obscure the fact that both men have failed in their responsibilities with regard to our shared security interests.” Those “shared interests” include trying to keep Iran at arm’s length in order to allow Iraq to develop without interference from Tehran. So far, Maliki has failed in that regard.
Iraq, along with Lebanon and Yemen, are the only members of the Arab League to oppose sanctions against Syria – the position taken by Syria’s strong ally Iran. Regarding Syria, there was a definite disagreement between the two leaders with Obama stating his desire for Assad to leave office and his support for tough sanctions against Syria for its brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrators. Maliki would only say that “I do not have the right to ask a president to abdicate,” and added:
I’m concerned about the interest of Iraq and the interest of the security of the region, and I wish that what is required by the Syrian people would be achieved without affecting the security of Iraq.
Frankly speaking, because we suffered from the blockade and the military interventions, we do not encourage a blockade because it exhausts the people and the government.
Obama acknowledged a “tactical disagreement” with Iraq. But the Associated Press reports the president also engaged in some wishful thinking when he stated that he had “no doubt that Iraq was acting in its own interests and not under the meddling influence of Iran.” It’s this kind of magical thinking that that could result in an eventual catastrophe as Iran seeks to dominate the political life of Iraq as time goes on. Either by cowing the Iraqi government or by exercising control through their violent and radical militias, one way or another Iran will find themselves with a docile, compliant neighbor willing to support its foreign policy and hegemonistic goals.
To stave off this scenario, the president has been trying to work out an arrangement that would allow the US to continue to train the Iraqi army while supplying it with first class military hardware. To that end, the president will ask congress to approve the sale of another 18 F-16 fighters to rebuild the Iraqi air force that was destroyed during the war. A previous sale of 18 F-16’s was approved last summer.
As for security cooperation, very little was accomplished at the meeting that would allow US trainers to continue the necessary training of the Iraqi army. The president said, “We will be working to set up effective military-to-military ties that are no different from the ties that we have with countries throughout the region and around the world.” But while we have agreed to train the pilots who will fly the F-16’s, there was no definitive word on how the 5,500 remaining military personnel assigned to the massive US embassy in Baghdad will work with the Iraqi military to shape them into a force that could defend the country without US assistance.
The sticking point is still the desire of the US government to give our soldiers immunity from the vagaries of Iraqi prosecution, trying to prevent them from being exposed to a highly politicized and anti-American justice system. Until that arrangement can be worked out, Americans will not be training anyone.
The Post editorial says of the Obama efforts to forge a post-war relationship with Iraq that what is needed is “continued and concerted U.S. engagement, not rosy declarations about a mission accomplished.” If so, the president has stumbled going around the track taking his “victory lap.”
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