Aug 18th 2014

Obama's Iraq Policy: Passing the First Hurdle

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
With Nouri al-Maliki agreeing to step aside in favor of Haider al Abadi, Iraq may have passed its first hurdle on the way to forming the kind of government that will be needed to defeat the Islamic State (IS) and save the country from further conflict and fragmentation. Passing this hurdle may also serve to vindicate the cautious approach the Obama Administration has taken in addressing the crisis created by the brutal eruption of the IS.

Iraq's recent problems didn't begin with the advances of the IS. The successes of this horrific and violent extremist movement were in large measure the outgrowth of years of al-Maliki's bad governance and sectarian repression. It was his policies that created the fertile ground enabling the IS's precursor movement— the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)— to take root and find allies. 

In late 2011, when America was preparing to leave Iraq and al-Maliki was completing the first year of his second term, Zogby Research Services polled Iraqi public opinion. The survey revealed warning signs on the horizon. Two-thirds of all Iraqis told us that they were afraid that with the departure of the US their country would sink into civil war, split into parts, and/or be dominated by a neighboring country. A plurality of respondents in all groups (Sunni Arabs, Shi'a Arabs, and Kurds) were therefore, "worried" about the US departure.  The survey also established a deep sectarian and ethnic divide, with Sunni Arabs and Kurds being the most worried about the US departure and having the deepest concerns about the future of their country. The poll also revealed al-Maliki to be a polarizing figure. Attitudes towards him were nearly evenly divided among Shi'a Arabs, while three-quarters of Sunni Arabs and Kurds viewed him unfavorably. Most Iraqis indicated that they lacked confidence in al-Maliki's ability to lead the country in the post-occupation period.  

Al-Maliki lived up to these negative expectations. With the US departure, he broke his commitment to absorb tens of thousands of decommissioned Sunni "Sons of Anbar" into Iraq's military and security services. He tormented prominent Sunni leaders with "charges" of "supporting terrorism" forcing them into exile. And he operated in an increasingly authoritarian manner maintaining personal control over key national security posts, locking out not only Sunnis but even former Shi'a allies.    

In the face of such oppressive sectarian behavior, a disaffected Sunni insurgency in the restive Anbar region was inevitable. And as the brutality of al-Maliki's response matched that of his Syrian neighbor and ally, it was also inevitable that the Iraqi insurgency would become increasingly extreme and that it would develop closer ties with ISIS counterparts operating across the border in Syria.

Al-Maliki's forces engaged in bloody conflict with ISIS and an array of Sunni Arab groups for months. It was not until ISIS and company overran Mosul in the face of a disintegrating Iraqi military, that al-Maliki felt the need to appeal to the US for assistance. This presented the Obama Administration with both domestic and foreign policy challenges.

Conservatives, who had long blamed the President for having left Iraq in the first place, were now hounding him to become militarily engaged in confronting ISIS. Liberals, on the other hand, were war-averse and cautioned against any involvement, fearing "mission creep." 

For its part, the Administration saw the need to balance several imperatives: the need to confront and help defeat what had become a transnational menace; the recognition that we had a responsibility to Iraq and to the Americans and Iraqis who had lost their lives during that long war; and the understanding that Iraqi reform and not American force was the key to any solution.

Aware of both the regional and world-wide threat posed by IS and the problems created by al Maliki's sectarian rule, the Obama Administration took a cautious approach. Making it clear that they did not want to strengthen al Maliki's hand, the US conditioned support for the Iraqi military on the establishment of a more inclusive and representative government in Baghdad. At the same time, so as not to give the IS a free ride, the US provided emergency airlifts to beleaguered refugees fleeing IS brutality and used air power to strike at both IS advance positions and to destroy some of the military equipment the extremists had seized when they overran Iraqi military positions in Mosul.   

Even this limited engagement paid dividends. It provided many of the previously trapped refugees with the cover they needed to escape. It enabled Kurdish forces the opportunity to regroup and retake some areas that had fallen under the control of the IS. And with the US back in the game, it became clear to Iraqis that only with al-Maliki out of the way could the Iraqi military and political system secure the support they needed to win a decisive victory over the extremist Sunni militants. 

Had the knee-jerk liberals had their way, the Obama Administration would have done nothing for fear of becoming ground down in another Iraqi war we could not win. Had the knee-jerk conservatives won the day, the US would have supported al-Maliki with military force and more advanced weapons thereby reinforcing his corrupt, autocratic, and sectarian rule.

Instead of these approaches, both of which would have had certain negative consequences, the Obama approach recognized that the problem of the IS was created by bad governance and could only be remedied by Iraqis moving in a different direction. With al-Maliki gone, one hurdle has been passed. In the next month, prime minister designee al-Abadi must make critical decisions. He must form a government that will be inclusive of all segments of Iraqi society— Shi'a and Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Turkamen, and other minorities. He must act quickly to re-engage Sunni leaders who were forced into exile by his predecessor. He must also create new opportunities for disaffected Sunni Arabs and Kurds so that they see the government in Baghdad as representing their interests.

This struggle against the IS in Iraq is only one front in what will be a long and protracted conflict against militant extremism in the Levant. Denying the group its support base in Iraq will weaken it, but this is only the first step. The Iraqi military will need to finish the job by defeating the group militarily. Then comes the more difficult task of tackling the group's base of operations in Syria— a situation made more difficult by the very different circumstances that exist in that country.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "