By Frederick D. Barton, a director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 08/11/06):
IN recent days, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq has made public his disagreement with the dictates and tactics of the United States, including its proposed benchmarks for progress and the presence of military checkpoints around Sadr City.
American authorities view Mr. Maliki’s resistance as worrisome. But it’s just the opposite: his independence is our last best chance for a sustainable Iraq.
For the first time, a real politician appears to be fighting for his life. Whatever Mr. Maliki’s limitations, we may be seeing the emergence of a leader who puts Iraqi concerns above America’s blessing.
The table is now set for the prime minister to demand the phased withdrawal of United States forces from Iraq. In taking that single bold step, Mr. Maliki will do more to develop a political base than any recent Iraqi leader.
By delivering on a key Iraqi aspiration, Mr. Maliki will finally give his people a reason to believe in their government. Iraqi soldiers and police officers will not risk their lives for leaders perceived as Green Zone operatives.
Until recently, Mr. Maliki has run a government in name only. He could not fix a pothole, let alone deliver electricity, a functioning bureaucracy or a broader national strategy. His promises — including a new plan to make Baghdad safe — went unfulfilled. His only prospective allies were Shiite militias, which have their own narrow interests.
But he does have one friend who is eager to be responsive. As America moves away from its Iraq engagement, the United States government is in need of being saved from itself. The administration cannot find a way to leave because of its own early rhetoric and the advocacy of many Democrats for a timetable.
When Mr. Maliki demanded the removal of American checkpoints last week, they were taken down within four hours. When Mr. Maliki declined to sign on to an American timetable for stabilizing Iraq last week, he found himself talking as a peer with President Bush. Iraqis welcome a leader who takes responsibility and stands up to an unpopular foreign force.
The United States has suggested in the past that if the Iraqi government invited us to leave, we would oblige. We must prepare ourselves for this event. While being shown the door is never comfortable, the United States is ready to leave and the conditions are not likely to get better.
The next two years will not be easy, even following this course. Calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops is only a necessary first step to enable Mr. Maliki to deal with Iraq’s enormous challenges. The most pressing are holding the country together, making people safe and distributing Iraq’s oil wealth. Dealing equitably with these issues and delivering results is the best way to expand a political base.
Insurgencies are defeated only when the politics are right. Mr. Maliki must share the authorship of a withdrawal plan with Iraq’s major factions in order to take on the militias and foreign terrorists. Engaging the Sunni nationalists, whose stated opposition to foreign troops has been their central argument, is a start. With the future presence of American forces determined, their role during the coming months would be more likely to enjoy the support of rank-and-file citizens.
The oil deal must get beyond traditional divides. The most promising approach is a tripartite arrangement that splits oil revenues among the national and regional governments and provides a direct benefit to Iraq’s 26 million people. If Mr. Maliki pursues this course, he may well become the leader that Iraq needs.
Mr. Maliki’s new independence is America’s best chance to salvage the muddle Iraq has become. Let’s not get in his way.