The next president of the United States must fundamentally reassess America’s broken relationship with Iraq.
Under two American presidents now, the regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has operated in an atmosphere of immunity while the United States government focused on pacifying Iraq and finding its way to leave. Fearful of how criticisms of Iraq reflect on American policy, and now resolutely opposing any re-entanglement in Iraqi affairs, Washington’s approach has been simply to look the other way while Iraq runs roughshod over America’s strategic interests in the region.
The current clash of interests is over Syria. It is both right and in the interests of the United States that Bashar al-Assad’s brutal reign there comes to an end. And at the very least, the United States should be able to prevent its own allies from aiding the transfer of arms to the Assad regime.
An intelligence report cited by Reuters last month said that Iraq has been allowing Iran to funnel “personnel and tens of tons of weapons” through Iraqi airspace and into Syria “on almost a daily basis.” And according to The New York Times, buses carrying pilgrims to a Shiite shrine in Syria are reported to have also carried weapons, supplies and fighters to aid the Assad regime.
Of course the Obama administration is beseeching Iraq to give up this practice, but the response should have been ferocious. There ought to have been an unequivocal condemnation of Iraq’s behavior and a demand for the Iraqis to desist immediately or to face the loss of their country’s friendship with the United States. That would include losing the $1.7 billion of American aid now destined for Iraq and an end to arms dealings with the United States.
By enabling the rearming of the Assad regime, the Maliki government is responsible for prolonging a conflict that has already exacted a devastating human toll, destabilized Lebanon and is threatening to draw in Turkey and Jordan.
Iraq could have helped more. The pressure Iran has sustained over its nuclear program is destabilizing its economy, and Iran cannot afford to alienate its next-door neighbor. So if Iraq had seriously objected to such uses of its airspace, it is difficult to imagine that Iran would not have complied. And although signs of rising Iranian influence in Iraqi politics were evident almost immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, pan-Shiite solidarity is not the only thought that animates the country. Iraqi nationalism is there too, often expressing itself in virulent anti-Iranian rhetoric. Mr. Maliki’s government may be happy to play the sectarian card when it suits him, but he is ultimately driven by a single-minded commitment to ensuring the survival of his own regime.
With that in mind, Mr. Maliki is not making an irrational choice in allowing assistance for the Assad regime next door. He is supporting an Iranian regime that brokered his own return to power, while also guarding against the possibility that the rise of a Sunni government in Syria could reignite the Iraqi civil war. So it is up to the United States to change Mr. Maliki’s calculations to bring them in line with American interests.
To do that, the next American president needs to increase the costs to Iraq of pursuing its current activities. He can, and should, threaten imminent financial sanction and public humiliation of the Maliki government.
Even apart from the Syrian crisis, the United States should be getting tough on the Maliki regime to prevent Iraq’s descent into authoritarianism. Although Prime Minister Maliki’s first term had its successes, including the “Charge of the Knights” attack against Shiite militias in Basra in 2008, Prime Minister Maliki has become increasingly consumed by his own dictatorial ambitions. And a number of his actions have heightened sectarian tensions in Iraq. He cut a deal with the extremist Shiite party led by Moktada al-Sadr. He reneged on a promise to meaningfully include the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya list in government. He presided over what’s being seen as a witch hunt against leading Sunni politicians, culminating in the sentencing to death in absentia of Iraq’s vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi.
In addition, Mr. Maliki’s government is plagued by incompetence, corruption and a contempt for human rights; ordinary citizens are fast losing confidence in the power of the democratic system. Mr. Maliki has further undermined Iraq’s independent institutions, such as the electoral commission and the Iraqi central bank, by bringing them under his direct custodianship. And, most dangerously of all, he is concentrating power over Iraq’s entire security apparatus in his hands by refusing to appoint permanent ministers to lead the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of the Interior and National Security Council.
Mr. Maliki is, in short, presiding over a disintegration of Iraq’s representative political system, and the United States is doing nothing about it. In 2011, in his speech marking the end of the Iraq War, President Obama promised to “help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative and accountable.” The United States only stands to gain by honoring that promise, and it has many options at its disposal that do not require an extensive re-entanglement in Iraqi affairs. The United States has the power to discredit the Maliki regime on the world stage. In addition to restricting aid, it could bolster its support for legitimate Iraqi opposition parties.
By whatever methods, the next American president must start holding Prime Minister Maliki’s government to account for its appalling abuse of power inside Iraq and for its morally bankrupt role in enabling the rearming of Bashar al-Assad next door.
Nussaibah Younis is an International Security Program Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center specializing in contemporary Iraqi foreign policy.