Why the U.S. stuck with Maliki — and lost Iraq

“The crisis now gripping Iraq and the Middle East was not only predictable but predicted — and preventable. By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”

This is the damning assessment of Ali Khedery who by 2009 had become the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq. He writes:

[I]n August 2010, I was shocked that much of the surge’s success had been squandered by Maliki and other Iraqi leaders. Kurds asked how they could justify remaining part of a dysfunctional Iraq that had killed hundreds of thousands of their people since the 1980s. Sunni Arabs — who had overcome internal divisions to form the secular Iraqiya coalition with like-minded Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians — were outraged at being asked to abdicate the premiership after pummeling al-Qaeda and winning the elections. Even Shiite Islamist leaders privately expressed discomfort with Iraq’s trajectory under Maliki, with Sadr openly calling him a “tyrant.” Worst of all, perhaps, the United States was no longer seen as an honest broker.

After helping to bring him to power in 2006, I argued in 2010 that Maliki had to go. I felt guilty lobbying against my friend Abu Isra [Maliki], but this was not personal. Vital U.S. interests were on the line. Thousands of American and Iraqi lives had been lost and trillions of dollars had been spent to help advance our national security, not the ambitions of one man or one party. The constitutional process had to be safeguarded, and we needed a sophisticated, unifying, economics-minded leader to rebuild the country after the security-focused Maliki crushed the militias and al-Qaeda.

In conversations with visiting White House senior staff members, the ambassador, the generals and other colleagues, I suggested Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi as a successor. A former Baathist, moderate Shiite Islamist and French-educated economist who had served as finance minister, Abdul Mahdi maintained excellent relations with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds as well as with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

On Sept. 1, 2010, Vice President Biden was in Baghdad for the change-of-command ceremony that would see the departure of Gen. Ray Odierno and the arrival of Gen. Lloyd Austin as commander of U.S. forces. That night, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, I made a brief but impassioned argument against Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.

I was not the only official who made a case against Abu Isra. Even before my return to Baghdad, officials including Deputy U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, Odierno, British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins and Turkish Ambassador Murat Özçelik each lobbied strenuously against Maliki, locking horns with the White House, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Maliki’s most ardent supporter, future deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk. Now, with Austin in the Maliki camp as well, we remained at an impasse, principally because the Iraqi leaders were divided, unable to agree on Maliki or, maddeningly, on an alternative.

Our debates mattered little, however, because the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was about to resolve the crisis for us. Within days of Biden’s visit to Baghdad, Soleimani summoned Iraq’s leaders to Tehran. Beholden to him after decades of receiving Iran’s cash and support, the Iraqis recognized that U.S. influence in Iraq was waning as Iranian influence was surging. The Americans will leave you one day, but we will always remain your neighbors, Soleimani said, according to a former Iraqi official briefed on the meeting.

After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Soleimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: Maliki would remain premier; Jalal Talabani, a legendary Kurdish guerilla with decades-long ties to Iran, would remain president; and, most important, the American military would be made to leave at the end of 2011. Those Iraqi leaders who cooperated, Soleimani said, would continue to benefit from Iran’s political cover and cash payments, but those who defied the will of the Islamic Republic would suffer the most dire of consequences.

I was determined not to let an Iranian general who had murdered countless American troops dictate the endgame for the United States in Iraq. By October, I was pleading with Ambassador Jeffrey to take steps to avert this outcome. I said that Iran was intent on forcing the United States out of Iraq in humiliation and that a divisive, sectarian government in Baghdad headed by Maliki would almost certainly lead to another civil war and then an all-out regional conflict. This might be averted if we rebuffed Iran by forming a unity government around a nationalist alternative such as Abdul Mahdi. It would be extremely difficult, I acknowledged, but with 50,000 troops still on the ground, the United States remained a powerful player. The alternative was strategic defeat in Iraq and the Middle East writ large. To my surprise, the ambassador shared my concerns with the White House senior staff, asking that they be relayed to the president and vice president, as well as the administration’s top national security officials.

Desperate to avert calamity, I used every bit of my political capital to arrange a meeting for Jeffrey and Antony Blinken, Biden’s national security adviser and senior Iraq aide, with one of Iraq’s top grand ayatollahs. Using uncharacteristically blunt language, the Shiite cleric said he believed that Ayad Allawi, who had served as an interim prime minister in 2004-05, and Abdul Mahdi were the only Shiite leaders capable of uniting Iraq. Maliki, he said, was the prime minister of the Dawa party, not of Iraq, and would drive the country to ruin.

But all the lobbying was for naught. By November, the White House had settled on its disastrous Iraq strategy. The Iraqi constitutional process and election results would be ignored, and America would throw its full support behind Maliki. Washington would try to move Talabani aside and install Allawi as a consolation prize to the Iraqiya coalition.

The next day, I appealed again to Blinken, Jeffrey, Austin, my embassy colleagues and my bosses at Central Command, Gen. Jim Mattis and Gen. John Allen, and warned that we were making a mistake of historic proportions. I argued that Maliki would continue to consolidate power with political purges against his rivals; Talabani would never step aside after fighting Hussein for decades and taking his chair; and the Sunnis would revolt again if they saw that we betrayed our promises to stand by them after the Awakening’s defeat of al-Qaeda. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

4 thoughts on “Why the U.S. stuck with Maliki — and lost Iraq

  1. Syd

    The Americans will leave you one day, but we will always remain your neighbors, Soleimani said….

    That’s the truth that Khedery and the stab-in-the-back crowd won’t acknowledge, but it’s true even if an Iranian spy said it. It’s true even if our troops had stayed an extra 2, 3 or even 5 years — against the will of 2/3 of the Iraqi people and most of the popular clerics. (Sadr and Sistani both wanted us gone.) However long we occupied Iraq, everyone knew we would leave and Iran would still be there. (We’ve been in Afghanistan for 13 years now, and yet “we have the watches, but the Taliban have the time.”)

    This catastrophe is the inevitable result of our victory, of the Surge. We chose the Salvador Option, the promotion of death squads and ethnic cleansing. It’s ridiculous now to put most of the blame on Maliki — the guy Khedery helped promote — for the sectarian shattering of Iraq.

    Blame Cheney. Blame James Steele. Blame everyone who thinks they’re being tough when they’re merely stupid and short-sighted. But for God’s sakes let’s not kid ourselves and say that if we only stayed another decade to prop up our CIA thug, Iraq would have worked out swell.

  2. Paul Woodward

    The thrust of Khedery’s argument is that Maliki has been a divisive leader. To treat that issue as somehow irrelevant to what is now happening in Iraq, is to view him, Iraq’s government, the Iraqi people, and by extension most of the population of the Middle East as hapless dolts, forever being pushed around by the Americans.

    Whether Maliki was prime minister, or it was Ayad Allawi, or Abdul Mahdi — what’s the difference? All Shiite Arabs ultimately obliged to show deference to their powerful neighbors.

    But do Iraqis individually and collectively really possess so little agency?

    Behind this insistence on viewing everything through the prism of American power, there seems to be an unconscious contempt for the rest of the world.

    Apart from a few neocons, there aren’t that many rational observers who dispute the prominence of America’s role in leading Iraq to its current crisis, but it’s a strange argument to make to say: we caused this mess and therefore we should now have nothing to do with it.

    Is that the way America’s hit-and-run foreign policy should work?

    To pretend that the U.S. now has no role to play in Iraq is no less delusional than pretending that the U.S. deserves a lion’s share of the blame.

  3. Syd

    Yes, Maliki deserves blame, but Khedery himself admits that he chose the guy. Maliki was in Iran for 20 years and was a leader of Dawa, a terrorist organization that many think was the founder of Hezbollah. What did Khedery think he was getting? Maliki was a divisive leader because that’s what we wanted. You can’t choose the Salvador option and not have a divisive leader.

    Khedery’s claiming that we could have installed a government of national unity after helping the Shiites ethnically cleanse Baghdad and torture Sunnis. It’s a moronic and dishonest argument — an attempt to blame others for the inevitable consequence of his choices.

    Here’s the great Thomas Friedman, advising the Bush administration in 2005 (advice that was obviously followed):

    “If [the Sunnis] come around, a decent outcome in Iraq is still possible. If they won’t, then we are wasting our time. We should arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind.”

    They’re reaping the wind — and so are we.

  4. Paul Woodward

    Khedery was well-placed to tell his story, but the fact that he recommended Maliki shouldn’t be read as though Khedery appointed the Iraqi prime minister. Khedery was in his early 20s at that time.

    What if no one disputed that the bulk of the blame for the current predicament should fall on the Bush administration? Now what?

    It seems like the only advice coming from those who solely blame the neocons/Bush/Cheney, is to say that the U.S. should not become military engaged. Should the U.S. be engaged in any way whatsoever? Should we just say, “not our problem,” and look the other way?

    It’s always important to learn the lessons of history, but that can’t be an excuse for avoiding facing the present.

Comments are closed.