Iraq at the Crossroads

America is a mere bystander as the legacy of its attempt to export “democracy” to this bitterly divided, battle-scarred nation slowly disintegrates.

Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has been threatening to hold early elections, which currently are scheduled to take place late in 2013. While few believe that he would call for elections this year, some analysts predict that he might do so early next year. Maliki certainly has begun to act like a man on the campaign trail; he has begun to reach out to Sunnis, allowing the reinstatement of Sunni officers in the security forces.

On the surface, Maliki’s chances of remaining in power remain good. His opposition is not united, and he maintains Tehran’s support, which means pressure on the Shia community to back him. For its part, the United States, which continues to tolerate his increasingly authoritarian rule, will do nothing to stand in his way.

And therein lies the rub. Washington continues to insist that Iraq is moving toward democracy. To acknowledge that this is not the case is to call into question the timing of the Obama administration’s retreat from that country. It was during the 2008 campaign that candidate Obama promised to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq without making any allowances for the Iraqi political context in which that withdrawal would take place. The Obama administration, despite its protestations to the contrary, did not overly exert itself to ensure that the estimated thirty-five thousand American troops slated to remain in Iraq after 2011 retained the same protections that they enjoyed under the 2008 status-of-forces agreement (SOFA).

Had the administration been serious about reaching such an agreement, the White House would have exerted maximum pressure on Maliki to achieve that result. In fact, President Obama only minimally engaged the Iraqi prime minister on this issue, and as a result only a token number of American forces to remained in the country. For the White House, getting out of Iraq was all that mattered; the political balance in Iraq—and Iran’s growing influence in the country—mattered far less.

Washington is paying the price for its lassitude in pursuing SOFA protection for American forces remaining in Iraq after 2011. The vacuum left by America continues to be filled by Iran, for whom Baghdad is an increasingly important partner. In particular, Iraq is helping Iran avoid the sanctions that are the only hope of preventing an Israeli strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities—an attack that could plunge the region, and the world beyond, into another major war. Iraq also is administering brutally harsh treatment to captured Iranian opponents of the Tehran regime.

In addition, Baghdad continues to provide tacit support to Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression of the Syrian revolutionaries, which Washington continues to condemn and which Tehran vigorously supports. Even the Obama administration is finally coming to realize that Maliki is no friend of the United States.

There is little doubt that Maliki will resort to whatever brutal measures are needed to ensure that he remains in power. His rivals point out that should he lose, he will likely be tried, convicted and imprisoned. It is a fate that his former vice president Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, avoided by escaping the country (he is currently being tried in absentia for sponsoring death squads).

Indeed, Maliki may find that even brutality may not suffice. His connivance with Iran in supporting Syrian dictator Assad could well boomerang against him. It took the better part of a year for him to form a government in 2010, when American troops were still in Iraq and Assad seemed destined to rule for decades. With those troops gone, Assad on Iranian life support and ethnic warfare spreading from Syria to Iraq as well as to Lebanon, forming an Iraqi government is likely to prove even harder, if not impossible, for Maliki to achieve.

Maliki could, of course, choose to ignore or invalidate the results of a new parliamentary election. Yet, even the Egyptian military, with its monopoly of firepower, was not able to disallow the results of the parliamentary election that elevated the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Maliki, who does not even command the loyalty of all Shia—the Sadrists still despise him—will do no better. Indeed, trying to disband or ignore Parliament may actually accelerate his downfall.

Iraq stands at the crossroads. It is on the verge of another civil war, and it is led by a would-be dictator supported by the despicable mullahs who rule Iran. America is a mere bystander as the legacy of its quixotic attempt to export “democracy” to this bitterly divided, battle-scarred nation slowly disintegrates. Not that this seems to matter to the Obama administration, which increasingly appears to view developments in Iraq as nothing more than “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as DoD's civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.