While Washington gets ready to default, another deadline looms on the horizon: December 31, 2011, when all American forces are due to be out of Iraq. The dysfunction of Iraqi politics has made it impossible for Baghdad to do what most people think is the rational thing—to request that some American forces remain to assist the Iraqi government in strengthening both its internal and external security capabilities. The Obama administration has signaled repeatedly that it is willing to do so, but that has not stopped neoconservative critics and former Bush administration officials from blaming Obama for Iraq’s failure to get its act together. The irony, of course, is that the democracy they were so proud to give Iraq (at such great cost to both Americans and Iraqis) is the reason that their preferred policy of continued American military presence in the country is not working out.
The neocon criticism of the Obama administration for not doing enough to bring the Iraqis to their senses is shot through with internal contradictions. Frederick and Kimberly Kagan wrote in the Weekly Standard in April that “[t]he ball is not in Maliki’s court. It is in Obama’s court,” contending that a lack of serious American commitment to Iraq was forcing Maliki into Iran’s arms. They called on the president to “stand by Iraq’s leaders as long as those leaders stand by the democratic processes now tenuously in place.”
But it is those very democratic processes that are blocking Maliki from renegotiating the Status of Forces Agreement (sofa) that sets the December 31 deadline. The Sadrist bloc in the Iraqi Parliament, an important part of Maliki’s governing majority, is dead set against a continued American military presence. Other Iraqi politicians, who whisper to visiting American journalists and pundits how much they want U.S. forces to stay, will not argue that position in public or try to put together a parliamentary majority in favor of an extension of the sofa. Maliki himself is unwilling to take this case directly to the parliament or the Iraqi people. Presumably they, as democratic politicians, know their own public opinion and their own political landscape better than the Kagans do. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the desire of committed ideological minorities like the Sadrists to get the Americans out is not counterbalanced by any mobilized Arab Iraqi constituency that wants them to stay, and that the median Arab Iraqi voter (Kurds would hold different opinions) would be just as happy to see the U.S. troops go. That might be the wrong decision, but it seems to be the democratic one. (In a report issued in May from the American Enterprise Institute, the Kagans seem to have shifted their position, correctly putting more of the responsibility on Maliki for the failure to extend the troop presence.)
Jackson Diehl, reliably wrong on Iraq for a decade, argued in the Washington Post on July 17 that the Obama administration was being too rough on the Iraqis, because Defense Secretary Panetta told them “dammit, make a decision” on the troop extension. Diehl fears that, even though Maliki really is an Iraqi nationalist, if American leaders do not stroke him gently and frequently enough he will throw himself into Tehran’s arms. Then, with U.S. troops out of Iraq, Iran will turn the country into a satellite. Thus, Obama should be “coaxing the fragmented and prickly Iraqi leadership into making the right choice” through a policy of “subtlety, patience and high-level engagement.”
There is more than one problem with this line of argument. Maliki, like most politicians, would certainly prefer to be as independent of outsiders as possible. He is not an Iranian puppet. But that did not stop him from bringing the anti-American Sadrists, who are increasingly close to Iran, into his coalition rather than take second place in an Iyad Allawi-led government. It was his Iraqiyya list that won more seats in the 2010 elections than Maliki’s State of Law list. Holding on to the prime ministership was more important to Maliki than limiting Iranian influence in Iraq, which is real and will not go away whether there are tens of thousands of American troops there (as there were when Maliki’s most recent government was formed) or none. That influence is not the result of the bogeyman threat that, without American protection, Iran will invade Iraq, as Diehl implies. Nothing would destroy Iranian influence in Iraq faster. Iran’s influence is the result of its complex political and economic relations with a number of Iraqi politicians and groups, built up over decades and solidified since the American invasion of 2003. Whether the United States stays or goes, Iranian influence will remain.
Diehl also implies that Iraqi democracy, a goal for which he campaigned tirelessly in the pages of the Post, must not be that real, for he believes it will only take the right amount of massaging by outsiders of “prickly” Iraqi leaders to get them to agree to issues of fundamental importance to their country. Yet if that were the case, that would mean Iraqi leaders are more responsive to external influences than to their own public. Diehl fundamentally misunderstands Iraqi political dynamics. Maliki negotiated a hard deadline for American withdrawal back in 2008 because it was popular among Arab Iraqis. Getting American troops out is still broadly popular among Arab Iraqis, or we would be seeing Iraqi politicians making a strong public case for them to remain. It is not because Iraqi leaders are “prickly” or insufficiently stroked by Washington that the deadline for withdrawal is approaching. It is because getting the Americans out remains a hard-core commitment for some Iraqi groups and broadly popular among Arab Iraqis. Iraqi democracy is working, it is just not making what Diehl says is the “right choice.”
There is a lesson here for American foreign-policy makers confronting the Arab Spring that neocons are reluctant to acknowledge: Arab democracies will from time to time take positions that run counter to American interests on a whole range of issues because their publics are not particularly supportive of American goals in the Middle East. That is not a reason to be particularly alarmed by movement toward more democratic politics in some Arab States. The United States can live with less pliable Arab interlocutors. But it means that we are not always going to get what neocons would think of as “rational” policy positions from Arab democracies. If that is a surprise to them, they should just gaze out of their windows in northwest Washington, down Pennsylvania Avenue, toward the Congress. Rational decisions, particularly about deadlines, seem to be in short supply in American democracy, too.