Marc Lynch

Maliki in America

Maliki in America

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki yesterday (Photo courtesy of USIP)

I spent yesterday morning at the US Institute for Peace listening to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s only public appearance on his trip to Washington DC. It was a curiously subdued affair. The small room was packed with DC policy hands and journalists, but it was a far cry from what such an appearance by an Iraqi Prime Minister would have commanded a few years ago.

Maliki sought to portray an image of a confident Iraq which could take care of itself, outlining challenges alongside “successes” and discussing a wider U.S.-Iraqi relationship beyond the security realm. He downplayed concerns about Arab-Kurdish tension, blamed a few too many of his problems on Saddam’s regime (six years on), and talked at some length about the challenges posed by the global financial crisis and oil prices. His main message appeared to be that Iraq was doing fine, would like to see more international visitors and investment, and didn’t really want others meddling in its political affairs. 

Our friend Spencer Ackerman elicited the main news which came out of his appearance with a question about the U.S. role after December 2011, in response to which Maliki appeared to open the door to extending the U.S. military presence. That’s getting a lot of play (in the Arab media as well as American), but I heard his remarks a bit differently. He said clearly that all U.S. troops should be out by the end of 2011, as specified in the SOFA.  But if Iraqi forces required more training and support after that, he would be open to examining it at that time.  That seems entirely consistent with the Obama administration’s approach of shifting from combat missions to training and support via a relatively small residual force. What’s more, the general tenor of his remarks emphasized the growing competence and capability of the Iraqi military, and a future strategic relationship based on more than just the military dimensions.  I don’t think there’s much news there, honestly.  

His more interesting comments had to do with internal Iraqi politics — in which he very clearly did not want the U.S. meddling.  He praised Iraqi democracy to the moon, though also allowed that the Parliament and the consensus-based system could be quite inefficient and frustrating.  That answer is unlikely to reassure those who share the concerns outlined by Sam Parker here at FP about Maliki’s power grabbing aspirations. 

Maliki took a hard line on “national reconciliation” issues, rejecting any contacts or involvement with anyone with blood on their hands while insisting that this would be applied in a non-sectarian way.   This has been his fairly consistent stance, and isn’t really news.  But it does contradict the American efforts over the last few years to bring insurgents (former and otherwise) into the political process.   There certainly doesn’t seem to be any interest in greater American involvement in the political process —  hence the furious Iraqi government response to the (utterly unsurprising) reports about U.S. contacts with the political front of a key Sunni Iraqi insurgency grouping in Turkey. 

Maliki clearly does not agree with the U.S. that he needs to do this in order to achieve his political objectives or maintain security gains.  He may be wrong — the recent uptick in violence is probably related to this stance, as part of the wide swathe of political issues which the “surge” failed to resolve. But he may be right, and he certainly seemed keen to radiate confidence in the ability of the Iraqi state to meet its remaining challenges. 

That’s why I don’t agree with those who want the Obama administration to launch yet another “last effort” to achieve Iraqi political reconciliation. Ryan Crocker spent years doing exactly that, and it’s not clear why people think that a new special envoy would fare any differently. These are not American problems to solve.  Iraqi domestic political issues will have to be solved on Iraqi terms at this point, for better or for worse — and Maliki’s response will likely only change if the costs of the current policy become too high to bear. I thought that Vice President Biden’s comments in that regard during his Baghdad trip were pretty much right, as were the President’s remarks during his appearance with Maliki.  For all the anxiety out there among Iraq watchers and policy hands, things seem to be going about as expected. 

UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman defends the newsworthiness of his report on Maliki’s remarks. I think he’s right that this is more than Maliki has previously said on the subject in public, and that it may affect Iraqi politics, but I also think that there’s less substantively to it than many people are claiming for the reasons laid out above.