Terms of Engagement

Our Man in Baghdad

Don't look now, but the greatest threat to Middle East stability might just be the "democracy" we created in Iraq.


Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, has a remarkable ability to make enemies. As Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group puts it, "Personal relations between everyone and Maliki are terrible." This gift was vividly displayed in March, when the annual meeting of the Arab League was held in Baghdad. Although the event was meant to signal Iraq’s re-emergence as a respectable country after decades of tyranny and bloodshed, leaders of 10 of the 22 states, including virtually the entire Gulf, refused to attend out of pique at Maliki’s perceived hostility to Sunnis both at home and abroad, turning the summit into a vapid ritual. The only friend Iraq has left in the neighborhood is Shiite Iran, which seems intent on reducing its neighbor to a state of subservience.

It’s true that Iraq is no longer a threat to its neighbors, as it was under Saddam Hussein. In that narrow respect, the U.S. invasion has made the Middle East a safer place, though at an unspeakable cost in Iraqi and American lives. But the hopes that Bush administration officials once entertained — that a post-Saddam Iraq, perhaps guided by a secular figure like the émigré opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi, would serve as a stabilizing, pro-American force for the region — now look patently absurd. Maliki never had much interest in being a friend of the United States, and the departure of U.S. troops has allowed him to forget about it altogether.

What Iraq looks like today is an Iranian cat’s paw. At the Arab League meeting, Iraqi diplomats blocked any effort to take robust action against Syria or even use tough language, thus advancing Iran’s agenda at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which advocate arming the rebels seeking to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Immediately after the meeting ended, Maliki dashed to Tehran to confer with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Almost every Iraq expert I’ve ever talked to agrees that Maliki is an Iraqi nationalist who squirms under the Iranian thumb. But that’s where he finds himself today. The question is why.

The most favorable interpretation of Maliki’s foreign policy is what I call the Sonofabitch Hypothesis, put forward by Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Alterman argues that Maliki makes enemies because he pursues Iraqi national interests and "isn’t afraid to communicate his dislike for people in a region where people prize politeness and solicitude." Alterman thinks that Maliki is in fact navigating a careful course among foes and false friends. An alternate theory is that Maliki is deeply paranoid, as another analyst who knows him and his circle well puts it, and is convinced that rivals at home and abroad are out to get him. Yet another view is that Maliki is a Shiite supremacist who views Sunnis as the enemy (and might also be consumed by conspiracy theories).

But one can be agnostic about Maliki’s motivations and still conclude that he is doing harm to Iraq’s own interests. No sensible Iraqi leader would pick a fight with Turkey, as he has done. Back in January, when Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suggested that Maliki should not be waging war against the Sunni opposition at home, Maliki accused Turkey of "unjustified interferences in Iraqi internal affairs," adding for good measure that Erdogan was seeking to restore Turkey’s Ottoman hegemony over the region. This in turn led to another escalating round of insults and a mutual summoning of ambassadors.

Iraq needs Turkey more than it needs Iran. Turkey has twice Iran’s GDP, and the gap is going to grow rapidly as Turkey continues to expand and Iran contracts under Western sanctions. Turkey has sought to play a mediating role among Iraqi factions, but Maliki persists in seeing his neighbor as a Sunni power seeking to restore Sunni, or Ottoman, control over Iraq. Turkish diplomats probably didn’t help matters in the 2010 elections when they supported Maliki’s rival, Iraqiya — including allegedly encouraging Qatar to provide financing for the group — because they saw the party as a relatively nonsectarian alternative to Maliki’s overtly Shiite State of Law coalition. But the underlying problem was Maliki’s unwillingness to compromise with his domestic rivals.

Indeed, what really seems to be happening is that Iraq’s roiling domestic tensions, driven by the unwillingness of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds to accept the legitimacy of one another’s aspirations, is spilling over the country’s borders and exacerbating the sectarian tensions that already beset the region. Thus, to take one example, this February Maliki’s security forces sought to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a leading member of Iraqiya, on what sounded like wildly trumped-up charges (though in Iraq you never know) that he had used his security forces as a Sunni death squad. Hashemi fled to Kurdistan, leading to a standoff between authorities in Baghdad and Erbil, and then moved on to Turkey, where he was very publicly received by Erdogan, leading to the exchange of playground abuse between Iraqi and Turkish leaders. Hashemi recently popped up in Qatar, which of course provoked an angry exchange between the two countries.

The breakdown of talks between Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which are fighting over oil revenue and borders, has also raised the regional temperature. After Erdogan reached out to the KRG in 2007, the Kurdish region has been increasingly integrated into the Turkish economy. This could serve as a model for Turkey-Iraq relations, but instead it has become yet another irritant. The Kurds, frustrated at the lack of progress in talks — for which they, to be sure, are partly responsible — have threatened to sell oil to Turkey without approval from Baghdad and to build a pipeline between the two regions. Turkey has become a pawn in the struggle between Iraq and the KRG.

Finally, Maliki’s relentless marginalization of his Sunni rivals, as well as moderate Shiites like Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister and founder of Iraqiya, has thrown him into the arms of Iran, which alone can adjudicate among Iraq’s Shiite groups. It was Iran that broke the deadlock after the 2010 elections by insisting that the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr accept Maliki as prime minister. Maliki knows that he owes his job to Iran; consequently, when he has a problem, he runs to Tehran. Iran’s rivals in the Gulf thus inevitably, even if unfairly, view him as an Iranian puppet.

There is a larger, and even more troubling, picture here. One of the effects of the tumult inside Arab countries over the past 16 months has been the rise of sectarian differences to the surface, just as happened with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This, in turn, has further fractured regional relations. Demonstrations in Bahrain by the Shiite majority, and the violent response by that country’s Sunni leaders, provoked Saudi Arabia to send troops to Bahrain to guard against what it claimed was an Iranian-inspired insurgency. And the burgeoning civil war in Syria, in which a Sunni majority has risen up against a ruler from the Shiite Alawite sect, has pitted Turkey and the Gulf states against Iran — and now Iraq. The longer the conflict drags on, the more it is likely to deepen that split.

The long-term interests of the United States in the Middle East are the same as those of Arab peoples: the replacement of autocratic regimes with democratic ones, and the replacement of a sectarian narrative with a nonsectarian — or less sectarian — one. George W. Bush’s administration imagined that Iraq would serve as the pivot for that regional transformation. Instead, Iraq under Maliki has become a deeply fragmented state with superficial democratic characteristics, and a net exporter of sectarianism. It offers yet another lesson for American policymakers — in case they needed it — in the unintended consequences of regime change.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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