Buyer’s Remorse

The Obama administration once paved the way for Nouri al-Maliki to hold on to power despite losing an election. With Iraq engulfed in civil war, is it time for him to go?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Four years ago, the Obama administration helped Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hold onto power. Today, the White House has to decide whether to push him to give it up.

President Barack Obama has long had a complicated and, at times, hostile relationship with Maliki, whose refusal to give legal immunity to American troops serving in Iraq was the primary reason Obama ordered a full U.S. military withdrawal from the country at the end of 2011. That decision is under intense political criticism as detractors inside and outside the administration argue that Iraq’s slide back into civil war could have been prevented if U.S. forces had remained in the country.

In a sign of the growing disconnect between Obama and Maliki, the Iraqi leader formally asked the White House to launch airstrikes inside his country to prevent militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, from reaching Baghdad, and to gradually force them out of the growing list of cities they already control. The administration gave no indication that it is willing to launch that kind of military intervention, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel telling a Senate panel that "a political solution is the only viable solution" to Iraq’s crisis. White House officials say Obama hasn’t spoken to Maliki since the ISIS offensive began earlier this spring and declined to say if, or when, the president planned to do so.  

Current and former administration officials are increasingly open about their frustrations with Maliki and about their doubts that he is the right man to lead Iraq. On Tuesday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Fox News that Maliki "has failed as a leader."  

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, a growing number of lawmakers from both parties said that Maliki has to go if his country has any chance of forming a collaborative government capable of uniting Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds in the fight against ISIS. Maliki’s governing style privileges his fellow Shiites at the Sunni minority’s expense. Many lawmakers believe the Iraqi prime minister has inadvertently fueled the ISIS onslaught by alienating Sunnis and persuading them that they’d be better off living under Sunni religious extremists than under his unrelentingly hostile Shiite government.

"I think that most of us that have followed this are really convinced that the Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California said at a hearing Wednesday. "If you want a Shia-Sunni war, that’s where we’re going, in my view, right now."

On the other side of the aisle, Arizona Republican John McCain, a consistent Iraq hawk, was even blunter.

"He’s got to step down," McCain said in an interview. "There’s no reconciliation with him and the Sunnis. He should form a coalition government and leave."

None of the lawmakers offered up any specific ideas about what steps the U.S. could or should take to dislodge Maliki. The White House maintains that Iraqis must determine his future. Privately, however, several people who regularly interact with the White House say top administration officials concluded it would be impossible to cobble together a coalition government encompassing Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds with Maliki still at the helm.

"There’s a growing understanding that he’s become simply toxic," said one former high-ranking official who maintains close ties to the White House. "I haven’t heard anyone talk about how to persuade him to step down but I’ve heard a lot of people say that the situation on the ground won’t really improve if he stays at the helm."   

The roots of the tense relationship between Obama and Maliki extend back to the president’s first months in office. Obama campaigned on ending what he called the "dumb war" in Iraq and believed that his predecessor, President George W. Bush, had grown so close to Maliki that he wasn’t willing to prod the Iraqi leader to do more to reach out to the Sunnis. Bush normally spoke to Maliki weekly, either by phone or video teleconference. Obama almost immediately decided that he didn’t want to talk to Maliki even remotely that often, particularly as U.S. troop levels begin to fall from their pre-surge highs.

"The concern was that weekly video conferences were no longer necessary, post-surge, and ultimately cheapened the currency of the presidency," said Colin Kahl, who served as the Pentagon’s top Middle East policy official from February 2009 until December 2011.

Obama had more substantive concerns as well, according to two former aides. He believed that Maliki was steadily expanding control over the country’s military and internal security forces and then using them to arrest prominent Sunni leaders and detain young Sunni men on a wide scale. The White House also worried that Maliki was becoming autocratic. For example, he banned public protests, arrested journalists, and brought Iraq’s judiciary under his personal control.

Still, Maliki seemed at least somewhat committed to holding free and fair elections. In the spring of 2010, tens of millions of Iraqis headed to the polls to choose between Maliki’s Shiite-dominated State of Law coalition and the mixed Shiite-Sunni party of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Allawi won 91 seats to Maliki’s 89, but Maliki gave no indication that he was prepared to give up power.

Most Obama administration officials believed that Allawi would make a far better prime minister because of his close ties with top Sunni leaders. However, the White House opted against intervening on his behalf, in part because they feared that the prolonged squabbling that would accompany a political transition from Maliki to Allawi would destabilize the country and risk its fragile security gains. The Iraqi supreme court, in a highly controversial ruling, then effectively gave Maliki first dibs on forming a new government. He garnered a majority of seats in Iraq’s parliament and was sworn in for another term in December 2010.

The White House still had a chance of getting Allawi a share of power that would potentially have allowed him to serve as a curb on Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. Kahl said the administration considered two approaches: trying to persuade Kurdish leaders to give Iraq’s presidency — which they had held for years — to Allawi or creating a new and powerful national security advisor position that would give the former prime minister some control over the country’s security forces. In the end, Kahl said, the Kurds weren’t willing to give up the presidency and Maliki wasn’t willing to cede that much of his power to Allawi.

Kahl and many other Iraq experts believe that a Prime Minister Allawi probably wouldn’t have implemented the same pro-Shiite policies that Maliki has put in place to such disastrous effect.

"He was a Shia politician at the head of a largely Sunni coalition," Kahl said. "So if he’d formed a government that included Kurds and some Shia parties, the structural incentives of his coalition would’ve probably encouraged a less sectarian bent."

For the moment, Maliki is giving no indication that he’s ready to give up the helm — or make a sustained outreach campaign to the country’s Sunnis. On Tuesday, he met with several Kurdish, Shiite, an
d Sunni leaders and then made what Reuters described as a "visibly uncomfortable televised appearance" calling for national unity. The most prominent Sunni, Osama al-Nujaifi, didn’t speak during the event and walked away from Maliki without saying anything, according to the Reuters account.  

While the White House considers whether and how to push Maliki out, some lawmakers believe Washington needs to accept that he may not go anywhere anytime soon. Maliki, they believe, is in for the long haul, for better and probably for worse.

"He’s a disaster but what [effect] does a member of Congress [have in] calling on somebody being elected to resign?" said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a former House Foreign Affairs Committee leader. "It’s like him calling me to resign."