Getting the Audit Right on Iraq

maliki biden.jpgIraq surge architects Frederick and Kimberly Kagan have published an informed, provocative, yet thoughtful commentary, "Is Iraq Lost?", in the latest Weekly Standard.

The authors open with a blast at what they characterize as a self-congratulating Obama administration.  They write:

With administration officials celebrating the "successful" withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, thanking antiwar groups for making that withdrawal possible, and proffering outrageous claims about Iraq's "stability," "sovereignty," and the "demilitarization" of American foreign policy even as Iraq collapses, it is hard to stay focused on America's interests and security requirements. Especially in an election year, the temptation will only grow to argue about who lost Iraq, whether it was doomed from the outset, whether the current disaster "proves" either that the success of the surge was inherently ephemeral or that the withdrawal of U.S. troops caused the collapse. The time will come for such an audit of Iraq policy over the last five years, but not yet. For the crisis in Iraq is still unfolding, and the United States continues to have a huge stake in the outcome. The question of the moment is not "Who lost Iraq?" but rather "Is Iraq definitely lost?"

The Kagans share their granual understanding of the conflict and deal-making between various factions in Iraq's political ecosystem. 

They suggest, and I agree, that the US troop withdrawal has impacted the previous equilibrium and changed the calculations of power players in the government -- and that President Nouri al-Maliki is moving to consolidate his control over the state, working to move Sunni rivals out of their positions -- and has used the pretext of an alleged plot against his life by Vice President Tariq al Hashimi to make his moves.

The Kagans write:

The withdrawal of all American military forces has greatly reduced America's leverage in Iraq. U.S. military forces were a buffer to prevent political and ethno-sectarian friction from becoming violent by guaranteeing Maliki against a Sunni coup d'état and guaranteeing the Sunnis against a Shiite campaign of militarized repression. The withdrawal of that buffer precipitated this crisis and removed much of our leverage. The withdrawal is complete and unlikely to be reversed. Still, the United States maintains some leverage in Iraq and considerable leverage in the region. The Obama administration will have to use all of its skills to maximize the impact of what leverage it retains.

I agree with most of the observations by Kimberly and Frederick Kagan about the fragility and downward course of political trends inside Iraq. 

That said, I believe that a combination of creative diplomacy and deal-making behind the scenes orchestrated and directed by Vice President Joe Biden and his national security adviser Antony Blinken -- in addition to the good work done until his departure by UN Senior Iraq Representative Ad Melkert -- held together a fractious political mess of rival groups that aren't yet fully sure that a democratic order best serves their interests.  But Biden, Melkert, and others made something work that was a complete mess previously and helped many powerful Iraqis realize that there was the possibility of a stable democratic political order rather than a future of convulsive, sectarian civil war.

That said, US forces withdrawing have changed the equation.  One senior White House official recently said that the US "can't midwife Iraq for 18 years; the baby is born and now we have to move back and see what comes of this country."

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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