WaPo: How we lost Iraq

We’ve been writing plenty about the long dissolution of US policy in Iraq and how the total withdrawal of 2011 played such a large part in it, but we’re not alone in that regard. On Thursday, former special assistant to the US embassy in Baghdad Ali Khedery wrote a lengthy essay for the Washington Post detailing what happened behind the scenes. There’s not much to add, except that the decision to pull out apparently came as a surprise to Vice President Joe Biden, who assumed we’d be sticking around. Iran had other ideas:

In conversations with visiting White House senior staff members, the ambassador, the generals and other colleagues, I suggested Vice PresidentAdel Abdul Mahdi as a successor. A former Baathist, moderate Shiite Islamist and French-educated economist who had served as finance minister, Abdul Mahdi maintained excellent relations with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds as well as with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

On Sept. 1, 2010, Vice President Biden was in Baghdad for the change-of-command ceremony that would see the departure of Gen. Ray Odierno and the arrival of Gen. Lloyd Austin as commander of U.S. forces. That night, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, I made a brief but impassioned argument against Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.

I was not the only official who made a case against Abu Isra. Even before my return to Baghdad, officials including Deputy U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, Odierno, British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins and Turkish Ambassador Murat Özçelik each lobbied strenuously against Maliki, locking horns with the White House, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Maliki’s most ardent supporter, future deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk. Now, with Austin in the Maliki camp as well, we remained at an impasse, principally because the Iraqi leaders were divided, unable to agree on Maliki or, maddeningly, on an alternative.

Our debates mattered little, however, because the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was about to resolve the crisis for us. Within days of Biden’s visit to Baghdad, Soleimani summoned Iraq’s leaders to Tehran. Beholden to him after decades of receiving Iran’s cash and support, the Iraqis recognized that U.S. influence in Iraq was waning as Iranian influence was surging. The Americans will leave you one day, but we will always remain your neighbors, Soleimani said, according to a former Iraqi official briefed on the meeting.

After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Soleimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: Maliki would remain premier; Jalal Talabani, a legendary Kurdish guerilla with decades-long ties to Iran, would remain president; and, most important, the American military would be made to leave at the end of 2011. Those Iraqi leaders who cooperated, Soleimani said, would continue to benefit from Iran’s political cover and cash payments, but those who defied the will of the Islamic Republic would suffer the most dire of consequences.

The Obama administration insisted on sticking with Maliki, Khedery writes, and disaster followed just as he’d predicted. The US tried pushing out Talabani in order to toss the Sunnis a bone, which pushed Talabani even further into Iran’s orbit. His success enraged the same tribal leaders who’d aligned with the US to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS, who ended up on the outside of Maliki’s Shi’ite cronyocracy — or worse:

America’s Iraq policy was soon in tatters. Outraged by what it perceived as American betrayal, the Iraqiya bloc fractured along ethno-sectarian lines, with leaders scrambling for government positions, lest they be frozen out of Iraq’s lucrative patronage system. Rather than taking 30 days to try to form a government, per the Iraqi constitution, the Sunni Arab leaders settled for impressive-sounding posts with little authority. Within a short span, Maliki’s police state effectively purged most of them from politics, parking American-supplied M1A1 tanks outside the Sunni leaders’ homes before arresting them. Within hours of the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011, Maliki sought the arrest of his longtime rival Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, eventually sentencing him to death in absentia. The purge of Finance Minister Rafea al-Essawi followed a year later.

Without troops in the country, we lost all ability to constrain Maliki and force him to work with the other stakeholders in Iraq. That led to what we see today, thanks to the US policy of withdrawal above all other considerations. For that, the American electorate shares at least some of the blame, because Barack Obama made it very clear that complete withdrawal was his policy, and his opponent John McCain made long-term engagement in Iraq the alternative that lost.

That short-sighted, checkers-over-chess approach to foreign policy extends far beyond Iraq. On Thursday, I appeared on Newsmax’s Stevel Malzberg Show to discuss Syria and the entirely reactive foreign policy of the Obama administration. The trial balloon reported by Josh Rogin at the Daily Beast about teaming up with Bashar al-Assad and Iran to fight ISIS is just another example of it:

“This is such a frustrating example of what happens when you have a rudderless foreign policy,” Morrissey told “The Steve Malzberg Show” on Newsmax TV on Thursday. …

“The problem is we’ve been bouncing back and forth ever since about what to do in that region,” he said.

“We started off [saying] Bashar Assad was a reformer even though he was crushing rebellion … shooting unarmed civilians in the streets who were protesting his regime back in 2011.

“And then last year, we were going to bomb his regime because he was using chemical weapons and now we’re coming back around to figuring out how we can at least ally in a de facto alliance against ISIS while still trying to get rid of Assad by giving weapons and training to the so-called moderate rebels.”

Steve and I also get into a couple of other topics, so be sure to watch it all.