As the Islamic State poured over the Syrian border into Iraq and began massacring religious minorities, enslaving women and children, and destroying 2,000-year-old holy sites, President Barack Obama defended his inaction by claiming that to involve the United States would only further inflame sectarian tensions. Why? Acting on behalf of the government of divisive Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki might be seen as a further provocation by the nation’s Sunni majority.
Many of Iraq’s Sunnis had already been giving aid and comfort to ISIS, a group that was seen by some of them as preferable to forces loyal to Baghdad despite their brutality. Obama drew bipartisan praise when he helped negotiate a deal in which Maliki stood down in favor of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a move that freed America’s hand to engage ISIS militarily without alienating moderate Sunnis.
According to The New York Times, al-Abadi is everything the West could have hoped for in an Iraqi prime minister and more.
In his first months in office, Mr. Abadi has already appeared three times before Parliament, something Mr. Maliki did only twice in eight years.
Mr. Abadi has fired incompetent and corrupt military commanders appointed by Mr. Maliki and rooted out 50,000 so-called ghost soldiers, no-show troops for whom commanders nevertheless collect salaries.
In his signature success so far, Mr. Abadi reached a deal to share oil revenue with the Kurds in northern Iraq, an issue that Mr. Maliki had pushed nearly to the point of Kurdish secession.
“He is doing all the things we feared he wouldn’t be doing,” gushed United Nations representative to Iraq Gyorgy Busztin. “I respect him more and more each day.”
Times readers can be assured that Obama’s Iraq strategy is working perfectly. Readers of Foreign Policy Magazine, however, were recently treated to a fair bit more skepticism about both al-Abadi’s performance in office and American officials’ assessment of the job he has done thus far.
In a disturbing dispatch, Foreign Policy revealed the story of a tense meeting between Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel and al-Abadi in which the new Shiite Iraqi PM insisted that the U.S. plan to use Sunni militias to fight ISIS was flawed because he believed that the country’s religious majority was generally untrustworthy. That signaled to many that al-Abadi will not pursue reconciliation between Iraq’s two largest religious groups.
Apparently, Washington is so displeased with al-Abadi that they are contemplating ways in which they can communicate their dissatisfaction with changes in policy:
The surprise push by Abadi for more weapons and his doubts about reconciling with Sunni tribes are making some American and European officials worry whether the U.S.-led coalition is rushing to train and rebuild Iraq’s military forces without getting a matching commitment from the Iraqi government to make peace with its Sunni tribes. An American official said that one way to indicate U.S. displeasure at Abadi would be to hold back the deployment of the 1,500 additional American troops that President Barack Obama has authorized to be sent to Iraq to bolster the 1,400 troops who are already there, while another official cautioned that such delay tactics may backfire. All officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made.
Abadi and the Iraqi government understand and “have made clear that Sunni tribal forces are going to have to be a part of the effort to defeat ISIL and for the security of their provinces,” Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in an email, using another acronym for the Islamic State. During the Dec. 3 Counter-ISIL Coalition Ministerial in Brussels, Abadi “once again acknowledged that military action alone will not defeat ISIL and that positive steps toward governmental reform, national reconciliation, and economic and social reconstruction will be needed in this fight. This process will take time but it is now underway. The new government is working to integrate tribal fighters into the Iraqi Security Forces.”
The tension between U.S. and Iraqi officials extends beyond merely the prime minister’s office. Before a subsequent meeting between Hagel and the Iraqi defense minister, the American defense chief was forced to wait 25 minutes. “For some U.S. officials, the wait seemed to be a replay of December 2009, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates was made to wait a full day before meeting then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,” Foreign Policy reported.
New York Times readers will be shocked to learn that United Nations officials and U.S. administration leaders are not on the same page when it comes to the political situation in Iraq. That may be a tough pill to swallow for many who are emotionally invested in the narrative that all of America’s troubles in Iraq are the result of Bush administration leadership, but reality is a harsh mistress.