What’s the Real Story of the U.S. and Maliki?

What’s the Real Story of the U.S. and Maliki?


Earlier this week, Max Boot flagged an important column by Ali Khedery, the American who had perhaps the greatest institutional knowledge of what went on inside Iraq, because as an advisor to a succession of American diplomats, he was often at the thick of things. I do not know Khedery well and have only met him a few times in a cursory fashion, but he is smart, personable, and able. In short, Khedery is everything he claims to be in his Washington Post essay, when he writes that he was the reason why the United States initially pushed Nouri al-Maliki to Iraq’s premiership but that he recognized Maliki’s drawbacks and sought a withdrawal of U.S. support in 2010.

Khedery’s column comes just a few months after Dexter Filkins wrote a lengthy profile of Maliki in the New Yorker based on numerous interviews with American officials.

Enter Reidar Visser, an astute Norwegian Iraq analyst, who has compared the two narratives and pointed out some inconsistencies. First, Khedery writes that it was he and Jeffrey Beals who promoted Maliki’s candidacy within the embassy and U.S. government. Filkins, however, credits a CIA officer whom he doesn’t name. As Visser notes wryly, “Unless one of them was indeed CIA there is some discordance between the two narratives.” In this case, the answer might simply be both are right. U.S. policymaking is marked by huge bureaucracies. Independent strains coalescing to a common purpose shape outcomes, but it is the nature of the beast that each independent strain believes that they were the ones who mattered: it’s like the old parable of the blind men describing the elephant, but in this case, two of the blind men were describing its legs, albeit separate ones.

Visser then identifies two problems in which the open sources seem to contradict Khedery’s narrative. The first was with regard to Maliki’s use of the de-Baathification committee against opponents in the lead-up to the 2010 elections. Visser quotes Khedery as writing, “He [Maliki] coerced Iraq’s chief justice to bar some of his rivals from participating in the elections,” and then Visser himself notes, “This description of what happened comes across as disingenuous. For starters, the resuscitation of the de-Baathification issue in early 2010 was clearly driven by Maliki’s Shiite enemies [like Adel Abdel Mehdi] who, with considerable Iranian assistance, had tried in vain to enlist him for their sectarian alliance during the previous summer.” Indeed, Visser notes, Maliki had to fight off de-Baathification committee attempts to disqualify some of his own political allies. It was only after the elections that Maliki sought to use de-Baathification to disqualify some election winners.

Visser also takes Khedery to task for his treatment of the Iraqi supreme court which ruled in May 2010 that blocs could shift and merge after the election, in effect building coalitions to change the election outcome. “Many Americans have tried to portray this ruling as some kind of Maliki coup,” Visser notes, “but closer inspection of the relevant constitutional background materials suggests that the ruling was quite objective in addressing the limited constitutional ambiguity that existed.”

Both Khedery and Visser skim past the arrest warrant which the Maliki government issued for former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Visser does note that Khedery “conveniently flashes forward to the threatened arrest of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi right after the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, and then jumps further to the targeting of Rafi al-Eisawi [sic], the finance minister, in late 2012. Between those events, however, there were junctures where things could have gone very differently in Iraqi politics if the US government had had the acumen to act in a more balanced way.” The problem with this statement is that it seems to imply that the arrest warrants were somehow wrong. Even many Sunni Arab Iraqis acknowledge substance behind the accusations against Hashemi. And, as the Iraqi government points out, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of his victims if there were no victims? The criticism that should be made of the Maliki government is not that it sought to bring Sunni officials complicit in terrorism to justice, but rather that it was selective and did not pursue many Shi‘ite officials (Muqtada al-Sadr, for example) with the same energy or enthusiasm.

There are other issues of context which should be acknowledged and understood when reading Khedery’s narrative. Khedery is forthcoming in acknowledging his post-government role with Exxon, where he helped that oil company begin operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. What is important to note, however, is that the Iraqi government considered this a shot across its bow, corrosive to Iraqi integrity, and deeply illegal. Indeed, Maliki subsequently exerted great pressure on Exxon and lobbied the White House furiously to accept Baghdad’s position in the conflict and, indeed, this is what the Obama administration did. The Kurds have lobbied tirelessly against Maliki, and it bears observation that Khedery’s change of mind coincided with his joining of Exxon and its attempts to do business with the Iraqi Kurds.

Iraq is a complicated story. After leaving the Pentagon, I was approached by many Ph.D. students who wanted to interview me as they wrote about the decisions to go to war. Because of my own bias as a historian–the old Yale adage that was drilled into us that to try to write a history of recent events for which there hasn’t been adequate declassification of documents from all sides isn’t history but rather journalism–I turned them down. I had my own opinions and observations, but absent declassified documentation, no Ph.D. student would be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in his sourcing and would likely simply go with his or her bias. To re-read today some of those journalists—George Packer and Tom Ricks, for example—who sought to write a first draft of the Iraqi war’s history is to recognize how superficial, self-serving, and inaccurate some of their sources were. Khedery, Filkins, and Visser are more the real deal. And each of their writings is worth reading in order to better illustrate key decisions and their reasoning.

That said, one of the problems—and this is especially true in Filkins’s piece—is that American officials tend to re-write their legacies and exaggerate their importance. It is unbecoming, and it reinforces the notion that American officials cannot and should not be trusted. Too often, writers also assume that the United States shapes the playing field, and that Iraqis don’t simply nod their heads, make the American feel important, and then pursue their own politics. It is also unbecoming—and very damaging to American interests—to bash a democratically-elected leader like Maliki simply because he has pursued policies which do not always conform to what the United States would like to see. After all, Maliki’s constituency is Iraq, and not the American embassy. Some American analysts and, indeed, Iraqis can be frustrated with what they perceive as Maliki’s sectarianism, but they might also recognize that Maliki was put in a precarious position when American generals made promises to some Sunni tribal leaders that they had no ability to keep. In effect, these generals traded long-term stability for short-term calm. Of course, the problem isn’t just with these generals: Many Sunni tribal leaders heard only what they wanted to hear from their interlocutors and when what they wished to be the case did not become their reality, they grew bitter and disenfranchised.

Maliki won the largest share of votes in Iraq’s most recent elections, but he also faces unease within his own party, especially in the wake of the joint tribal and Baathist uprising, and ISIS terror campaign that erupted in its wake. It is the vanguard of this uprising that is truly sectarian. To suggest that Maliki is somehow responsible for the sectarian radicalism of the Islamic State is to blame a battered spouse for the aggression of her partner. It is still a testament to Iraq’s system, as convoluted and dysfunctional as it can be, that Maliki may not get the third term he desires for the simple reason that his opponents have coalesced around him.

As to who is responsible for Maliki, let’s stop treating the man as a puppet: Maliki has a far greater role in his rise than outside forces did and even if he got a boost at some strategic points, it is well-past time to stop pretending that Iraqi politicians are puppets that can be controlled by Foggy Bottom or Langley. The more we engage in that self-deception, the more detached from reality we will become, and the worse the outcome will be for U.S. interests in the country.