November 1, 2013
Nouri al-Maliki visits White House
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House on Friday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be the only leader in the world these days who is asking Washington for more U.S. surveillance in his country. But Maliki has a growing al-Qaeda problem, and he knows that U.S. intelligence assistance may be his best hope of combating the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 1,000 Iraqis in September.

Putting aside the irony of the Iraqi request, how should the U.S. respond? I hope the Obama administration makes clear that it is prepared to share American intelligence technology–a uniquely valuable counter-terrorism tool—only with countries that are real partners in fighting extremists.

Maliki hasn’t met that test: As prime minister, he has been a divisive sectarian and authoritarian leader whose rule has fostered the very al-Qaeda threat he now seeks to curb. If he wants American intelligence help, it should come at the price of broadening his government and working with the Sunni minority he has sought to exclude. That’s the platform–a moderate, western-facing government—on which counter-terrrorism tools can be effective.

The Shiite-led government in Iraq wants all the goodies it remembers from the days when Gen. David Petraeus helped crush Al Qaeda in the Sunni areas of western Iraq. It wants surveillance technology; it wants training; it wants “expert” advisers from U.S. security agencies; it wants drone attacks on al-Qaeda sanctuaries within its territory.

As al-Qaeda puts down new roots in the Sunni areas of western Iraq and northeast Syria, the U.S. has an interest in working with partners that can keep this poison from spreading. And it must feel nice for U.S. officials to be asked for help, after the rebuffs they’ve been getting across Europe lately. But these technologies are special American assets, to be used sparingly and wisely. If the U.S. has learned anything from its misadventures in Iraq, it is to look before you leap.

If the Iraqis truly want American help again, that’s the beginning of useful dialogue. But this assistance should come at a price. Washington should have some “asks” too, as it works with partners to build greater stability and moderation in the region.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.