Even more troubling than the security weaknesses is the erosion of the fragile political settlement. Maliki has pursued a sectarian agenda focused on consolidating power and monopolizing control of the state and security forces under his Dawa Party. He wrote on this page last Monday: “The Baath Party, which is prohibited by the constitution, believes in coups and conspiracies; indeed, these have been its modus operandi since the party’s inception. The Baathists seek to destroy Iraq’s democratic process. Hundreds of suspected Baathists recently were arrested. . . .I refute characterizations that the detentions were a sectarian action based on political motives.”
But it is difficult to square the descriptions of good security conditions in Iraq, as cited by U.S. military and administration officials and by Maliki, with the idea that mass arrests were necessary to prevent an imminent Sunni coup d’etat. It is even harder to see how that alleged threat required Maliki to remove officials from the Education Ministry and fire or replace several general officers of known integrity, patriotism and national loyalty.
The reality is that Maliki has just announced a policy of prosecuting — in some cases persecuting — selected former members of the Baath Party (including many protected from such actions by the de-Baathification law because they never held high positions) and other political opponents in a way certain to fan the smoldering embers of sectarian fear. Maliki is unwinding the multi-ethnic, cross-sectarian Iraqi political settlement.
Obama administration policy presumes that Maliki generally shares U.S. interests and will pursue them even without significant American assistance. Were that true, Maliki would aggressively protect American civilian and diplomatic personnel who have been threatened by the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and recently targeted to such a degree that the embassy has restricted their travel. He would direct security forces to act against Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq. Rather than abstaining, he would have supported the Arab League’s vote to suspend Syrian membership. He would see to it that Ali Mussa Daqduq, the Lebanese Hezbollah operative responsible for the execution of American soldiers in Karbala in 2007, is transferred to U.S. custody or tried in Iraq and punished for his crimes. He would appoint a permanent minister of defense and an interior minister acceptable to Parliament rather than concentrating those powers in his office.
But Maliki has done none of those things.
Despite the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Washington has leverage to affect Iraqi behavior. Iraq is a signatory to numerous treaties and a member of international organizations obliging it to respect human rights, ensure due process of law, and refrain from arbitrary or political detentions. Responsible nations should insist that Iraq demonstrate its commitment to those obligations. The president should tell Maliki in no uncertain terms that Washington will hold him to account in the international arena if Iraq does not.
All bilateral military relations and security cooperation were governed by the expiring strategic agreement and must be established under new agreements. There is much that Washington could offer, including guaranteeing the security of Iraq’s land, sea and airspace until Iraq is able to defend itself and establishing a program of collective military training, exercises and exchanges to improve the quality of Iraqi forces. Effective counterterrorism cooperation will require the negotiation of an intelligence-sharing agreement as well as transparent partnering with Iraq’s counterterrorism forces.
An independent, stable and responsible Iraqi state is critical to U.S. interests in the Middle East. A substantive policy toward that end can result from a combined insistence that Iraq adhere to international laws and norms, pressure on Iraqi leaders to deepen the political settlements under such stress, and the positive incentives of genuine military cooperation. The objective would not be to oust Maliki but to do what the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement specified: “support and strengthen Iraq’s democracy and its democratic institutions as defined and established in the Iraqi Constitution, and in so doing, enhance Iraq’s capability to protect these institutions against all internal and external threats.” Such a policy would reflect U.S. values and could help ensure free, fair and inclusive elections in 2013, so the Iraqi people preserve the representative government to which so many in the Middle East aspire.
Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War. Frederick W. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.