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Behind Maliki's Games

By Max Boot
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

There is some irony in the fact that Democrats, after years of deriding Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a hopeless bungler and conniving Shiite sectarian, are now treating as sacrosanct his suggestion that Iraq will be ready to assume responsibility for its own security by 2010. Naturally this is because his position seems to support that of Barack Obama.

A little skepticism is in order here. The prime minister has political motives for what he's saying -- whatever that is. An anonymous Iraqi official told the state-owned Al-Sabah newspaper, "Maliki thinks that Obama is most likely to win in the presidential election" and that "he's got to take preemptive steps before Obama gets to the White House." By smoothing Obama's maiden voyage abroad as the Democratic nominee, Maliki may figure that he will collect chits that he can call in later.

Giving the Iraqi prime minister an added motive to posture about troop withdrawals, even while he explicitly eschews binding timelines, is that he is engaged in contentious status-of-forces negotiations with the United States. He may figure that threatening to boot us out gives him more leverage over our troops. Beyond the negotiations, there is the imperative of Iraq's provincial elections, supposed to take place this year. Maliki no doubt expects that his Dawa party will reap political benefits from appearing to stand up to the Americans.

This is part of a pattern for Maliki, who, though he won office and has stayed alive (literally and politically) with American support, has hardly been an unwavering friend of the United States -- at least in public. Although he was an opponent of the Saddam Hussein regime, he was not a proponent of the U.S.-led invasion. Having spent long years of exile in Syria and Iran, he has had to overcome deeply ingrained suspicions of the United States.

Keep in mind also that Maliki has no military experience and that he has been trapped in the Green Zone, relatively isolated from day-to-day life. For these reasons, he has been a consistent font of misguided predictions about how quickly U.S. forces could leave.

In May 2006, shortly after becoming prime minister, he claimed, "Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half."

In October 2006, when violence was spinning out of control, Maliki declared that it would be "only a matter of months" before his security forces could "take over the security portfolio entirely and keep some multinational forces only in a supporting role."

President Bush wisely ignored Maliki. Instead of withdrawing U.S. troops, he sent more. The prime minister wasn't happy. On Dec. 15, 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported, "Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has flatly told Gen. George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, that he doesn't want more U.S. personnel deployed to the country, according to U.S. military officials." When the surge went ahead anyway, Maliki gave it an endorsement described in news accounts as "lukewarm."

In January 2007, with the surge just starting, Maliki predicted "that within three to six months our need for the American troops will dramatically go down." In April 2007, when most of Baghdad was still out of control, the prime minister said that Iraqi forces would assume control of security in every province by the end of the year.

Even now, when the success of the surge is undeniable, Maliki won't give U.S. troops their due. In the famous interview with Der Spiegel last weekend, he was asked why Iraq has become more peaceful. He mentioned "many factors," including "the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve," "the progress being made by our security forces," "the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias," and "the economic recovery." No mention of the surge.

To his credit, although he has postured as a fierce nationalist in public, Maliki has often accommodated American concerns in private. And, despite saying that Iraq doesn't need many U.S. troops, he has acquiesced to their presence.

But Maliki's public utterances do not provide a reliable guide as to when it will be safe to pull out U.S. troops. Better to listen to the military professionals. The Post recently quoted Brig. Gen. Bilal al-Dayni, commander of Iraqi troops in Basra, as saying of the Americans, "We hope they will stay until 2020." That is similar to the expectation of Iraq's defense minister, Abdul Qadir, who says his forces cannot assume full responsibility for internal security until 2012 and for external security until 2018.

What would happen if we were to pull out much faster, on a 16-month timetable? Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond, commander of coalition forces in Baghdad, says that would be "very dangerous" -- the same words used by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Of course, if the Iraqi government tells us to leave, we will have to leave. But, the prime minister's ambiguous comments notwithstanding, the Iraqi government is saying no such thing, because most Iraqis realize that the gains of the surge are fragile and could be undone by a too-rapid departure of U.S. forces.

The writer is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain's campaign.

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