TWO PERSISTENT failings of U.S. foreign policy have been an overdependence on individual leaders, who frequently fail to deliver on American expectations, and a reluctance to accept that an established status quo can’t hold. The Obama administration has committed both those errors in Iraq — and it has done so more than once.
In its zeal to withdraw all U.S. troops in time for President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, the administration threw its weight behind then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, with disastrous consequences. Mr. Maliki’s Shiite sectarianism fractured the fragile political system and opened the way for the Islamic State. In 2014, having pushed for Mr. Maliki’s removal, the administration bet on Haider al-Abadi; now, in its impatience to reduce the Islamic State before Mr. Obama leaves office, it clings to a prime minister who has proved unable to govern the country or reconcile its warring factions.
Mr. Abadi’s impotence was revealed most dramatically over the weekend, when Shiite supporters of anti-American firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr stormed into Baghdad’s walled-off Green Zone and invaded the parliament. Nominally, the protesters were supporting one of Mr. Abadi’s aims, to create a new, technocratic cabinet to replace a corrupt system of dividing ministries according to party and sectarian lines. But Mr. Abadi denounced the invasion, which showed him as unable to control either the political insurgents or the established parties that have repeatedly rejected his reform proposals.
The blowup came at a particularly awkward time for the Obama administration, which had just doubled down on its support for Mr. Abadi during a visit to Baghdad by Vice President Biden. As The Post’s Greg Jaffe reported, an administration briefer told reporters that Mr. Biden’s visit was “a symbol of how much faith we have in Prime Minister Abadi” and expressed optimism that his government was getting stronger.
Whether Mr. Abadi survives the present crisis will likely depend on whether Shiite parties, with help from Iran, can patch up their differences. But already he has proved incapable of addressing Iraq’s fundamental political problem, which is the schism among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities. That brings us to the Obama administration’s second error: an unwillingness to accept that Iraq cannot survive under its present system of governance, which centralizes power in Baghdad.
Since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq’s Sunni-majority areas, the administration has stubbornly stuck to the slogan of a “unified Iraq,” even though that has effectively meant depriving Kurdistan’s autonomous government and armed forces of the resources they need to fight the war, and critically delayed the development of a Sunni leadership that could effectively govern areas liberated from the terrorists.
The latest crisis should prompt a reconsideration. Kurdish leaders are now openly saying that Iraq’s post-2003 political structure has collapsed; the United States should be forging closer ties to their regional government. It should also be working to encourage a similar federal state in Sunni areas of Iraq. If Iraq survives as a nation-state, it will be because power, and oil revenues, are radically decentralized from Baghdad. Continuing to center U.S. support on a single Iraqi leader, whether it is Mr. Abadi or someone else, is a recipe for more failure.