The Washington Post

U.S. can’t be in business of nation-building


For those who want to see it, President Obama’s vision and strategy for the post-Arab Spring Middle East is clear.

A main theme: The United States can’t create governments for other countries. They must do it themselves.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

That goes for Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya. And it will be just as true for Afghanistan when U.S. and coalition troops leave at the end of the year.

Speaking about Iraq on Saturday, the president said, “Once an inclusive government is in place, I’m confident it will be easier to mobilize all Iraqis against ISIS [Islamic State fighters] and to mobilize greater support from our friends and allies. Ultimately, only Iraqis can ensure the security and stability of Iraq. The United States can’t do it for them, but we can and will be partners in that effort.”

Perhaps there is a lesson from Ukraine. After initial setbacks, the Ukrainian army seems to have come together after the election of the new president, Petro Poroshenko.

Much of the eastern Ukraine supposedly controlled by pro-Russian separatists has been retaken, and the holdouts in Donetsk are seeking a cease-fire. Not too long ago, Obama’s critics were complaining that Washington had to increase its military aid from the meals-ready-to-eat and night-vision goggles to weaponry.

However, along with our European allies, Obama supported the free elections in Ukraine and constitutional changes. Also, Washington provided a $1 billion loan guarantee to help the country meet its immediate financial problems.

But Ukrainians were the key to those gains.

Looking back at Iraq and the years when more than 100,000 U.S. troops were there, the president on Saturday correctly said, “Our military is so effective that we can keep a lid on problems wherever we are if we put enough personnel and resources into it. But it can only last if the people in these countries themselves are able to arrive at the kinds of political accommodations and compromise that any civilized society requires.”

That did not happen in Iraq after U.S. combat forces left in 2011. Instead, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government failed, as the president noted, “to pass legislation that would reincorporate Sunnis and give them a sense of ownership” in the Baghdad government.

Instead, the regime jailed Sunni leaders and alienated the Sunni tribes that had helped make the 2007 surge of U.S. troops work and end the previous sectarian violence.

Of course Maliki’s anti-Sunni, anti-Kurd approach was apparent before Obama became president. In a May 2007 secret cable to Washington, then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker pointed out that Maliki already seemed to be reshaping “the Iraqi national security architecture” to produce “increasing centralization of power in the hands of an inner circle of Shia Islamists.”

More than seven years ago, Crocker described Maliki as having “repeatedly expressed fears of coups and conspiracies against him and his government.” As prime minister, Maliki, despite the objections of his Defense Ministry, in January 2007 took personal control over Iraqi special forces — the very units that two days ago moved into the Green Zone in Baghdad at his direction.

In a PBS “Frontline” interview two weeks ago, Crocker pointed out that Maliki came of age under Saddam Hussein, seeing “members of his family, his party, tracked down and murdered, [which] drove him into a zero-sum mode, where he would trust no one except those closest to him who were from his party.”

Crocker went on to say that Americans, for whom democracy is secure, don’t understand a country like Iraq where “losers in elections in that part of the world may lose more than the election.”

Although he was talking about Maliki’s view ahead of the 2010 Iraqi elections, Crocker could easily have been speaking about today’s crisis when he said, “In the back of Maliki’s mind is that if he lost the election and stayed in Iraq, which he was determined to do, he’d be brought up on capital charges.”

Obama’s critics — and in this case Crocker is one of them — say the United States could have reached an agreement with Maliki that would have allowed 5,000 or 10,000 U.S. troops to remain after 2011.

That did not happen. Obama has maintained that U.S. soldiers needed immunity from prosecution to protect themselves should they end up “getting in a firefight with Iraqis, that they wouldn’t be hauled before . . . an Iraqi judicial system.”

“Politically, they [the Iraqi legislators] could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq,” Obama said.

Crocker on “Frontline” said, “Maliki certainly bears a major responsibility. He is the prime minister. But the Kurds and the Shia went in the same opposite directions. And again, we were the only ones who could have been an antidote to that. We left the stage.”

But to Obama, the Maliki government’s exclusionary path inevitably was going to reinvigorate the jihadists — this time ISIS.

“We would have to now be reinforcing [those remaining American troops],” Obama said Saturday. “I’d have to be protecting them, and we’d have a much bigger job.”

Shouldn’t the United States have learned this lesson about trying to choose other country’s governments from our Vietnam experience 40 years ago?

At a far greater loss of lives and treasure, Washington had to evacuate from Saigon after failing to keep what it claimed to be a democratic government in South Vietnam.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to



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