Column: Iraq slips deeper into sectarianism while America pretends otherwise

By Eric T. Justin

Harvard Crimson, Harvard U. via UWIRE

The civil demonstrations rocking the Arab world are unequivocally kind to America’s interests in at least one regard—we can continue to pretend that Iraq stopped existing when we stopped caring. Even after a $1 trillion investment, Iraq simply cannot compete with the latest slate of domestic and international politics, especially among a populace weary of an iota of Iraq-related news. Unfortunately, while Americans wear self-imposed blinders, Iraq relapses, and this time, America’s reduced leverage leaves her futilely crossing her fingers.

Human Rights Watch recently referred to Iraq as a “budding police state,” though the “budding” in that phrase seems more like “flourishing” by the day. Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, is driving Sunni politicians out of town—literally, in the case of his former vice president, Tariq Hashimi, who fled to Kurdish-controlled Erbil. This crisis was not an anomaly, but merely the most visible manifestation of an escalating trend. Maliki’s subsequent dismissal of the Sunni deputy prime minister, Saleh Mutlaq, was not only a dangerous usurpation of legislative and judicial authority, but also indicates Maliki’s growing fecklessness and aggression.

Like the Kurds before them, the Sunnis want out. Last week’s conclusion of the Sunni boycott on the parliament does not reflect the larger reality. The provincial councils of three Sunni provinces have called for autonomous federal regions similar to the jurisdiction of Iraqi Kurdistan. Maliki will prevent these pseudo-secessions at all costs. He justifiably fears both Sunni autonomy and competition from Moqtada al-Sadr for preeminence among Shi’a. According to Maliki’s political analysis, the gamble of playing the sectarian game is less risky than trying to compromise with Sunnis and Kurds.

The rapidly declining state of affairs was not inevitable. The proximate cause was the swift reduction of American military forces, especially those involved in training new troops. The fourteen to eighteen thousand troops recommended by former Commander of American Forces in Iraq, General Lloyd Austin, would have been a physical and symbolic barrier to the rising sectarian violence. Whether that steep reduction in troops ought to be considered the ultimate cause of Iraq’s crisis is arguable. Regardless, we must recognize that the rapid reduction of troops drastically destabilized an already fragile country and greatly reduced American influence and leverage.

The unwillingness of Iraq to sign another Status of Forces Agreement this year ostensibly doomed any possibility of American troops remaining on the ground. SOFA is an agreement that stipulates what laws govern the American forces in a foreign country, particularly whether American soldiers are under the jurisprudence of American or local laws. Pundits can only speculate as to how hard the Obama administration fought not to meet one of its campaign promises. The American rush out the door represents yet another moment in this long war when American leaders saw what they want to see instead of the reality of the situation. Obama’s Fort Bragg speech, in which he referred to Iraq as “sovereign, stable and self-reliant,” merits as much notoriety as Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” banner.

Efforts to exert leverage in other spheres have proven unsuccessful. One New York Times editorial suggested that an $11 billion arms deal in December between America and Iraq should have included “firm guarantees that Mr. Maliki would do a lot more to share power and resources.” Chances are that the deal included at least firm promises. But even if commitments were made on paper, why would they be fulfilled? The message that America has continually sent to the region from the Egyptian Delta to the palaces of Lahore is that deep coffers do not imply deep strength of will. Go ahead, place tens of thousands of protestors in prison without civil trials, cut off our supply routes to Afghanistan, and undermine our allies. America will still provide financial and military aid with a string of ready-made excuses.

The Pentagon argues that foreign military aid bolsters American diplomatic leverage. And it does. Until it becomes a yearly gift instead of a yearly deal. At that point, American officials inevitably say that without aid, X country would commit more human rights abuses, Y country would befriend Iran, China, or whomever, and Z country would further undermine our interests. Often, those excuses are right in the short-term. However, in the long run, this malleability reduces America to a dupe of our enemies and the world’s fool.

Members of Congress and President Obama deserve praise for initially freezing our share of Pakistan’s military aid at 60 percent. The subsequent stipulation that unfroze our share of Pakistani aid is less laudable. Congress only requires assurances from the US defense secretary, Leon Panetta that Pakistan is “working to counter improvised explosive devices.” For Pakistan’s military, Pakistan’s stability is a Gordian Knot, so the pretension of countering IEDs ought to be low-hanging fruit in comparison. Likewise, America’s threat to cut off military aid to Egypt on the basis of travel bans placed on Americans in Egypt is all bark and no bite. America’s relationships with Pakistan and Egypt, as with Iraq, demonstrate that America is an ally you can count on…even when you no longer consider her an ally.

For revealing the weaknesses of American foreign policy, the imminent chaos in Iraq ought to be a major story of the year for 2012. It won’t be. But it ought to be.

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