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As the sun set on yet another peaceful summer weekend, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki appeared to be contemplating a political coup. Military forces loyal to the embattled Iraqi leader surrounded key sites in Baghdad, and in an impromptu television address, he suggested that the new Iraqi President Fuad Mahsoum had violated the constitution by failing to ask him to form a government.
To suggest this is the last thing Iraq needs is something of an understatement: terrorist forces of the Islamic State/ISIS have made enormous territorial gains in Iraq, defeating what were assumed to be competent Kurdish Peshmerga forces in addition to less coherent Iraqi national forces. Even the terribly reticent Barack Obama seemed to recognize the gravity of the situation, and the United States has begun to provide air interdiction to Kurdish forces, and is reportedly also now directly arming Kurdish fighters.
I’ve not been a fan of the efforts to oust Maliki, in large part because I believed them to be a pretext to distance the United States from any involvement in Iraq. After all, until very recently, Maliki was the darling of the Obama administration who could do no wrong. His consolidation of power excited no condemnations from Washington until Sunni groups began siding with terrorists against the central Iraqi government. Simply put, the trouble with the battle for leadership inside Iraq is that it has always pitted wannabe Saddams against other wannabe Saddams. These are no Jeffersonian political squabbles, nor do they pit latter day Lincolns against tyrants. And in that regard, there seemed little point to overturn the legitimate results of this year’s Iraqi elections in order to find a new sweetheart who would start doing the wrong thing as soon as Barack and co stopped paying attention.
But things have changed; Maliki, rightly or wrongly beleaguered, has now lost the democratic support of much of his own party, his own religious leaders and his people. It is the right of his party to push him out in a parliamentary system, though it is not clear that Rule of Law (Maliki’s party) has done so yet. Nonetheless, midnight television addresses and troops surrounding strategic political sites is not the stuff of democracy, and Maliki’s desire to continue to hold the reins of power has tipped from legitimate to illegitimate. He must go, and should go with the grace he long ago suggested he had when he joined in Iraq’s first democratic process.
But there remain larger lessons here. Why was Maliki consolidating power at the expense of the nation’s Sunnis? How did he remain an American pet notwithstanding his growing predations on the Iraqi people? How did ISIS make its way into and through Iraq? And why is the larger Middle East falling apart?
To be sure, some of this maelstrom is the fruit of years of tyranny, heinous governance, and ahistorical education. But not all. Some is the fruit of U.S. and Western apathy in the face of growing terror, wanton murder and the untrammeled rise of Sunni and Shia extremists. We cannot drop in occasionally and hope that a couple of airstrikes will solve the problems of the region. This is the project of decades, maybe centuries. It is not our project alone, but we have interests, both moral and security. The United States needs to reengage in the Middle East, and fight for the principles that animate us. No, not with boots on the ground for God’s sake, but with consistent and principled vision about how we can facilitate a better future that will benefit us as well as the Arab and Persian worlds. Will we do it? Not now, that’s for sure. For that project, we’re going to need a new president.
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