Our Man in Baghdad

Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, has a remarkable ability to make enemies. As Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group puts it, "Personal relations between everyone and Maliki are terrible." This gift was vividly displayed in March, when the annual meeting of the Arab League was held in Baghdad. Although the event was meant to signal Iraq's re-emergence as a respectable country after decades of tyranny and bloodshed, leaders of 10 of the 22 states, including virtually the entire Gulf, refused to attend out of pique at Maliki's perceived hostility to Sunnis both at home and abroad, turning the summit into a vapid ritual. The only friend Iraq has left in the neighborhood is Shiite Iran, which seems intent on reducing its neighbor to a state of subservience.

It's true that Iraq is no longer a threat to its neighbors, as it was under Saddam Hussein. In that narrow respect, the U.S. invasion has made the Middle East a safer place, though at an unspeakable cost in Iraqi and American lives. But the hopes that Bush administration officials once entertained -- that a post-Saddam Iraq, perhaps guided by a secular figure like the émigré opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi, would serve as a stabilizing, pro-American force for the region -- now look patently absurd. Maliki never had much interest in being a friend of the United States, and the departure of U.S. troops has allowed him to forget about it altogether.

What Iraq looks like today is an Iranian cat's paw. At the Arab League meeting, Iraqi diplomats blocked any effort to take robust action against Syria or even use tough language, thus advancing Iran's agenda at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which advocate arming the rebels seeking to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Immediately after the meeting ended, Maliki dashed to Tehran to confer with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Almost every Iraq expert I've ever talked to agrees that Maliki is an Iraqi nationalist who squirms under the Iranian thumb. But that's where he finds himself today. The question is why.

The most favorable interpretation of Maliki's foreign policy is what I call the Sonofabitch Hypothesis, put forward by Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Alterman argues that Maliki makes enemies because he pursues Iraqi national interests and "isn't afraid to communicate his dislike for people in a region where people prize politeness and solicitude." Alterman thinks that Maliki is in fact navigating a careful course among foes and false friends.
An alternate theory is that Maliki is deeply paranoid, as another analyst who knows him and his circle well puts it, and is convinced that rivals at home and abroad are out to get him. Yet another view is that Maliki is a Shiite supremacist who views Sunnis as the enemy (and might also be consumed by conspiracy theories).

But one can be agnostic about Maliki's motivations and still conclude that he is doing harm to Iraq's own interests. No sensible Iraqi leader would pick a fight with Turkey, as he has done.

James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation. "Terms of Engagement," his column for Foreign Policy.com, runs weekly.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on April 27th, 2012.

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