There's little to celebrate about the US pullback in Iraq.
More than six years after the US invasion, Iraq is shattered. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead -- far more, incidentally, than even the largest estimates of the number of Iraqis who died during 35 years of Saddam Hussein's rule -- its social fabric is utterly destroyed, its economy is in ruins, and its dominant political faction is in hock to neighboring Iran.
And now what?
As we pull back, we're leaving Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in charge. Increasingly, Maliki is taking on the trappings of a dictator. He's established a network of security agencies that report directly to him. He's built a countrywide patronage system to bribe and pay off tribal allies, in anticipation of 2010 elections. He's shown no compunction against using the army, the police, and the secret agencies he controls to eliminate rivals. He's used divide-and-conquer tactics to outflank the Sunni-led sahwa movement, known as the Awakening or the Sons of Iraq, driving some of them back into armed resistance and others into sullen resentment or fear for their lives.
And Maliki, despite his protestations that he is a born-again "nationalist," has close ties to Iran. With Iran now revealed as a fundamentalist-run, naked military dictatorship, I expect Iran to act ruthlessly vis-a-vis Iraq, and if he wants to stay in power Maliki will pretty much have to go along.
A prominent Sunni activist from northern Iraq told me yesterday that anyone who thinks about opposing Maliki in Iraq has to fear for his or her life. The fact remains that despite the resurgence of secular nationalism in Iraq, as evidenced by the results of provincial elections last February, Maliki sits atop a conspiratorial little party called Al Dawa, a fundamentalist Islamist grouping, and he is reliant on a small, secretive clique that surrounds him. During the February election, in order to appeal to Iraqi voters, Maliki posed as a nationalist of sorts, but in fact he is dependent on two outside powers. First, he's dependent on the United States, for despite his bravado about the US withdrawal from Iraq's cities, Maliki desperately needs American backing to remain in power, to build up his armed forces. And second, Maliki is dependent on the good will of Iran, who could topple him instantly if he crossed Tehran.
It's clear that Obama doesn't want to think about Iraq. It seems like he's hoping it just goes away, so he can worry about Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine. But Iraq's not going away.
During the campaign, Obama promised to convene an international, United Nations-led conference on Iraq. That's exactly what he ought to do: allow the US to step back, and let the world community step in to help Iraq reconcile its warring factions. The goal of the meeting ought to be to rewrite Iraq's absurd Constitution, which empowers the ruling ethnic and sectarian parties (i.e., the Shiite religious bloc, including Dawa, and the Kurds) who wrote it. Short of that, Iraq is likely to explode at some point, either this year, in advance of the 2010 elections, or soon thereafter. As the US presence in Iraq shrinks, Maliki will have less and less incentive to cooperate with any UN effort. As it is, he'd fight it tooth and nail, and it may already be too late.
Fixing Iraq means two things. First, it means that the world community has to step in to empower the secular (anti-religious party) nationalist forces that have been shut out of power by Maliki, including both Sunni elites and secular Shiites, such as former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and countless others. Only they can restore a semblance of true central government in a shattered country, make a deal with the expansionist Kurds over autonomy and Kirkuk, the oil-rich city in the north, and start to rebuild Iraq as a nation-state. And second, it means that Obama has to come to an understanding with Iran over Iraq, one that involves the full participation of Iraq's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey, so that neither the United States nor Iran seek to use Iraq as a battlefield for their competing ambitions in the region.