The Middle East Channel

Arab politics is not all about us

When a presidential campaign is in full swing, we probably should not be surprised that the challenger's team throws everything and the kitchen sink at the incumbent. Still, it seems strange that Republicans want to remind voters that President Barack Obama extricated the United States from a difficult and unpopular war in Iraq. But that is just what Peter Feaver did in the Foreign Policy blog Shadow Government on October 12. He said that the president had opened up a "civil-military problem" for himself, because "significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq." He went on to accuse the administration, and Vice President Joe Biden specifically, of blowing the chance to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, either through incompetence or a lack of serious commitment, that would have permitted the United States to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. Those are some pretty stiff charges. (Full disclosure: Feaver and I went to graduate school together. He is a great guy, but just plain wrong here.)

We can set aside, for this discussion, the big question about whether keeping that many U.S. troops in Iraq would have been a good thing. It is pretty clear what the American people think the answer is. The interesting thing about Feaver's thumbnail account of the supposed failure of the administration on this issue is the utter absence of Iraqis from the story. When the United States fails to achieve a goal, it must be either because we really were not committed to it, or we messed up. The other guys just are not that important. It really is all about us.

A brief review of Iraqi politics indicates precisely the opposite. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki very much wanted to be the Iraqi politician who negotiated the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. He pushed the Bush administration to conclude the original timetable for U.S. withdrawal in 2008. President George W. Bush agreed in September 2008 to set a hard deadline of the end of 2011 for complete U.S. withdrawal (undercutting his party's presidential candidate, John McCain, who strongly advocated a continued presence in Iraq, in the process). Maliki would not accept any wiggle room in the deadline or the completeness of the withdrawal. He knew how unpopular the U.S. military presence had become among his constituents, particularly Shiite Arab Iraqis. Kurds and some Sunni Arabs might have felt differently, but Maliki knew his voters. He held up the agreement as one of the signal achievements of his rule when he ran to retain the prime ministry in the Iraqi elections of 2010.

It was the results of that election that sealed the fate of any U.S. effort to re-open the case for a continued U.S. military presence. Iyad Allawi's Iraqiyya coalition won two seats more than Maliki's State of Law group in the election, but neither achieved a majority. Had they been able to set their personal differences aside (their platforms were not that far apart), and had Maliki been willing to take the junior role in a partnership (as required of the smaller party), they might have been able to form a strong majority government. But that was not to be. Allawi flubbed his chance to put a parliamentary majority together without Maliki. Maliki stubbornly held on to his office. In the end, Maliki accepted a political deal brokered in Tehran that returned him to the prime ministry with the support of Shiite political groups closely aligned with Iran, like Muqtada al-Sadr's followers and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Once that coalition was formed, no U.S. diplomatic effort, no matter how skillful and concerted, was going to convince Maliki to alter the original withdrawal agreement and allow a substantial U.S. force to stay. Maliki was not so inclined anyway, but with the backing of Iran so central to his return to power, there was no conceivable set of inducements Washington could offer Maliki to move him off his position. Doing so would have jeopardized his hold on the prime ministry. One might criticize the Obama administration for not being more active in trying to broker an Allawi and Maliki coalition in the first place. But once Maliki's ruling bargain was set in Tehran, the game was up. The United States gave Iraq the democracy it has. Now it has to live with it.

Feaver ignores the realities of Iraqi politics in his criticism of the Obama administration's Iraq policies. If this were simply a lacuna in one academic's analysis, it would not be of much interest. He and I could argue this in the pages of musty academic journals. But this analytical flaw, making everything just about us, has become characteristic of Republican criticism of the Obama administration's Middle East policy more generally.   

During the October 16 presidential debate, Governor Mitt Romney criticized President Obama's reaction to the Benghazi attack and his Middle East policy more generally, saying: "The president's policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes." (He posted a clearer statement of his belief about the reason for the problems in the Middle East on his website on October 1: "President Obama has allowed our leadership to atrophy.") Earlier on debate day, on National Public Radio (NPR), Romney Middle East advisor Dan Senor said that the attack in Libya is "not an isolated incident." He linked it to the Iranian nuclear program, the fighting in Syria, and other protests against the United States across the Middle East. For Senor, all of these things (specifically Iran, by inference the others) have a single cause: "We have lost credibility." For both the governor and his advisor, events in the Middle East are all about us, not about trends and dynamics within the region itself.

This is a particularly shallow and superficial view of the challenges facing the United States, not only in the Middle East, but around the world. If we were to accept the logic that threats to the United States come primarily from a lack of American credibility and firmness, we would also have to believe the following:

  • The attacks on the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 were because Ronald Reagan was weak and lacked credibility.
  • Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait in 1990 because George H. W. Bush was weak and lacked credibility.
  • Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 because Bill Clinton was weak and lacked credibility.
  • Al Qaeda attacked the homeland on September 11, 2001 because George W. Bush was weak and lacked credibility.

These conclusions are patently ridiculous. All of these events stemmed from both deep regional causes and immediate tactical decisions by local players. They had very little, if anything, to do with whether the U.S. president in office was "strong" and "credible," whatever those adjectives might mean in this context. Likewise, the attack in Benghazi is all about the deep currents in the region that produced the Salafi jihadist movement, of which al Qaeda is the most notorious example, and the difficult transition in revolutionary Libya, where the state was never strong and militias dominate the security picture. It would have happened no matter who was in the White House, even Mitt Romney. It was directed at us, but it is not all about us.

One can understand why Dan Senor takes the position he does. He is a spinmeister, and his job is to spin for his boss in an election campaign. He really does not know much about the Arab world, so he could not be expected to understand its complexities. His only substantial experience with it was as the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He sat in the Green Zone and told reporters how well everything was going while the country descended into hell. Even then, for him it was all about us, and not about the Iraqis. That kind of analysis might be expedient in an election campaign, but to actually base U.S. policy in the Middle East on it is a path to disaster, as the Bush administration's Iraq policy demonstrated. If we are going to support our friends, confront our enemies, and deal prudently with that vast group of people in between in the region, we better pay attention to what is actually driving their politics. And it isn't American "credibility."

F. Gregory Gause, III is professor of political science at the University of Vermont and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. He is the author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

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