Blaming the prime minister of Iraq, rather than the president of the United States, for the spectacular failure of American policy, is cynical politics, pure and simple. It is neither fair nor helpful in figuring out how to end America’s biggest foreign policy fiasco since Vietnam.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has been catastrophic for Iraq ever since he took over from the equally disastrous Ibrahim al-Jaafari more than a year ago. America helped engineer Mr. Jaafari’s removal, only to get Mr. Maliki. That tells you something important about whether this is more than a matter of personalities. Mr. Jaafari, as it happens, was Iraq’s first democratically chosen leader under the American-sponsored constitution.
Continuing in the Jaafari tradition, Mr. Maliki’s government has fashioned Iraqi security forces into an instrument of Shiite domination and revenge, trying to steer American troops away from Shiite militia strongholds and leaving Sunni Arab civilians unprotected from sectarian terrorism. His government’s deep sectarian urges have also been evident in the continuing failure to enact legislation to fairly share oil revenues and the persistence of rules that bar much of the Sunni middle class from professional employment.
Sectarian fracturing even extends to the electricity grid, where armed groups have seized control of key switching stations and refused to share power with Baghdad and other provinces.
The problem is not Mr. Maliki’s narrow-mindedness or incompetence. He is the logical product of the system the United States created, one that deliberately empowered the long-persecuted Shiite majority and deliberately marginalized the long-dominant Sunni Arab minority. It was all but sure to produce someone very like Mr. Maliki, a sectarian Shiite far more interested in settling scores than in reconciling all Iraqis to share power in a unified and peaceful democracy.
That distinction is enormously significant, since President Bush’s current troop buildup is supposed to buy, at the cost of American lives, a period of relative calm for Iraqi politicians to bring about national reconciliation. How much calm it has brought is the subject of debate. But just about everyone in Washington now agrees that Mr. Maliki has made little effort to advance national unity.
The most recent intelligence report on Iraq, released yesterday, concludes that Mr. Maliki’s government is unable to govern and will become “more precarious” over the next six months to a year.
That is why there can be no serious argument for buying still more time at the cost of still more American lives and an even greater cost for Iraqis. A report by an Iraqi correspondent for The Times earlier this week described the deadly sectarian hatreds that have torn apart life in his home province, Diyala, which is almost equally divided between Sunnis and Shiites.
The same day, an Op-Ed article by seven American soldiers serving in Iraq underscored the extent to which American troops have worn out their welcome among Iraqis as social and economic conditions have deteriorated and rampant lawlessness has destroyed the most basic sense of personal security.
When it comes to fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq, Washington and Baghdad are often at cross-purposes. In the western province of Al Anbar, the American military has registered some gains by enlisting local Iraqi Sunnis to fight against foreign-led Al Qaeda formations. That strategy depends on the sense of Iraqi nationhood among local Sunnis. But the Maliki government prefers to concentrate on fortifying Shiite political power and exploiting the immense oil reserves of southeast Iraq. It is hard to imagine any Shiite government acting very differently.
Washington’s failure to face these unpleasant realities opens the door to strange and dangerous fantasies, like Mr. Bush’s surreal take on the Vietnam war.
The real lesson of Vietnam for Iraq is clear enough. America lost that war because a succession of changes in South Vietnamese leadership, many of them inspired by Washington, never produced an effective government in Saigon. None of those changes, beginning with the American-sponsored coup that led to the murder of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, changed the underlying reality of a South Vietnamese government and army that never won the loyalty and support of large sections of the Vietnamese population.
The short-term sequels of American withdrawal from Indochina were brutal, as the immediate sequels of America’s withdrawal from Iraq will surely be. But the American people rightly concluded that with no way to win a military victory, there could be no justification for allowing thousands more United States troops to die in Vietnam. Those deaths would not have changed the sequels to the war, just as more American deaths will not change the sequel to the war in Iraq. Once the war in Southeast Asia was over, America’s domestic divisions healed, its battered armed forces were rebuilt and the nation was much better positioned to deal with the relentless challenges of global leadership.
If Mr. Bush, whose decision to inject Vietnam into the debate over Iraq was bizarre, took the time to study the real lessons of Vietnam, he would not be so eager to lead America still deeper into the 21st century quagmire he has created in Iraq. Following his path will not rectify the mistakes of Vietnam, it will simply repeat them.