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You Can’t Remake Another Country’s Political Culture Without A Green Lantern!

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You may remember Peter Beinart from such a atrocities as “endorsing Joe Lieberman for the 2004 Democratic nomination” and “writing in December 2004 that opponents of the Iraq War should be ejected from the Democratic coalition.” He has shown increasing signs of rationality since then, but he’s now back to show that he doesn’t really seem to have learned anything:

Obama inherited an Iraq where better security had created an opportunity for better government. The Bush administration’s troop “surge” did not solve the country’s underlying divisions. But by retaking Sunni areas from insurgents, it gave Iraq’s politicians the chance to forge a government inclusive enough to keep the country together.

The problem was that Maliki wasn’t interested in such a government. Rather than integrate the Sunni Awakening fighters who had helped subdue al-Qaeda into Iraq’s army, Maliki arrested them. In the run-up to his 2010 reelection bid, Maliki’s Electoral Commission disqualified more than 500, mostly Sunni, candidates on charges that they had ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

For the Obama administration, however, tangling with Maliki meant investing time and energy in Iraq, a country it desperately wanted to pivot away from. A few months before the 2010 elections, according to Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, “American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies.”

[…]

Finally, last Thursday, in what was widely interpreted as an invitation for Iraqis to push Maliki aside, Obama declared, “that whether he is prime minister or any other leader aspires to lead the country, that it has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shia and Kurd all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process.” Obama also noted that, “The government in Baghdad has not sufficiently reached out to some of the [Sunni] tribes and been able to bring them into a process that, you know, gives them a sense of being part of—of a unity government or a single nation-state.”

That’s certainly true. The problem is that it took Obama five years to publicly say so—or do anything about it—despite pleas from numerous Iraq experts, some close to his own administration. This inaction was abetted by American journalists. Many of us proved strikingly indifferent to a country about which we once claimed to care deeply.

The first sentence of the second paragraph gets right to the heart of the matter. Unfortunately, it’s surrounded by vague claims that somehow if Obama didn’t give Maliki a “free pass” Iraq would have better government. Because nothing would have increased Maliki’s authority like it being challenged by a country still occupying the country or something. The argument is just the purest green lanternism; Beinart can’t identify any specific source of leverage, it’s just that Maliki would be running a better government if Obama wanted him to because something, and if he won’t deliver Iraqis will replace him with someone more to Obama’s liking because look, balsa wood nuclear drones of terror!

Among the many fallacious assumptions of Iraq War supporters was their complete inattention to state power. Even supporters who weren’t naive enough to think that Iraq would be immediately transformed into a stable multiparty democracy seemed to have the misunderstanding that a strong, effective state is the natural order of things and the invasion of Iraq just transferred leadership of that state to someone better than Saddam at least. But that’s not how things work. Even if Maliki wanted to, he’s not in a position to just cut a deal with Obama and enforce it. Presiding over a very weak state, he’s reliant on various other actors to maintain some semblance of authority. It’s not at all surprising that this would result in a sectarian government, and this isn’t a fact that the American president can just will out of existence.

And that’s the hubris that affected Iraq war supporters then, and still affects Iraq dead-enders today. The idea that the course of another nation’s destiny is shaped by the verbal “invitations” of the president of the United States is bizarre, and tends to go along with the even worse idea that there’s nothing American guns and bombs can’t accomplish if one just wants to badly enough.

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