It’s going to be cited a lot, so it’s worth taking a closer look at a quite lengthy opinion piece on US policy towards Iraq and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that recently appeared in The Washington Post.
The article is signed by Ali Khedery, one of the most prominent Americans of Iraqi origins to have served the United States government in Iraq between 2003 and 2010. Until now, Khedery’s role has been largely unknown outside policy-making circles, but his assertion that he at times became “the Iraqi leader’s go-to guy for just about everything” seems credible enough, especially given his Arabic language skills, which by his own admission formed something of a rarity and an exception among high-level US decision-makers in Iraq during the years of the Bush administration. Khedery also had particularly close ties to Maliki, described as going back before Maliki’s emergence as premier in 2006, and involving for example a prominent and personal role during Maliki’s visit to London in 2009 for purposes of urgent medical treatment.
Some valuable empirical information is certainly provided in the Khedery piece. We learn that not only did Maliki have the habit of working 16 hours a day during his early days as premier. Until 2009, apparently, leading US officials Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus reportedly were together with him for several hours “virtually every day”, strengthening the impression of a period of American tutelage during long periods of Maliki’s first term. Also, there is credible information in the Khedery piece about the key circles of American support for Maliki – consisting chiefly of Ambassador Chris Hill and Brett McGurk of the NSC, but also, crucially, at a key juncture in September 2010, of Vice President Joe Biden. Biden reportedly at one point in 2010 betted his vice presidency that Maliki was going to extend a US-Iraqi agreement that would have enabled American soldiers to stay in Iraq beyond 2011! Also, regarding the continuing debate over how the US ended up with Maliki as PM in the first place (i.e. in 2006), there is some new information that appears to differ slightly from what was revealed by Dexter Filkins in another recent review of US policy in Iraq: According to Filkins, it was an unnamed, Arabic-speaking CIA official who promoted Maliki’s candidature. According to Khedery it was himself and Jeffrey Beals, also both Arabic-speaking but in most sources referred to as political officers at the State Department rather than CIA. Unless one of them was indeed CIA there is some discordance between the two narratives.
However, other parts of the piece by Khedery are clearly misleading even when it comes to events that are well documented in open sources. This contributes to a sense of distrust regarding the overall reliability of the piece, and certainly raises questions about whether we can rely on Khedery as a key informant for events where the available source base may be limited.
Most of the more problematic comments by Khedery seem guided by a master narrative of Maliki, bad; Ayad Allawi (of the secular Iraqiyya) and Adel Abd al-Mahdi (of the Shiite Islamist ISCI), good. For example, regarding the extensive use of de-Baathification for political purposes prior to the March 2010 general election, Khedery writes: “He [Maliki] coerced Iraq’s chief justice to bar some of his rivals from participating in the elections”. This description of what happened comes across as disingenuous. For starters, the resuscitation of the de-Baathification issue in early 2010 was clearly driven by Maliki’s Shiite enemies who, with considerable Iranian assistance, had tried in vain to enlist him for their sectarian alliance during the previous summer. Among the newspapers that jumped on the de-Baathification propaganda bandwagon was the very Al-Adala, personally owned by Khedary’s progressive darling, Adel abd al-Mahdi. On the other hand, for his part, Maliki fought hard battles to retain his own candidates on the electoral ballots following attempts by de-Baathification hardliners to exclude them as late as days ahead of the March 2010 election. It was not really until after the elections that Maliki systematically tried to employ dirty tricks to change the result, as seen first and foremost in the attempt to disqualify seat winners after the result had been announced.
A second major theme where Khedery is tendentious concerns the ruling of the Iraqi supreme court from May 2010 that deemed post-election bloc coalescence (with a view to forming the next government following elections) a legitimate exercise under the Iraqi constitution. Many Americans have tried to portray this ruling as some kind of Maliki coup, but closer inspection of the relevant constitutional background materials suggests that the ruling was quite objective in addressing the limited constitutional ambiguity that existed. Many rulings of the Iraqi supreme court can be seen as politicized (perhaps more clearly so from 2011 and onwards), but the ‘largest bloc” definition ruling just isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, Khedery goes on to generalize from this ruling to a greater theme of “safeguarding the Iraqi constitution” from what is seen as constant encroachments by Maliki. Suffice to say in this context that, back in 2010, the only part of the government formation deal that was truly in conflict with the Iraqi constitution was the American-sponsored idea of a strategic policy council, created to accommodate another of Khederys’s friends – Ayyad Allawi.
The overly crude characterizations of the workings of the Iraqi judiciary continue in Khedery’s description of Maliki’s second term. Here, there is arguably more to pick on, but instead of focusing on some of the bluntest examples of judicial overreach that exist (such as the ruling on the independent commissions in January 2011) Khedery writes, “he [Maliki] did not abide by a law imposing term limits, again calling upon kangaroo courts to issue a favorable ruling.” In fact the veto of the term limits law was perfectly predictable with reference to past rulings of the Iraqi supreme court, which have consistently stressed the constitutional articles that say full legislative projects must go to parliament from the cabinet and/or president before they can be voted upon. One can agree or disagree with that orthodox reading of the Iraqi constitution, but in itself it is nothing new and the court was merely repeating itself rather than responding to some sort of Maliki concoction authored as an ad hoc measure after the law on term limits appeared.
Yet another theme that seemed biased in Khedery’s account concerns Sunni-secular representation in the Maliki government that was eventually formed in December 2010. Khedery describes this as “impressive sounding posts with little authority”. Well, those posts included some rather weighty ministries such as finance! In order to make sense of his own narrative, Khedery then conveniently flashes forward to the threatened arrest of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi right after the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, and then jumps further to the targeting of Rafi al-Eisawi, the finance minister, in late 2012. Between those events, however, there were junctures where things could have gone very differently in Iraqi politics if the US government had had the acumen to act in a more balanced way – between unlimited support for Maliki on the one hand and unrestrained kowtowing to the most radical voices among his enemies on the other.
Then, as if there is a need to amplify his story beyond empirical facts – and as if he doesn’t himself fully trust the persuasiveness of his own narrative – Khedery brings in some rather dubious expert witnesses whose presence in the story actually has the net effect of reducing Khedery’s own credibility as an objective chronicler. First, Khedery finds reason to mention the fact that “one stunned executive [apparently of the Council on Foreign Relations], the father of an American Marine, turned to me and asked, American troops are dying to keep that son of a b—- [Maliki] in power”? No, Khedery, one does not acquire some sort of higher monopoly on truth by fathering an American marine, although that kind of belief is not entirely unknown in the US. It would probably be no more difficult to find hundreds of executives with children serving in the US army who would be ready to use exactly the same kind of colourful language that was used about Maliki with reference to President Bush, Obama, or both! To make matters even worse, Khedery goes on to cite none other than Muqtada al-Sadr for his labelling of Maliki as a “tyrant”. And that was meant to buttress Khedery’s own argument along similar lines! Well, if Muqtada, the great democrat, says so, well surely it has to be true?
Things like these make it more difficult to evaluate other aspects of the Khedery piece that are not well known from previous accounts. What, for example, are we to make about allegations about Maliki’s supposed desire to flatten whole parts of Basra (“urging American airstrikes to level entire city blocks”) during the Charge of the Knights operations against the Sadrists in early 2008?
Generally speaking, Khedery paints a mostly positive or sympathetic picture of Maliki until Khedery himself left Baghdad in February 2009. However, when Khedery returned to Iraq on a special mission during the frenzy of government formation in autumn 2010, he had clearly changed his mind about Maliki and had only bad things to say about him. Instead, for this period, Khedery drums up a rosy image of Iraqiyya headed by Ayyad Allawi (“a moderate, pro-Western coalition encompassing all of Iraq’s major ethno-sectarian groups”). Apparently Khedery himself played a leading role in the attempt to make Abd al-Mahdi of the Shiite Islamist ISCI the PM candidate of Iraqiyya, as well as a bid to obtain approval from the highest clergy in Najaf for this kind of “nationalist alternative” (very secular indeed, that turn to Najaf).
Intriguingly, though, Khedery does not specify any single juncture or decisive event that made him change his mind about Maliki so radically. There is, however, a crucial little detail in his biography in the introduction that cannot and should not escape notice. Today, Khedery is “chairman and chief executive of the Dubai-based Dragoman Partners… In 2011, as an Executive with Exxon-Mobil, he negotiated the company’s entry into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq”. Now, that was quick: Khedery’s embrace of some of the most separatist forces among the Iraqi Kurds apparently materialized only months after his own resignation from US government service in Iraq in December 2010. A bit Kurdish separatism, courting the Shiite clergy in Najaf, promoting secularists cum Islamists: Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised about inconsistencies like these since Khedery already told us that the 11 September 2001 terror attacks played a key role in making him enlist for government service in Iraq, which in actual fact had nothing to do with those attacks?
The alternation between (and sometimes combination of) support for the Iraqi central government and Kurdish separatism is of course nothing new in American approaches to Iraq. In the past, the Obama administration supported Maliki as a leadership personality but never embraced his idea of a political-majority government, thereby contributing to an uneasy end result which at times looked paranoid and sectarian instead of stable and national. In the current political crisis, one can certainly get the impression that Washington is arming all sides at the same time: Nujayfi and Barzani feel boldened by frequent telephone calls from VP Biden, whereas Maliki undeniably gets empowered by US military assistance, regardless of exactly what the packaging says. Exactly like Khedery, the Obama administration employs a contradictive approach to Iraq based on unhelpful caricatures of the key Iraqi players. Until the underlying methodological issues here are sorted out, these contradictions are likely to persist, with unsatisfactory results accompanying any attempt by the United States to exercise political influence in Iraq.