“What coup?” you ask. “How could I have missed it?” No, you didn’t exactly miss it; it’s just that the media didn’t call it a coup, describing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s losing struggle to stay in power as Middle East politics-as-usual. But the event was something more than that. As I see it, the Obama administration, frustrated with its man in Baghdad, decided, probably weeks ago, that Maliki would have to go and then set about pressuring various parties to bring about that outcome. The administration also anointed his successor, Haider al-Abadi, whom Iraq’s parliament nominated to replace Maliki. As the New York Times reported August 11, both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden called Abadi to congratulate him and offer full support, even though Maliki still has a month to go before he must step down.
The chief political question in Iraq in the last week or so had been which coup, Maliki’s or Obama’s, would prevail? Maliki reportedly was planning to keep power by deploying loyal special forces and militia to Baghdad. But he was no match for the forces arrayed against him: Iraq’s army, whose leadership refused to join in a coup; many of Maliki’s Shiite allies, who abandoned support of him; the parliament, where Maliki did not have the votes to stay on; and the Obama administration, which threatened to stop aid to Iraq unless Maliki stepped down. He angered the administration by refusing to bring Sunnis and Kurds into a new coalition, undermining the US effort to confront the Islamic State’s (formerly ISIS) military advances.
The US was not just another player in the effort to remove Maliki. After all, Washington has made a huge investment in lives and treasure to preserve its interests in Iraq—access to its oil, defeat of terrorist groups, and prevention of disintegration and possible federalization of the country. Someday I am confident that we will have documents that show the calculated US plan to get rid of Maliki—a coup by any other name. One piece of evidence of US planning that has come to light is a cable from the main State Department officer concerned with Iraq, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk. On his Twitter feed, McGurk wrote: “Fully support President of Iraq Fouad Masoum as guarantor of the constitution and a nominee who can build a national consensus.” Masoum followed the US script by supporting Abadi.
No one should be surprised by the US interest in running a coup to eliminate a leader it had courted and supported since 2006. From the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam to that of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, removing another country’s leader when he no longer serves US purposes has ample precedent. Sometimes this happens by assassination, as with Diem: the White House gives the green light to the actual coup leaders. At other times, as in the Philippines, the White House endorses the local military’s use of pressure to force the leader’s exit. In Iraq today, the tactic chosen by Washington was to state repeatedly that it had lost confidence in the prime minister and “urged” Iraqi politicians to come up with another guy. The fact that Maliki had been supported by two US administrations no longer was relevant. Obama preferred another candidate, and essentially announced that the US would not try to save Iraq with more military aid, air strikes, and advisers so long as Maliki remained in office. Once Maliki’s ouster was assured, the administration announced that another 130 advisers were being sent to Iraq, raising the US military presence to around 1,000.
Many years ago President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said of Chiang Kai-shek, whose antics were under fire in Washington, that “he may be a son of a bitch, but at least he’s our son of a bitch.” That view saved Chiang from a coup, but it wasn’t enough to save Maliki. Not that Maliki deserves to stay in power. Quite the opposite: he is widely regarded as corrupt and dictatorial. But my point is that his future was for the Iraqis alone to decide. By becoming the central actor in his removal, and in the designation of Maliki’s successor, the US has once again increased its stake in Iraq and accepted anew all the perils that accompany intervention in a highly unstable political and military environment.