TIME Foreign Policy

How We Got Here: Assessing Culpability for Iraq

Maliki gets most of the blame, but the last two U.S. presidents deserve some, too

There is plenty of blame to go around for Iraq’s current troubles. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has to shoulder the most responsibility as his nation collapses around him. But two U.S. presidents have their share, too: George W. Bush for invading in the first place, and Barack Obama for not fighting hard enough to maintain a U.S. troop presence post-2011, according to military strategists.

“We got out too early,” retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, who served as chief of U.S. Central Command, which includes Iraq, says flatly.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may be so brutal it gets kicked out of al-Qaeda, but Maliki is no prize. He has repressed the Sunnis and Kurds, promoted Shi’ite officers in the Iraq military who didn’t warrant higher rank, and refused to share power. He used Iraqi security forces to attack peaceful Sunni protests and sidelined the Sunni Sons of Iraq that played an important role in bringing peace to Anbar province.

“Maliki was primarily concerned not with the military situation, but with his own political power,” says Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He was deeply concerned that if we had stayed he wouldn’t be able to hold together what he thought he had done during 2010 and 2011, which was put virtually all of the instruments of state power under the authority of the prime minister’s office.”

A retired Army officer who served in Iraq agrees. “We made a mistake in not maintaining a security guarantee with the Iraqi government to keep security advisers and airpower there, which obviously would make short work of this insurgent challenge,” John Nagl says. “Had we maintained a small security presence of less than 10,000 troops, the sort that we ought to be planning to maintain in Afghanistan for the indefinite future, Iraq would still be together.”

But didn’t the Obama Administration’s failure to secure a status-of-forces agreement immunizing U.S. troops from Iraqi law doom the deal? “We could have pushed a whole lot harder to get the SOFA,” Nagl says. “An American troop and airpower commitment would not just have served as a check on insurgent ambition, but would also have served as a lever with which to move Maliki,” he adds. “We removed both the carrot and the stick, in an unforced error.”

“Maliki is doing the same thing in Iraq that [Mohamed] Morsi did Egypt,” Zinni says. “When I did the assessment in Iraq in the middle of the war [for the U.S. government in 2008] I could see that when Maliki was coming in. Everybody in the country—even the Arabs—were saying ‘Maliki’s the wrong guy—he’ll mouth the words now, but he’ll be totally Shia and won’t be inclusive.’ He made two mistakes: He didn’t bring enough Sunnis into his government—he didn’t distribute the resources well—and he controlled everything from Baghdad. There needed to be more provincial and district distribution. He needs a lesson in Governance 101.”

There’s not much the U.S. can do militarily to help, says Stephen Biddle, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised the Pentagon on Iraq strategy. “We can help at the margin, but we’ve let the horse out, and we’re trying to shut the barn door now,” he says. “What would have helped the most is if we hadn’t pulled the troops out in ’11.”

So who’s responsible for that? “The Obama Administration bears a lot of responsibility for this,” Biddle says. “So do Iraqis. But we don’t control them as much as we control us.”

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