Once he was a hero. Photographer: Amer Al-Saedi/AFP/Getty Images
 Once he was a hero. Photographer: Amer Al-Saedi/AFP/Getty Images

The resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has led critics of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy to insist that there is no longer any reason to withhold military assistance from Baghdad in its struggle against the jihadist group Islamic State. This blast from an editorial in this morning’s Wall Street Journal is typical: “With Mr. Maliki gone, so too goes Mr. Obama’s alibi for unseriousness.”

But this argument rests on the claim that the obstacle to successful multi-ethnic government in Iraq was Maliki himself -- not either the State of Law party he led, or the larger problem of ethnic separatism in a country invented by the U.K. between the wars. It’s useful to remember that the Kingdom of Iraq, as the British styled it, was torn by ethnic strife from its formation. The British put the Sunnis on the throne in 1933, and one of their first acts was to put down revolts by restless Shiites (and Yazidis).

A recent blog post at Foreign Affairs by Norwegian human rights activist Reidar Visser, although a bit overblown (he implies that Obama’s decision to intervene militarily is intended to bail out U.S. oil companies with interests there) contains several useful reminders about the views of Western observers toward Baghdad. In particular, Visser criticizes the U.S. for its “uncritical embrace of just about any force willing to challenge Maliki in the name of Sunnism.”

Forcing a more diverse government on Iraq, he argues, is no panacea for the nation’s ethnic strife. Pressure in this direction, he contends, often leads to worse results: “U.S. policymakers failed to see how their rush to accommodate ethno-sectarian demands actually deepened sectarianism and created the space for radical groups to thrive.” And he is openly skeptical that a more “inclusive” government will end the country’s ethnic divisions: “The United States and Iraq have tried throwing lots of factions together before, without much luck.”

Visser’s conclusion is stinging:

Obama declares that he does not want to be dragged into another Iraq war. But it is not like this war came from nowhere. It is, in fact, the same one that he tried to finish in 2010–11 by papering over glaring holes in the Iraqi government and then abruptly leaving. Iraq wasn’t fixed then, and probably won’t be until the United States fundamentally rethinks its policies, particularly how to balance perceived sectarian interests with broader national agendas in Iraq.

Sharp words, yes. And the piece is certainly worth a read. But there are holes in the argument. In particular, although Visser is quite good at setting out reasons that the creation of a more ethnically diverse government is unlikely to solve Iraq’s problems, he never gets around to telling us what to do instead. That’s the answer we need. Until we find it, the U.S. has little choice but to build with what exists.

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.