Did Biden Screw Up Iraq?

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Vice President Joe Biden eats lunch with U.S. soldiers at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq on July 4, 2010. Biden became President Barack Obama's point person on Iraqi strategy, and worked closely with Iraqi officials and American political and military leaders to develop U.S. policy in the country throughout his presidency. Josef Sywenkyj/Redux

The debate over America's Iraq War legacy has already cropped up on the 2016 campaign trail, burning candidates like former Governor Jeb Bush. But that's just a taste of the fight that could flare up if President Barack Obama's point man on Iraq launches a run for the White House.

The president hadn't even been inaugurated when his vice presidential running mate, Joe Biden, touched down in Baghdad in January 2009. In a meeting with General Ray Odierno, commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Biden made clear what the hierarchy would be in the new Democratic administration. When it comes to Iraq, "I remember [Biden] saying, literally, 'I will always be the last guy in the room advising the president,'" recalls Ali Khedery, a political adviser to Crocker at the time. A second official who was there when Biden made the remark confirmed the account to Newsweek but declined to speak on the record.

At the time, the United States was buffeted by a debilitating financial crisis, one that would draw virtually all of the new president's attention. Yet Obama believed "Iraq needed high-level, sustained focus from the White House," he told a gathering of senior officials at a February 2009 meeting in the White House, according to Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, then Biden's national security adviser. Turning to the vice president, a longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who had been deeply engaged in the war, he declared, "Joe, I think you're the best person to do that."

In practice, that has meant Biden overseeing regular Cabinet meetings on Iraq, visiting Iraq eight times (all prior to 2012) and making innumerable phone calls to all the major Iraqi leaders. Ambassador James Jeffrey, who served as the U.S. envoy in Iraq between August 2010 and June 2012, tells Newsweek that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both secretaries of defense and the president's national security advisers "frequently dealt with me, and I dealt with them. But at the end of the day, the guy who would decide on most of the operational decisions was Biden."

Today, Iraq is a mess. The terrorist group ISIS operates across large swaths of the country after storming through northwest Iraq in 2014; while a lack of basic services like electricity has prompted rolling protests by average Iraqis. Iraq's dramatic deterioration, after the country seemed to have been on the right path at the beginning of the decade, has prompted some partisan finger-pointing this year. Republicans have tried to pin the blame on Clinton, the Democrats' 2016 front-runner, who headed up the State Department between 2009 and 2013. Democrats, meanwhile, are blaming former President George W. Bush (and by extension, his brother, Jeb), as well as other Republicans who were cheerleaders for the 2003 invasion, which created the power vacuum in Iraq.

The scrutiny has yet to land on Biden, who is mulling a bid for the Democratic nomination in 2016, spurred on by Clinton's summer of stumbles. Yet were he to run, the vice president would be the one candidate who really owns Iraq policy, for good or for ill. As Robert Ford, the deputy ambassador at the Iraqi Embassy from 2008 to 2010, puts it, " The vice president has more than a little responsibility in all of this."

But in such a messy part of the world, can Biden really be blamed for the political and security failures that enabled the rise of ISIS? On this point, there is a fierce divide among senior Iraq hands. And the debate focuses, most intensively, on American actions over the course of 2010, when a contested parliamentary election in Iraq led to a nine-month political standoff.

Ultimately, the Iraqis formed a new government that returned incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, head of a religious Shiite party, to leadership, despite deep misgivings about his consolidation of military power and sectarian tendencies. As Ford recalls, during 2009 and 2010, "I was regularly sent in to talk to Maliki's chief of staff about people who had helped us against Al-Qaeda that Maliki's police forces…were holding without charges and were in some cases abusing."

Those concerns have been borne out. Since the United States withdrew its troops at the end of 2011, Maliki has gone after senior Sunni politicians on trumped-up charges, cracked down on Sunni protests, abandoned efforts to integrate Sunnis into the military and otherwise alienated this significant, if minority, ethnic group—the same one whose insurgency last decade led to some of the bloodiest years of the Iraq War. As retired General David Petraeus, the former U.S. commanding general in Iraq, testified in a Senate hearing last month: "The cause of Iraq's unraveling" was the Maliki government's "corrupt, sectarian and authoritarian behavior." That "created the conditions for the Islamic State to reconstitute itself in Iraq, after which it gained additional strength in the Syrian civil war."

There was a period of time in 2010, however, when it wasn't clear Maliki would remain in power. In a major upset, Maliki's State of Law party won two fewer seats than the secular Iraqiya party headed by another Shiite, Ayad Allawi, in the March vote. To critics, this was the turning point when the U.S. should have stepped in and helped Iraqis form a new government, sans Maliki. Khedery calls it "the most crucial period in this administration's Iraq policy, because it was a historic moment where we could have gone down two paths, and some of us desperately tried to go down the correct path, the path that would have respected the Iraqi Constitution and the election results." Everything that's happened since is a direct outgrowth of U.S. leaders' failure to act, Khedery and other critics say.

But defenders of the vice president say the United States didn't have that kind of control over the situation. "The diplomacy in that period was as intense as anything I've seen," Blinken says. "We were pressing not for any individual but for an outcome in Iraq that led to inclusive, nonsectarian government.... Ultimately, the people that emerged did not do justice" to that vision.

Maliki quickly lined up with another Shiite party in a coalition, which he claimed gave him the right to form a government, despite real questions around whether that comported with the Iraqi Constitution. A judge, widely considered to be in Maliki's pocket, ruled it did. But Maliki still didn't have enough support to claim a majority in parliament. So he, in effect, just sat there. On the American side, one former senior U.S. official tells Newsweek that Chris Hill, the U.S. ambassador through mid-2010, "decided early on that it should be Maliki." Hill and a handful of senior advisers in the embassy "went to the vice president and convinced Blinken and Biden" of that as well.

Blinken disputes that the U.S. "put our thumb on the scale." The reality was Maliki "had the most support." Allawi, he notes, was also "trying to see if he could garner the support to form a government" during the stalemate. "The bottom line is, he couldn't."

Beneath the dueling accounts lies a disagreement over the nature of Iraq's ethnic divisions, and just how rigid they really are. According to Emma Sky, Odierno's political adviser at the time, Biden's "perception was that it's all about ancient hatred" between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, she says, ignoring Iraq's multiethnic history. Pointing to a 2010 poll commissioned by the National Democratic Institute, an American nonprofit, Sky notes that Iraqis actually were expressing a strong desire to move beyond sectarian politics. "'No to religious parties,' that was the mood at the time."

Sky's outlook on the election, shared by Ford, Khedery and several foreign ambassadors and military officials, clashed directly with that of other American diplomats, including Ambassadors Hill and then Jeffrey. Hill, now at the University of Denver, did not respond to Newsweek requests to comment. But in his 2014 memoir, he wrote, "I concluded we needed to focus on a better Maliki than he had been in his first four-year term, rather than engage in a quixotic effort to try and oust him." Hill took a dim view of Allawi, believing that despite being Shiite, he could not win the support of his fellow Shiites (roughly 60 percent of Iraq's population), given that Allawi's party was majority Sunni.

Says Jeffrey, who succeeded Hill in 2010: "Whether we like it or not, you had a Lebanon-like system emerge from Iraq by the fall of 2004…where all the religious ethnic groups ran as blocs.

"The obvious way to divide up the goodies was a Kurdish president, a Shiite prime minister from the religious Shiite parties and a Sunni speaker of Parliament," he continues, "and that's how it's been ever since." Jeffrey says the American policymakers entertained the idea of helping negotiate a political deal to put another religious Shiite at the country's helm, but couldn't find anyone that the various factions—Shiite, Sunni and Kurd—would rally around.

Had the U.S. tried such a tact earlier, however, it may have been more successful, suggests one foreign diplomat in Baghdad at the time. As Maliki struggled to gather support during the early summer months, "I remember having conversations with senior American officials" that "this was the moment we should pick somebody else." The situation was still very fluid, and the thinking was other Shiites would go along with such an arrangement, based on a general distaste for Maliki. In the end, "we don't know, because we never tested it," he says. Critics also point out that Maliki came from virtual obscurity to emerge as prime minister in 2006. The potential leadership ranks didn't need to be limited to just a handful of well-known men.

By the end of summer, however, alliances were hardening, and the clock was ticking. The message coming from Washington, Hill recounted in his memoir, was one of deep anxiety about the impending 2011 deadline for American troops to leave Iraq, under a deal that had been negotiated by President Bush. The U.S. military and the Obama administration were keen to keep a smaller force in the country past 2011, but "we needed somebody to negotiate with, we needed a parliament, and we didn't have either," Jeffrey recalls. "And so Biden, I, the president and everybody involved decided that if the Iraqis...couldn't find another prime minister, then it was Maliki or nobody."

Proving this sort of counterfactual argument—if the United States had pressured Maliki out of government in 2010, then there would be no ISIS today—is virtually impossible. We don't know, as Biden's defenders point out, whether another Shiite leader would have governed similarly to Maliki, fueling Sunni angst. Iraq, it's safe to say, is not exactly teeming with statesmen these days. Political campaigns, however, have never let a lack of hard evidence hamper their attacks.

As Maliki's second term unfolded and tensions began building, "the vice president spent endless hours and time trying to prevail on the leadership, starting with the prime minister, to govern...in a truly inclusive manner," says Blinken. Ultimately, it didn't happen; in fact, it may have already been futile. It certainly doesn't help Biden's case that even before 2010, there were a range of voices—foreign policy experts, not partisans—warning Washington about Maliki, predicting many of the things that have come to pass in Iraq. In a 2016 political campaign where concerns about ISIS loom large, that's a problem.

Did Biden Screw Up Iraq?