Top Obama administration officials Thursday lauded Iraq's latest efforts to form new government and defended their intensive efforts to help push through the deal, even though their proposal was very different from the agreement that it appears Iraqi leaders have reached.
"We've worked very hard in recent months with the Iraqis to achieve one basic result, and that's a government that's inclusive, that reflects the results of the elections, that includes all the major blocs representing Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups, and that does not exclude or marginalize anyone," a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon. "And that's exactly what the Iraqis seem to have agreed to do."
The White House and the State Department have been walking a very fine line when talking about their involvement in Iraqi political negotiations. The administration has often stated that it does not seek to impose any specific solution on the Iraqis, but at the same time has been working behind the scenes on behalf of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, which received the most seats in Iraq's March parliamentary elections, but not enough to form a government on its own.
The United States has a direct interest in maintaining whatever influence it can in Baghdad as U.S. troops leave Iraq, in a bid to counter Iranian attempts to push Iraqi politics toward a more Shiite and religious bent. That's a tricky balancing act for the White House, which wants to claim credit for its involvement while simultaneously appearing neutral and keeping the responsibility of deal making in the hands of Iraqi politicians. The still-evolving agreement between all of Iraq's major political players would keep Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani in their posts, while allotting Allawi's Iraqiya slate the position of Speaker of the Parliament and the chairmanship of a new National Council on Strategic Policies. Saleh al-Mutlak, one of Iraqiya's most prominent figures, is also being floated as a potential foreign minister in the new unity government.
The New York Times reported Thursday afternoon that Allawi's slate walked out of Thursday's parliamentary session after failing to score a vote on a series of demands. But if the Iraqi politicians are successful in ironing out the details and forming their government, the Obama administration stands ready to endorse the deal. However, it doesn't want the credit for brokering the agreement.
"The most important thing about what happened in Baghdad today is that this is a government that is made in Iraq," the official said. "It was not the result of the influence or work of any outside actor, any outside country. The decisions that the Iraqis reached, they reached themselves. They negotiated very difficult issues themselves, and they came to an agreement."
In fact, however, top administration officials were deeply involved in the negotiations, especially toward the very end. The official spoke of personal efforts by Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffries and others. In recent days, Obama spoke personally with Talabani, President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Allawi (but not al-Maliki, notably).
The Washington Times revealed that Obama personally asked both Talabani and Barzani to cede the presidency to Allawi, a request that the Kurdish leaders flatly rejected. "And for the United States to be leaning on us, as they are now, in effect handpicking the new leaders of Iraq, is not respectful of Iraq's parliamentary system and touches on all of the insecurities of the Kurds, that the United States will once again betray us," Qubad Talabani, Jalal's son and the KRG's representative in Washington, told the Washington Times.
The senior administration official confirmed that Obama had floated the idea to the Kurds, but said it was only one of the various permutations put forth in the hope of convincing Allawi to join the new government.
"In the case of Iraqiya and Dr. Allawi, one of the things they had been saying for some time was an interest in the presidency after they gave up on what they believed was their right to be prime minister, which was a significant compromise by them," the official said. "And so we've had conversations, many of us, with Iraqis, exploring all of these different options. And one of the options certainly was for the Kurds to think about taking a position other than the presidency, which would have opened the presidency for Dr. Allawi."
Iraq experts praised the administration's efforts in the last few months of the negotiations, but lamented that it didn't always take into account the red lines of the parties, such as the Kurds.
"The level of U.S. engagement was not satisfactory in the early months of government formation, there was a sense of a hands-off approach. But by late summer, there was a clear sense of a need for more senior involvement," said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, managing director at the Institute for the Study of War.
"As the months went on, a number of Iraqis were requesting Washington take a larger role to help bring people together," she said. "I'm glad to see now that there does seem to be engagement at the most senior levels, although Biden's office has been engaged all along."
Sullivan criticized the tactic of asking the Kurds to give up the presidency, however, saying that the White House should have known that was a non-starter.
"By the time the White House asked Talabani to step down, the Kurds had already publicly stated they wanted to maintain the presidency and that made it impossible for Talabani to do what Obama wanted," she said.
Some analysts hailed the administration's attempt to retain as much influence in Baghdad as possible, contrasting it with the supposedly more laissez-faire approach of former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill.
"The Obama administration also deserves some props for finally getting down to business in Baghdad with a new ambassador focused on forming a government, eschewing the more hands-off posture of his predecessor," said Max Boot, writing on the website of Commentary magazine.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.