In the past two days, it has been strange, though not unexpected, to see the Obama administration reacting with little public interest toward the hospitalization of Jalal Talabani. On Tuesday, the Iraqi president reportedly died in a Baghdad hospital, although his heart started beating again, leaving him in a state of clinical death.
Talabani’s rise to the presidency of Iraq was a foundational moment in the post-2003 period in Iraq, and a triumph for the United States. But it’s a success that President Barack Obama is not particularly eager to highlight, he who built his election victory in 2008 on disillusionment with President George W. Bush’s Iraq war. Recall how Obama admitted in his much-admired Cairo speech in 2009 that Iraqis were “ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein,” before qualifying this by saying the war had also shown why diplomacy and international consensus were preferable.
Talabani, along with Massoud Barzani, the other principal Kurdish leader, knew this was nonsense. Had the United States awaited an international consensus over Iraq, Saddam Hussein would still be in power and Talabani still maneuvering to stay alive. Nor would he have been elevated to the presidency, an act affirming the transcendent irony of history. No one could fail to remark, when Talabani took that office, that if one thing was good about the Iraq war, it was that the victims were now in charge.
However, this seems lost on Obama, who views Iraq as an issue best walked away from. For a president engaged in a regional struggle for influence with Iran, or compelled to engage in that struggle, indifference to Iraq is incomprehensible. Iraq is the main battleground, a truism grasped far better by the Gulf states than by the country that removed Saddam Hussein in the first place. Rather, Obama’s primary war is with Bush’s legacy, and it is a rare contest to which this most standoffish of leaders seems deeply committed.
But it doesn’t stop at Bush. Today, the Iraqi armed forces and Kurdish Peshmerga face off against one another, principally because of their disagreement over disputed territories south of the autonomous Kurdish region, in areas around Kirkuk and Mosul. Among the reasons for this tension is oil, and the fact that the American multinational ExxonMobil is preparing to drill in the territory starting next summer, after reaching agreement with the Kurds.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opposes this, and has indicated that it would go to war to prevent it. Barzani, in turn, had underlined that, if attacked, the Kurds will defend themselves. Talabani mediated in the dispute. However, he is out of the game now, and only Washington (or perhaps Iran) has the means to negotiate a durable solution. But Obama is not keen to immerse himself in Iraqi affairs, even though ExxonMobil is an American company which would doubtless listen to the White House.
Obama may yet immerse himself in this knotty situation, if only to make up for having done so little initially to prevent ExxonMobil from coming to an understanding with the Kurdish authorities. American officials have also told the New York Times that the administration had not discouraged the company from drilling in 2013, even though U.S. diplomats have tried to reconcile the rival parties, proposing an arrangement that was turned down by Maliki and Barzani.
Talabani did gain American support for a deal whereby Maliki and Barzani would soften their rhetoric and agree to form a committee to propose security solutions for the disputed areas. However, this is at best a stopgap measure, one that leaves the hostility between Kurds and Arabs in northern Iraq largely untreated. For a more lasting settlement, Obama would have to get his hands dirty and put his personal prestige on the line. This the president has done only domestically, and even then with extraordinary caution.
That Obama’s minimalism over Iraq has brought on a succession of lost opportunities is well known. But is the president really prepared to let the situation fester in the country so that he may soon have to defuse an armed conflict between allies, albeit one far more ambiguous about America than the other? Perhaps the trashing of Bush’s Iraq policy is, deep down, what Obama desires. What better way to prove that the former president was utterly misguided?
For Talabani, these concerns may already be a thing of the past. It’s not likely that the 79-year-old president will make it back from the stroke he suffered, at least without dire ramifications if he does survive. For a Kurd who for a long time managed without the assistance of outsiders, indeed usually suffered from their unwanted interference, American aloofness is par for the course.
Yet Obama is missing an important message. Talabani’s rise to the Iraqi presidency was one of those things, everyone can agree, admirable about the American campaign in Iraq. It was a reversal of fortune of the kind we seem to be routinely praising today, with Arab despots being replaced by those whom they had persecuted.
The late Christopher Hitchens was thinking, among others, of Talabani when he made a presentation in February 2009 at the American University of Beirut, asking “Who are the real revolutionaries in the Middle East?” At this stage in his life, maybe the last stage, Talabani deserves better from Barack Obama. The U.S. president should praise the avatars of revolution in a region from which he has largely kept his distance.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.