While violence in Iraq tends to increase in the summer months and appears far from a full-blown war at this point, any country’s descent into civil war is difficult to predict, and it often happens quite suddenly in reaction to a particularly violent or symbolic attack, Mr. Pollack said.
“The one concern the [Obama] administration has is if Iraq really tanks in the run-up to the election, then the decision to withdraw troops will be seen as a mistake,” he said.
Time for pressure
U.S. options are limited, but some experts say the administration should threaten to withhold assistance, including the shipment of military aircraft Iraq recently ordered, if Mr. Maliki doesn’t back down.
Kimberly Kagan, founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War, recently suggested that Mr. Obama invite Mr. Maliki and his Suuni and Kurdish counterparts to summit “somewhere in the West to hash this out.”
“If not, we will no doubt be treated to yet another series of visits by Iraqi leaders to Tehran as the Iranians again demonstrate their willingness to engage where Americans withdraw,” she wrote in a recent piece posted on the institute’s website.
Others argue that Mr. Maliki’s consolidation of power was inevitable, simply the result of one political faction gaining power over another, and the influence of Iran, Iraq’s northern neighbor, is impossible to avoid.
“Iraq is certainly one of those cases in which the winner, Maliki, tends to abuse the losers,” said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They may have coalitions of convenience. No Iraqi politician can avoid dealing with Iran. We compete for Iran just as do the southern Gulf states for influence in Iraq.”
As far as the Obama administration’s ability to convene the different sectarian factions for a meeting, Mr. Cordesman did not mince words. “Are you familiar with the phrase ‘snowball in hell?’” he said when asked about the prospect of such a gathering.
Mr. Pollack urged U.S. officials to exploit Iraqis’ interest in American public opinion polls.
Right after the military’s withdrawal, he argued, U.S. officials should have been opposing Mr. Maliki’s power grabs and voicing a more prominent set of internal Iraqi domestic infrastructure goals in areas like agriculture, education and reconstruction.
“Naming and shaming seems to matter a lot to Maliki and the Iraqi parliament,” Mr. Pollack said. “This is the perfect opportunity for us to urge al-Maliki to start reaching out and making concessions and trying to seek compromise.”
Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a 30-year Army veteran who served in Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia and is now a senior adviser at the National Security Network, argues that the U.S. had little choice but to pull out its troops because Iraq’s government no longer wanted them there.
But he believes the Obama administration could do a much better job in laying out a firm “carrot-and-stick” approach to dealing with the aftermath of the U.S. pullout. As soon as possible, and well before the November election, he would like to see the administration set goals to help give Mr. Maliki the incentive to reach out to opposing factions.