Now, let me briefly describe a scenario that recently played out in Iraq:
A leading Sunni Arab political figure was charged with terrorism-related offenses by a Shia Arab-led government. Rhetoric escalated on all sides and a group of lawmakers walked out of the parliament, grinding the political process to a halt and sparking fears of a return to sectarian war.
If all of this sounds familiar, it should—it happened in the summer of 2007, when Culture Minister Asaad Kamal al-Hashemi, not to be confused with Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, was accused of ordering the assassination of a fellow politician.
Now, as all of you know, a very similar series of events occurred in the wake of our troop withdrawal late last year. Iraqi Vice President al-Hashemi, and members of his security detail, were charged with terrorism-related offenses.
The rhetorical brickbats began to fly. The Iraqi government inflamed the already tense situation by televising confessions from some of Hashemi’s guards. The predominately Sunni Arab Iraqiyya bloc walked out of the parliament and the Council of Ministers.
Once again, we heard dire predictions of an imminent civil war—and breathless, baseless accusations that American disengagement, or the absence of our military forces, was to blame.
Here is the reality.
The standoff sparked no increase in violence. The political process continued, with the parliament maintaining a quorum. Iraqi leaders, convened by President Talabani and others, continued to negotiate across the partisan and sectarian divide. And an independent judicial panel was formed to review evidence against the accused.
Meanwhile, our Embassy worked relentlessly with all sides to prevent escalation. And senior Washington officials, including the Vice President, made near-daily phone calls to Iraqi leaders urging calm; respect for the rule of law and Iraq’s constitution; and support for the political process. Gradually, the tension defused and the crisis abated.
In the end, the main difference between these two episodes was that in 2007/2008, the boycott lasted eight months – at a time when the United States had more than 150,000 troops on the ground. In 2012, we had no troops on the ground, and the boycott ended after less than two months.
I provide this extended comparison because it offers context that has largely been missing from the public discourse on Iraq since the war ended.