The circumstances surrounding Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's visit to Washington this week could not be more different from the last time he was in town. In July 2006, Maliki was largely unknown, both in Iraq and in the West, and lacked a constituency. Today, he is the dominant force in Iraqi politics, has consolidated much of the emerging Iraqi state into his own hands, and has won a measure of democratic legitimacy after January's provincial elections. In 2006, with Iraq on the verge of state failure, it was Maliki's indecisiveness that troubled Washington. Today, with his country emerging as a sovereign power, his assertiveness is what's worrying.
Three months before his last visit, Maliki had been chosen as prime minister precisely because he seemed weak. Iraq's first elections under the new constitutional order were held in December 2005, yet the negotiations to form a government stretched on for months. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the majority coalition of Shiite parties, was unable to agree on a candidate for prime minister.
The face-off between the two dominant blocs in the coalition -- the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrists -- produced gridlock, each group refusing to accept the other's preferred candidate. Maliki was chosen as a compromise candidate to resolve the impasse. A career Dawa Party operative who had spent decades in exile, Maliki was viewed as a threat to no one, without a popular base, lacking a militia, and unable to exert control even over UIA members.
In 2006, Iraq's new political order was bankrupt. Violence raged following the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in February 2006. There was no "state" to which Iraqis could be loyal, nor one they could be confident would even be around a month or a year later. Shiite militias, often wearing government uniforms, ran amok, driving Sunni families from their homes, and murdering and extorting the Iraqi people. Al Qaeda operated with ease and near impunity.
U.S. officials, most notably National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley in an internal memo leaked to the press in November 2006, complained that Maliki was weak and indecisive and could not stand up to violent actors, even those to which he was politically connected such as the Sadrists and other Shiite militants. But that was only half of the story. The state Maliki commanded faced a profound crisis of legitimacy and was no match for the maelstrom of violence.
What changed the equation were primarily the U.S. troop surge and the accompanying shift in U.S. policy. Although much has been made of the United States' improved counterinsurgency approach, the most meaningful change was more elemental: The United States shifted its primary goal from transitioning control of Iraq to the Iraqis to taking the lead in establishing security itself. The United States decimated Maliki's enemies, the insurgents and militias who were tearing Iraq apart. The Iraqi Army, trained and constructed by the United States, improved in confidence, capability, and cohesion.