A day after the final U.S. convoy leaves Iraq, out comes the arrest warrant for Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tarek al-Hashemi. Hashemi, naturally, is accused of being a terrorist.

The U.S. has its largest overseas diplomatic presence in Iraq. If it is to do anything useful at all, it has to convince Prime Minister Nouri Maliki not to arrest his vice president. I have no idea if Hashemi is guilty. But if Hashemi gets thrown in jail, it tells Iraq’s Sunni minority that they live in a predator state. It will not take much from there to convince the Sunnis that violence is an appropriate political choice. And that is precisely the kind of downward spiral that the embassy is supposed to prevent or mitigate.

It’s ironic. We went through years of domestic debate about how setting a date for withdrawal would lead insurgents to wait the U.S. out. But it turns out it was actually Maliki who was waiting the U.S. out.

Something to watch in the future. Among the Washington crowd that follows Iraq, there’s something of a debate about what U.S. strategy after withdrawal ought to be. One side says that the U.S. ought to treat Iraq foremost as a country in and of itself; another side considers Iraq important primarily as a battleground between U.S. and Iranian influence. Neither side really wants to be in opposition to the other. It’s more a question of primacy for strategy: should the U.S. prioritize Iran or Iraq when answering the question “What do we do about Iraq?” (By the way: this doesn’t break down along your typical conservative/progressive axis. Fred and Kim Kagan, for instance, favor viewing Iraq-qua-Iraq.)

Notice what follows from this. If the U.S. cares primarily about Iraq, then it will see a first-order priority in stopping Maliki from becoming a new Mubarak or Saleh. If it cares primarily about Iran, then it will see Maliki’s dictatorial tendencies as a cost of doing business on Iran. That’s not to say that the U.S. will be successful however it answers the question. It’s merely to spell out what follows from what. One day after the war “ends,” it’s time for Obama to choose.

Photo: Flickr/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff