Revitalizing the Partnership: The U.S. and Iraq a Year After Withdrawal
By Melissa Dalton, Visiting Fellow, and Dr. Nora Bensahel, Deputy Director of Studies & Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security
Reviewed by Michael W. Cotter
Prior to our military withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 the U.S. and Iraqi governments signed a Strategic Framework Agreement that set out certain mutual objectives. While the two sides were not able to agree on terms that would allow a residual U.S. military presence, we still maintain a large embassy in Iraq that includes a significant military element. Congress approved $1 billion in economic and other assistance in fiscal year 2012 and we have a $10 billion foreign military sales program with that country. The future course of the bilateral relationship nevertheless remains uncertain.
In this “policy paper” from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) the authors assess the current state of that relationship and offer suggestions for a “revitalized” strategic approach by the U.S. They succeed to a large extent in including most of the major issues that will affect the relationship in the future, and the paper is worth reading for that reason.
CNAS was established as a bi-partisan, objective viewer of U.S. national security issues, and the writers of this paper follow that policy carefully. But CNAS is a Washington think tank and studies like this suffer a bit from “establishment” biases. So while the paper is about “revitalizing the partnership,” the bottom line is to identify actions that maximize achieving U.S., not necessarily bilateral, objectives.
The analysis begins with the premise that the U.S. and Iraq actually have common objectives, a questionable assertion. The common objectives cited include a strong, sovereign Iraq that contributes to regional security and “helps to balance an ambitious Iran;” maintaining a unified Iraq; bilateral security cooperation; Iraq remaining “a valuable strategic partner for the U.S.;” and integrating Iraq into “the region’s security architecture.”
The premise of common objectives underlies the authors’ analysis and conclusions, but the facts as they are described suggest that the U.S. and Iraq define those objectives in radically different ways. Since the basic question of whether Iraq remains a unified state remains unanswered, it is probably premature to plan for a policy framework that assumes it. In fact, at the present time it is very difficult to define the “Iraq” that is the partner in the relationship. Kurdish Iraq is essentially independent at this point and the ability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government to speak for all Iraqis is very limited. Does “Iraq” want to balance Iran, be a strategic partner of the U.S., or have any desire to be integrated into a regional security architecture dominated by Sunni-led monarchies? Some Iraqis may share these goals, but many others oppose them.
To their credit, the authors, having first described these common objectives, then devote more attention to the challenges facing the U.S.-Iraq relationship: policies toward Iran, Syria’s civil war, and growing sectarianism in Iraq. Most of those challenges undermine the basic premise that many common objectives exist. Iraq’s policy toward Iran is unlikely to change as long as a Shi’a-dominated government rules in Baghdad. Nor is that government likely to abandon its support for the Assad government in Syria. And Iraqi sectarianism is the essential reason why it is unrealistic at this point in time to write about a “unified” Iraq.
Implicitly recognizing those facts, the revitalized strategic approach proposed by the authors really offers little that is new. The first recommendation to establish clear redlines for Iraqi actions that threaten U.S. interests actually is more of a threat than an effort to seek common policy ground. The next two engaging Iraqi national security leaders to “understand how they view threats and their regional role” and reforming the defense office in U.S. Embassy Baghdad are fairly anodyne. Presumably we are already engaging Iraqi national security leaders, and reforming our military mission bears little relation to building a productive relationship.
Finally, the authors recommend that we continue three current policy initiatives: strengthen communication and security cooperation with Iraqi military and the Kurdish regional government to reduce the risk of conflict; improve links between Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council; and increase intelligence cooperation with Iraq on al Qaeda groups operating in Iraq and Syria. All laudable, if difficult to implement, recommendations that offer nothing new for revitalizing the relationship.
These criticisms notwithstanding, this study is worth reading because it does succinctly describe the critical issues that must be resolved if the U.S. is to have a productive relationship with Iraq in the future. It is then up to the reader to consider whether the common interests cited outweigh the challenges facing the relationship.