In June 2009 the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) released a position paper on what U.S. policy towards Iraq should be under the new administration entitled, “After the Fire: Shaping the Future U.S. Relationship with Iraq.” The two authors, John Nagl, a famous former Army officer, and Brian Burton argue that the U.S. should foster Iraq as a long-term ally in the Middle East. The problem is that the U.S. is pulling out, the American public has grown tired of the war, and there is a recession. The CNAS paper worries that short-term thinking will outweigh the long-term goal of the U.S. to have stability in the Middle East. Almost all of the paper’s recommendations however are already being implemented, so what it’s really about is asking for the status quo to be maintained in Iraq past the U.S. withdrawal.
The paper sees four major challenges for the U.S. in Iraq. First, is the increasing divide between Arabs and Kurds. As reported before, a recent journal piece in Middle East Policy argued that this dispute could lead to the fall of the government, become a new source of violence, and even break up the country. Second, is integration of the Sunnis, who still need to find their place in the new political order. Third, is whether Iraq will slide back to authoritarianism. As a paper by two United States Institute of Peace officials recently noted, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now at the center of Iraqi politics. His opponents are worried that he may become an autocrat. Finally, Iraq’s future is threatened by its over reliance upon oil, which provides almost all of its revenue. The economic downturn has affected Baghdad’s hopes for development, jobs, services, and maintaining the security forces to name just a few.
To meet these challenges and ensure that Iraq is a long-term ally, the CNAS paper suggests five strategies Washington should follow. To deal with the Arab-Kurd divide, the U.S. should act as mediators, and support the United Nations effort to resolve the disputed territories, especially Kirkuk. The U.S. is already trying to help talks between the two sides across northern Iraq, and has stepped in to stop military confrontations. The U.S. also backs the U.N.’s plans for the disputed territories. With regards to the integration of the Sunnis, the writers believe supporting elections is the best course of action. The U.S. has been largely unsuccessful pushing Baghdad to reconcile with the Sunnis, so backing free and open voting where Sunni parties can gain power is the best alternative. This is something Washington has done since 2005. The U.S. also needs to help Iraq diversify its economy. CNAS suggests agriculture should be cultivated. The last few Defense Department quarterly reports to Congress have said the same thing. The problem is that Iraq’s farm sector faces so many institutional barriers such as a lack of tariffs and government support, inadequate irrigation, etc. that it could take over a decade for it to recover. To prevent the return of an autocratic leader in Iraq, the two writers suggest supporting institutions and professionalism. The U.S. already has advisers throughout the Iraqi military and ministries. Washington should also emphasize that it stands behind the Iraqi government, and not just Maliki, something that the Obama administration has already done as well. Finally, to encourage Iraq as a long-term ally the U.S. needs to re-integrate it into the region, and foster more ties between Washington and Baghdad. Getting Iraq’s neighbors to accept the Shiite led government in Baghdad has proven more difficult than expected. Countries like Saudi Arabia have given Iraq a cold shoulder since the invasion. Turkey on the other hand has changed its policy and become much closer recently. Other steps could be bringing more Iraqi military officers and students for training and education in the United States. The authors also believe that the U.S. needs to keep both civilian and military advisers in Iraq past the 2011 deadline for a U.S. withdrawal of combat troops.
Almost everything that the CNAS paper advocates is already being done by the U.S. administration. It is working with the Iraqi government and military, it is trying to mediate internal disputes, it is helping with the economy, it is trying to bring its allies in the region to open up to Baghdad, etc. The only question is whether President Obama will be open to keeping up this support for Iraq after 2011. That’s what “After the Fire” is really about, trying to ensure that all of these programs are maintained into 2012 and beyond.
Anatolia News Agency, “Turkish general says MoU between Turkey and Iraq to contribute to peace,” Today’s Zaman, 6/12/09
Department of Defense, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” March 2009
- “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” September 2008
- “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” December 2008
Al-Hayat, “US ambassador to Iraq offers to mediate between Kurds, Arabs in Mosul – paper,” BBC Monitoring International Reports, 6/4/09
International Crisis Group, “Oil For Soil: Toward A Grand Bargain On Iraq And The Kurds,” 10/28/08
Kazimi, Nibras, “Iraq: Trouble for Maliki,” Hudson New York, 4/24/09
Nagl, John and Burton, Brian, “After the Fire: Shaping the Future U.S. Relationship with Iraq,” Center for a New American Security, June 2009
Serwer, Daniel and Parker, Sam, “Maliki’s Iraq between Two Elections,” United States Institute of Peace, May 2009
Stansfield, Gareth Anderson, Liam, “Kurds in Iraq: the struggle between Baghdad and Erbil,” Middle East Policy, Spring 2009
Williams, Timothy and al-Salhy, Saudad, “Allotting of Iraqi Oil Rights May Stoke Hostility,” New York Times, 5/29/09