Critical Decisions Ahead for the US, Iraq

Critical Decisions Ahead for the US, IraqCritical Decisions Ahead for the US, Iraq

The current visit to Washington by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi comes at a decisive moment for his country and the entire region. Any policy agreements reached could have fateful consequences, because like other stressed and fragile Arab states that suffer ideological and military conflict, Iraq’s internal condition and its external relations are intimately connected, Rami G. Khouri wrote in an article in the Agence Global on April 15.

Iraq is no longer mainly about Iraq, but also impacts conditions in five key neighbors: Syria, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Whether the impact will be positive or negative will be determined to a large extent by whether the United States and Iraq respond to Iraq’s basket of challenges, which are hard because they comprise multiple, interlocking sectoral issues and threats.

American and Arab governments in modern history have been total failures in this realm. The difference today is that the consequences of failure are so much more terrible: ISIS and Al-Qaeda-type groups threaten everyone near and far, while some Arab states may fracture into smaller entities and create a host of new problems.

The core, critical opportunity is about the capacity of the Iraqi government to shift the country into a mode of genuinely pluralistic constitutional democracy that treats its citizens equally, and provides them with opportunities for a life of wellbeing, citizen rights and dignity. The parallel opportunity for the United States is to compensate for its post-2003 criminal assault, occupation, manipulation and neglect that defined its actions in Iraq, and instead use its money and arms to work with Iraqis to restore a condition of national integrity and sustained development. Neither side can do these things alone; they must work together to avoid repeating the many critical mistakes of the last decade.

Washington must stop treating Iraq like a simple-minded delinquent that can only mature by copying American systems of governance and politics; it must also recognize the realities of Iraq’s geography, demography and history, which include close ties with Iran in many dimensions of life, and stop dealing with Iraq and Iran primarily as security issues.

The national leadership in Baghdad in turn must grasp that the country cannot forever call on the United States to provide troops and funds to keep it afloat and intact; it must urgently use American and other foreign aid in several spheres to re-establish the credibility, legitimacy and reach of the central government in the military, political and economic development arenas.

  four key Issues

This means that fragile conditions inside Iraq in four key spheres must be discussed in Washington: the military battle in Iraq against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a prelude to fighting ISIS in its Syrian home base; the unity of the Iraqi state; economic conditions in an era of collapsed oil prices and a severe national budgetary crisis; and, a pluralistic, inclusive governance system that is based on the equal participation of all its citizens, without predatory or vengeful sectarianism.

These issues can only be tackled simultaneously, and Abadi’s government has made some positive initial moves on all of them. The chain of linked achievements needed to restore Iraq’s integrity and wellbeing remains daunting. Fighting ISIS needs widespread military action by Iraqis in Sunni-majority areas. The government must convince all Iraqis that they will share equitably in developmental initiatives and state funds, while corruption that drains the national treasury is minimized. Defeating ISIS requires coordinating with Kurds, Iranians, Americans, Turks, and militarily active Arab neighbor states. If one of these elements is missing, the entire edifice needed to defeat ISIS and rebuild Iraq will never take shape.

Abadi has made some tangible progress on this difficult path, as evidenced by his cabinet formation, rebuilding some armed forces, the oil income-sharing agreement with the Kurds, and the battle to retake Tikrit from ISIS. Tikrit revealed the ability of the armed forces to push back ISIS when Iraqis work with Iran, the United States and neighboring states, on whom it remains heavily dependent in military terms; but it also exposed significant domestic sectarian tensions that still plague the country and threaten a truly national campaign to restore Iraqi sovereignty and integrity.

Arab and American governments have proven many times that they cannot walk and chew gum when it comes to transforming Arab countries from mismanaged and bankrupt family-run security states to well-governed inclusive democracies. The current opportunity to do this in Iraq is different, because of the dire threats from ISIS, the existential damage that is being done in Iraq by sectarian excesses, the capacity of fragile states to become fractured and failed states, and promising signs that the Abadi government understands what it needs to do.