Reidar Visser: The Obama Administration, Iraq, and the Question of Leverage





[Reidar Visser, research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and member of the Gulf Research Unit at the University of Oslo, has a background in history and comparative politics (University of Bergen) and a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies (University of Oxford).]

With Barack Obama’s victory in the American presidential elections there are expectations of changes in US policy in Iraq, involving a substantial reduction of force levels. In the so-called Obama–Biden plan for Iraq, this is expressed as follows:

“The removal of our troops will be responsible and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government. Military experts believe we can safely redeploy combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of 1 to 2 brigades a month that would remove them in 16 months… Under the Obama-Biden plan, a residual force will remain in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al Qaeda in Iraq and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel. They will not build permanent bases in Iraq, but will continue efforts to train and support the Iraqi security forces as long as Iraqi leaders move toward political reconciliation and away from sectarianism…
Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that the U.S. must apply pressure on the Iraqi government to work toward real political accommodation. There is no military solution to Iraq’s political differences, but the Bush Administration’s blank check approach has failed to press Iraq’s leaders to take responsibility for their future or to substantially spend their oil revenues on their own reconstruction… As our forces redeploy, Obama and Biden will make sure we engage representatives from all levels of Iraqi society—in and out of government—to forge compromises on oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision of services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new elections, aid to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security forces.”

So, the US forces will withdraw in large numbers, but beyond that, and of interest to those who care for Iraq itself, can Obama realistically hope to achieve anything other than a unilateral withdrawal, such as the ambitious reconciliation aims outlined above? Much of the answer to this question has to do with the issue of leverage. In this regard, the Obama–Biden plan embodies several basic assumptions about the motives of the Iraqi leadership that were set forward more comprehensively in a report by the Center for a New American Security in June this year, authored by Colin Kahl, Michèle Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, and titled Shaping the Iraq Inheritance. Put briefly, the Democratic view is that Nuri al-Maliki has a strong desire to keep US forces a little longer in Iraq so that they can help him strengthen his position (by “rebuilding” the Iraqi army); accordingly the US should be in a position to offer an extended stay (or a “residual force”/more training and advisers) as some kind of bonus to Maliki. This theory is described in the report by Kahl et al. as “conditional engagement”.

What appears to be missing in these assumptions is an appreciation of some of what happened in Iraq in 2007. This is not to suggest that “the surge” was such a wonderful success. So far, no significant political institutional reform has materialised as a result of the decline in violence; without this kind of political reform “the surge” in itself is worthless because it is based on temporary stop-gap measures like an infusion of US troops and the bribing of armed militants. However, Nuri al-Maliki the person has been enormously strengthened by the surge. A year and a half ago, any suggestion that Maliki would be the next strongman of Iraq would be met by ridicule. Today, his emergence as a powerful figure with an increasingly independent position vis-à-vis his political coalition partners is an undeniable fact. The Iraqi army is stronger than at any point since 2003 and is becoming a potential tool of repression that many other authoritarian rulers in the region are envious of. And Maliki has rediscovered an ideological superstructure that is making him increasingly immune against criticism at home: using the language of centralism, Iraqi nationalism and at times anti-federalism, he has become independent enough to challenge even some of his longstanding coalition partners such as the Kurds and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

When it comes to the leverage of the next US administration in Iraq the question is not so much about the “objective” strength of the Iraqi army but rather about what Nuri al-Maliki perceives to be his room for manoeuvre. In that regard, he seems increasingly tied to a nationalist discourse of Iraqi sovereignty that takes a critical line with regard to foreign interference. Hence, it seems more and more likely that if faced with an Obama offer of “conditional engagement” Maliki's most likely response would be essentially that Iraq is an independent country which is not willing to be bullied into constitutional reforms at the behest of foreigners. He would be thankful to the Americans for their support their support so far in making him a strong ruler, but he would feel strong enough to decline the offer of extended support if this comes with too many strings attached: a SOFA, maybe, but no more than that. He might hope to see his electoral base boosted in local and parliamentary elections, or he could turn to the army and other security forces where he has an increasing number of friends. Failing that, he could always turn to Iran – it may be symptomatic in this regard that the pro-Iranian Daawa/Tanzim al-Iraq is part of Maliki’s new coalition for the local elections even if ISCI apparently plans to run separately.

What are the alternatives to “conditional engagement” in the Democratic camp? What if Maliki feels stronger than US politicians think he is? The Biden scheme of a grand compromise on federalism has few supporters in Iraq south of Kurdistan, although Iran might be interested in the regional aspect of a “Dayton-style” settlement where it might exploit the desire of Obama to mark a contrast to the Bush administration’s tough line. If Obama goes to the opposite extreme in terms of offering Iran a regional role, Iran would emerge stronger than ever and could use its influence with the Maliki government to effectively control oil reserves similar in scale to those of Saudi Arabia. However, other pro-Obama groups have worked out policy suggestions that are far better grounded in Iraqi realities than the schemes of Biden, for example the report Iraq’s Political Transition After the Surge by Brian Katulis, Marc Lynch and Peter Juul. But they, too, stake their entire argument on an assumption about the Maliki government’s perception that may turn out to be incorrect. Their thesis is quite the opposite of that of Kahl et al.: only the prospect of an early US withdrawal can focus minds on the Iraqi side and will force them to make compromises – not out of any altruistic motives, but because those in power supposedly will feel they need such compromises in order to survive in their current positions. Again, it seems likely that Maliki, who as early as in 2007 spoke of national reconciliation as something that had already been accomplished, may not see the need for any wide-ranging reform.

There are two other Iraq alternatives that have received only limited attention by Democratic policy-makers. The first one is exceedingly straightforward and would consist of singling out the 2009 parliamentary elections as the key to reform and Iraq’s last chance to repair itself (the new parliament would then appoint a more representative constitutional revision committee than the current one). The United States could focus all its energies on making those elections as inclusive and free and fair as possible, and in doing so would be quite immune against accusations of meddling in Iraqi affairs. The second alternative is more radical, and builds on the idea of an externally induced shock as well as exploiting US leverage where it still exists: Kurdistan. Political scientist Liam Anderson has earlier proposed an internationally guaranteed “autonomy plus” status for Kurdistan along the lines of the Åland Islands in Finland; by building on this idea one might also create a corollary involving Kurdish withdrawal from the constitutional process in the rest of Iraq, where much of the problem has been artificial alliances between the two biggest Kurdish parties and pro-federal Shiite politicians that enjoy only limited backing in the constituencies they purport to represent, and where what is needed is radical recalibration and constitutional reform directed by Iraqis who are more representative and who can offer resistance to the attempt by the Kurds to impose a pro-federal agenda on all of Iraq. Both these approaches come with the advantage that they are much more difficult for Nuri al-Maliki to simply reject and therefore also involve a greater degree of real US leverage.


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