US Foreign Policy

The Future of US-Iraq Relations

in Program

By Ellen Laipson – The official relationship between the United States and Iraq is in transition, governed by the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), which provides the broad architecture for the future.  After a long period of a security-driven relationship, diplomats and private citizens in both countries will now play a more important role in advancing cooperation on matters of mutual interest, such as food security, environment, education, and health.

The recent past will surely continue to cast its shadow.  In both countries, the legacy of the war of 2003 and beyond makes it hard for some citizens, politicians, and soldiers to imagine a “normal” productive relationship.

Some Iraqis focus on the end of the American military presence as a sign of Iraq’s independence and sovereignty, while others recognize that American engagement, political support, and technical assistance will be vital as Iraq continues to develop a new political culture and institutions. Iraqis are likely to remain divided about the value and impact of the US decision to oust Saddam Hussein; some will see it as a tragedy that has created lasting harm to Iraqi society and to regional stability.  Those views will help shape the public debate inside Iraq about relations with the United States. 

For US public opinion, the legacy of the war and the US occupation of Iraq may create pressures on US policy.   Not all returning veterans and politicians will embrace the notion of US-Iraqi friendship and cooperation.  For the US policy community, some want to strengthen US efforts to rebuild Iraq’s civil society and infrastructure, while others feel that Iraq’s problems cannot dominate the US agenda, and that lasting solutions to those problems must come from the Iraqis themselves.  This debate reflects a difference in views about America’s role in Iraq: are we still the midwife of Iraq’s new political culture, or is it better to pull back and engage with Iraq in a more “normal” state-to-state fashion.  As Iraq’s oil revenue becomes a reliable and growing source of income, it is expected that Iraq will finance many of its reconstruction and security activities.

Areas of promising civilian cooperation include:

  • Agriculture, water, and food security 
    After decades of war and sanctions, Iraq needs to rebuild its agriculture sector and adapt new technologies to Iraq’s water-scarce environment.
  • Education and professional training
    Programs are a high priority for the Iraqi government, which is funding scholarships for Iraqis to study abroad, in partnership with US non-government organizations that are designing programs for Iraqi scholars in fields such as engineering and geosciences.
  • Energy
    Iraq hopes to expand its oil production significantly beyond the current 2-3 million barrels a day, and needs an infusion of technical support to develop a more modern and robust oil infrastructure.  The legal and regulatory framework for non-Iraqi participation in the energy sector, however, remains a source of political sensitivity.
  • Health
    Priority is to address the acute and chronic health needs of the Iraqi population derived from the decline in public health services over years of sanctions, neglect, and war.
  • Science and technology 
    Iraq could become a leader in the region as it rebuilds its once impressive scientific community.  Iraqis are engaged in the full spectrum of science disciplines, with some experts advising them to focus on climate change and water issues where the need for scientific inputs to public policy decisions is great.

Over time, the US-Iraq relationship may stabilize into a mutually beneficial collaboration across a range of bilateral and regional concerns.  The relationship may not be an “alliance” in the formal sense, but the concept of a strategic partnership might be a desirable goal: a partnership between Washington and a country of regional stature which shares both immediate and long-term interests and objectives. 

Iraqi leaders across the political spectrum would need to agree that a strategic partnership was desirable and in Iraq’s interest to reach that goal.  Iraq would need to be more successfully re-integrated into the Middle East and Arab world system.  Most importantly, Iraq’s foreign policy and security community would need to be able and willing to work with the United States on regional issues: managing the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and its hegemonic ambitions while maintaining a non-adversarial relationship with Tehran; participating in Arab world fora while serving as a bridge to Turkey and Iran; working cooperatively with regional and US militaries to create a more effective regional security environment; and coordinating responses to regional problems from terrorism to natural disasters or conventional conflict.

Equally important for a US-Iraq strategic partnership is greater clarity about American strategic aims for the region.  How the US develops its policies towards Iran and towards the enduring challenges of Palestine, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, political reform in the Arab world, among others, will shape Iraqi perceptions and affect US views of Iraq’s role in the region.  While uncertainties abound, this relationship is likely to be a priority for both countries for the foreseeable future.  Building sectoral and institutional ties in and out of government, and continuing a strategic dialogue on regional issues will help establish the basis for a sustainable and productive relationship.

Read the full report:

     English Version

     Kurdish Version

     Arabic Version

Ellen Laipson is the President and CEO of the Stimson Center and directs the Southwest Asia/Gulf project.

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