US Foreign Policy

How its Arab neighbours can help to build the new Iraq

in Program

The Obama administration has made Iraq’s reintegration into the region one of the cornerstones of its Iraq policy. It is naturally linked to US hopes for stability in Iraq – a country that has normal trade and political relations with its neighbours, and a friendly foreign policy in which no single external power dominates the country or influences its people.

Such an Iraq would not pose a threat to its neighbours and could be a constructive player in regional forums. Success will be determined not only by Washington’s efforts, but equally by Iraq’s ability to develop a coherent and constructive foreign policy, and the willingness of its Arab neighbours to accept the realities of the new Iraq and to pursue “normal” relations with Baghdad.

Washington may discover that it can help Iraq by engaging more with the rest of the region, not through “to-do” lists related to Iraq but through more balanced attention to the concerns of the other Arab states, including Iran’s rising confidence and the enduring failure to resolve the Palestine question. Then there is the cluster of increasingly preoccupying transnational problems, such as water and food availability, demographic pressures and their job creation requirements, and the demands for more effective governance, which animate civil society in the region.

A broad agenda that finds common purpose among the regional states, including Iraq, might be a smarter way to achieve reintegration. It might be wise to focus on some of the transnational problems that have less political sting: region-wide programmes that promote information sharing and technical training on water, climate change or infectious disease, for example, can build trust among experts and slowly shift popular perceptions about Iraq. More assistance to Iraqi refugees, particularly in Jordan and Syria, could give hope for their possible return and reduce friction and resentment at the local level and between capitals.

At one level, the reintegration of Iraq is a component of America’s Iran policy. The United States believes that one way to avoid Iraq becoming too close to Iran is to ensure that Iraq has many friends and partners in the region. Iraq should be included in the periodic discussions about Iran with visiting American officials (its interests are not that different from those of the Gulf states) to avoid too much Iranian influence in cultural and religious matters, and to manage the state-to-state relationship in the context of an asymmetry of size and power. Yet the return of Iraq to the Arab fold should have its own logic and be independent of Washington’s Iran policy, since many uncertainties abound.

So how do the Iraqis approach the question of integration? Some of the signs are encouraging. There is a more natural flow of transactions between bilateral counterparts, such as meetings of trade or border officials, than there were a few years back. Iraq now has the confidence to offer to host meetings in Baghdad, although the neighbours are still skittish about security conditions. Official Iraqis seem to bristle at the notion that integration is an American project: it should happen in an Arab context, in an Arab way. Some subtle prodding by American diplomats in the region may still be helpful, but US officials need to step back when Iraq and its neighbours agree to convene on a regional problem.

The longer-term contours of Iraqi foreign policy are not yet clear. As the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, consolidates his power, the role of the foreign minister in leading foreign policy and helping set priorities could be affected. For several years, while the politicians were preoccupied with internal matters, the congenial Kurdish foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, was able to promote a consistently pro-western stance for Iraq and worked to restore Iraq’s independence and national pride.
As power shifts and evolves in Baghdad and among key groups in Iraqi society, it is possible that the tone and content of Iraq’s formal foreign policy will change. Iraq’s natural national ambitions and the dramatic infusion of modern methods and democratic practice (potentially the best legacy of the US occupation) could make Iraq a different kind of outlier in the region – a more modern and multicultural state than some of the more traditional monarchies and the stale secular regimes.

Iraq’s Arab neighbours are left with this dilemma: is the reintegration of Iraq good for them? How does it affect their interests? Regional pundits are already seeing signs of a new Egyptian-Iraqi rivalry. Relations between Amman and Baghdad, and Damascus and Baghdad, are often distorted by history, by the machinations of disaffected Sunnis and other Iraqi oppositionists, and the strains of hosting at least a million Iraqi refugees.

But most understand that either chronic instability in Iraq or an Iraq under Iran’s control is disastrous for regional stability, foreign investment, tourism, etc. Slowly the Arab neighbours will develop more knowledge and understanding of Iraq’s new leaders, even if trust and mutual respect take longer. For now, they are taking the measure of the new American leader. If they perceive positive trends in America’s engagement on Palestine, its management of the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a defusion of tensions with Iran that could bring progress on the nuclear front, they may be more inclined to help with reintegration of Iraq.

Most important is that the reintegration occur because it is in the local parties’ true interest, not imposed by America. President Obama is not likely to make this issue the test of friendship, and he seems to grasp well the inter-connectedness of issues in the region. His instincts to facilitate and support the reintegration of Iraq are right – but even if successful, reintegration is only part of a complex and shifting power alignment in the Arab world.


Ellen Laipson is the President and CEO of the Stimson Center and directs the Middle East/Southwest Asia program.  This article first appeared in The National on May 11, 2009 and can be accessed here

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