The struggle over who controls Anbar province has reopened a debate about America’s influence in Iraq. The outcome of battles between Iraqi national forces, Sunni militia, and Al-Qaeda could be a catastrophic loss of the Sunni majority center of Iraq, and a new failure of the leadership in Baghdad to keep the country together. In Washington, pundits argue that the crisis could have been avoided if the US had responded more robustly to urgent Iraqi appeals for counterterrorism equipment and aid, if the US had leaned more heavily on Prime Minister Maliki to avoid Sunni alienation, if the US had managed to persuade Iraq to agree to a follow-on US force in the country in 2011. The remorse and recriminations convey a genuine despair about a country that many had hoped would be a trusted American partner and a post-authoritarian model for a turbulent region, but now is wracked by violence.
Such somber musings suffer from nostalgia for an early, exceptional period in US-Iraq relations. Even when US influence was stronger as measured by levels of aid, investment and troop presence, pundits worried about policy failures and were distraught at high levels of violence, which from 2006-8, were roughly three times the current grisly monthly toll. It is indisputable that US influence on Iraqi decisions has been in gradual decline, but that need not mean that Washington and Baghdad will be unable to find an acceptable equilibrium that sustains a level of cooperation that captures Iraq’s formidable potential as a regional power, still on the path to building the institutions and culture of a modern state. The bilateral relationship may not live up to either party’s expectations, but nonetheless is significant for both parties, and an important force for regional stability.
It is useful to recall some of the milestones on this path from an exceptional to a normal relationship. The Bush Administration was unable to finalize a deal in 2008 for a residual force in Iraq, and instead agreed to a legal process for the complete withdrawal of US forces by late 2011. That agreement was intended to prevent a legal vacuum for the incoming Obama Administration and underscored a shared view by both President Bush and President Obama that the return of full sovereignty to Iraq was an essential part of the transition in Baghdad. The United States and Iraq would pursue a traditional bilateral relationship. The period of exceptionalism and extraordinary American influence on Iraqi decisions had ended.
The Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) of 2008 formalized the new civilian-led partnership, and provided an ambitious roadmap for bilateral cooperation on the full gamut of public policy concerns in a modern democratic state, from culture and education to defense and security. Implementation of the SFA was slow off the mark due to bureaucratic or political inattention, and a perception of neglect has set in among key Iraqi constituencies.
In the past two years, nonetheless, Obama Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials have met with their Iraqi counterparts in the Joint Coordination Committees (JCC) on Educational and Cultural Cooperation, Transportation, Energy, Defense and Security, as well as the overarching political and diplomacy committee. The Vice President continues to play a special role in engaging Iraqi politicians, and despite the perception that the US has cast its lot with the prime minister and has muted its concern about pluralism in Iraq, in recent months a diverse group of Iraqi notables representing minorities and political opposition have visited Washington, conveying their views and concerns.
Following the money is one way to assess the level of US commitment to Iraq, but it is not a very reliable metric for several reasons, including bureaucratic struggles over the State Department’s budget and priorities, and, even within the State Department, an assessment of capacity to a deliver on a once ambitious assistance agenda. Security for Americans also absorbs funds that may create a misleading perception of the level of US investment in Iraq. The FY14 request for Embassy Baghdad operations was $647 million, one-fifth what it received in 2012. Almost all of that-$568 million-was for security. The number of US personnel this year is supposed to be half what it was a year ago, with a goal of establishing a more traditional embassy supporting a more traditional bilateral relationship.
The same goes for assistance programs. Once exceptionally high funding for joint projects, educational scholarships and exchanges, trade missions, and a myriad of other transactions has been replaced with a new reality where Iraq competes with other countries for various aid and assistance support. For 2014, the administration requested $573 million for assistance to Iraq, less than half of what Iraq received in 2012 and $500 million of which was for equipment for the Iraqi military. Military cooperation has also been less robust than official Iraqis have wanted, due to reservations on the US side about the reliability of the Iraqi security forces, and, in Congress, concerns about arms sales being used for domestic control rather than legitimate external threats.
The United States has not abandoned Iraq in its struggle in Anbar. The US is responding to urgent demands for counterterrorism help by providing intelligence and munitions, a supplement to the ten year flow of counterterrorism training and equipment valued at over $20 billion. But ambivalence about getting more deeply involved in Iraq’s internal problems is palpable. Those associated with the post-2003 period are alarmed that the Administration does not value enough the high stakes for US interests in the region should Iraq fail. Conversely, should the Baghdad government reestablish control of Anbar, in cooperation with Sunni political leaders, it will be a win for Prime Minister Maliki and a relief for Washington. It could lead to improved relations between Maliki’s government and the Sunni community, which is vital for Iraqi stability, even if motivated by political self-interest, not deep inter-communal reconciliation. A return to the days of American primacy in Iraq is not realistic or desirable; the transition to a mutually beneficial but limited bilateral relationship may not feel comfortable yet, but it’s the right path.
Photo by R. Brown via Flickr