Current Developments in Iraq and Future Dispensation

Current Developments in Iraq and Future Dispensation

The neocons presented three agendas that provided George W Bush with grounds to launch the attack against Saddam Hussein:

Policy Perspectives , Volume7 , Number 1, Special Issue 2010


Question: Is American agenda successful in Iraq?

The neocons presented three agendas that provided George W Bush with grounds to launch the attack against Saddam Hussein:

I.    The United States will remake Iraq into a democratic country which will have a spillover or snow balling effect for the rest of the Middle East. This way America will be able to spread the light of democracy to the entire Middle East. The goal was not fundamentally flawed, but seeing the aftermath of invasion of Iraq, it will never be achieved and that explains why the Americans even under Obama administration are not talking about Iraq as a springboard to implement democratization project. Even if the larger goal of using Iraq as a center piece of the project in the Middle East has not been realized, the goal of the regime change has taken place. Now, the United States has a friendly democratically elected regime in power which would not likely threaten the key American interests in the region. The Maliki regime has actually provided the US a substantial ingress and allowed it to maintain its influence and an indirect presence in Iraq that will probably continue in the foreseeable future.

II.    The second goal was to eliminate Iraqi capabilities for developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). We now know that Iraq never had these capabilities and the threat of these weapons was used as pretext to invade Iraq. The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has recently stated that even if Iraq had not possessed  the WMDs, he would  have still gone and invaded Iraq, because he felt that Saddam’s autocratic rule was a sound enough moral reason for the Western powers to use force and seek a regime change there.

III.    The third goal that many people think is the real underlying reason for the US invasion of Iraq and its continued military presence in that country is the Iraqi oil resources. The US, no doubt, is interested in the Iraqi oil. This goal has been achieved partially as a consequence of a 2007 deal under which it was agreed that the American oil companies will be given a preferential treatment in the exploitation of the Iraqi oil assets.

Regardless of whether the war was launched for democratization, rooting out WMDs or the control of Iraqi oil and energy resources, there is no denying the fundamental reality that the cost of war for the US has been exceedingly high. According to some estimates, it has cost the US over three trillion dollars. Many in the American policy community believe that given its stupendous financial cost this war was not worth fighting. So, irrespective of the original US goals in Iraq, the push for the American policymakers to withdraw from Iraq will remain very strong.

Question: Considering the current situation in Iraq, will it be possible for the US to execute its exit strategy?

Firstly, the critical driving factor behind the withdrawal process is the realization in the United States that it was a wrong war that has deeply polarized the American nation. The United States has shed the blood of not only thousands of Iraqi civilians but has also paid a huge price in terms of its own treasure and blood. So, Obama seems committed to putting an end to this war.

Secondly, the economic cost of this war has been beyond American expectations. Earlier, the calculation of US policymakers was that some of the cost of the war would be met through the sale of Iraqi oil and this would make the war affordable for Washington. This expectation has not been realized, largely because the price of oil having soared to about $180 per barrel has now come down to about 77 dollars per barrel. The dwindling oil revenues have forced the US oil companies to extract oil in larger quantities. This has complicated the picture even more as the Iraqi government also needs income from the same oil revenues to stabilize itself and also to undertake the daunting task of the economic reconstruction of the country.

Thirdly, there is the imperative of winning the war in Afghanistan. President Obama has announced that the US will commit thirty thousand troops more troops in Afghanistan as part of the surge strategy to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. Some of these troops will be withdrawn from Iraq to be sent over to Afghanistan. Keeping that aspect in consideration, the withdrawal of American forces in Iraq is critically linked to the surge in Afghanistan.

Fourthly, if Obama stays in power, as most people predict that he will, not only for the remaining two years but also for the second term, the exit strategy process will remain on course but the larger question is: can America afford to withdraw its fighting troops from Iraq altogether? It seems that Obama will fulfill his promise of withdrawing the American ground troops from Iraq but the air force bases and some of the assets that the US has put in place in different parts of the country as part of its intelligence networks will remain there.

Therefore, there are multiple pressures and factors which will force Obama to deliver on his promise to bring all the troops back by the end of his first term. Yet, if the situation on ground deteriorates so significantly that the US policymakers feel that withdrawal of their forces will destabilize the country even further, they might delay the withdrawal process. But it is unlikely that the American people, its economy and even the political leadership would be convinced with the argument that it is in their larger strategic interest to maintain large troop presence in Iraq.

Question: How has Iran played its role in Iraq?

The US policymakers are conscious of the fact that the ethnic and sectarian division in Iraq will destabilize the country and they would not want to take any measures that would further exacerbate the tensions and could ultimately result in destabilizing the relationship between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority. Consequently, they have come to accept the reality that Iran’s influence over the Shiite population in Iraq will remain strong and they have not tried to reverse this influence. At this stage, Tehran has played its card wisely and used its influence in Iraq to become an important stakeholder.

In addition, Iran may not be interested in capturing any territory of Iraq because it thinks; A) that will not be tolerated by its neighbors; B) this will be seen as blatant use of force by Iran and C) it will not be acceptable to most of the Iraqi people, even to the Shiite population which has an ideological affinity and sympathy for Iran. So far, Iranian influence has helped stabilize the situation in Iraq and Iran does not want to run the risk of having Iraq become a new battleground for regional powers like Saudi Arabia.  

However, the biggest worry for America regarding Iran could be to devise a strategy to balance the present rising Iranian influence in the region and to prevent the probable strategic rapprochement between Baghdad and Tehran. . The US had pursued the policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq for very long time. Since it has been able to contain Iraq through war and through installing a pro-American regime, the containment policy for Iran remains intact. In this context, if Iran forged a strategic alliance or an understanding with Iraq, either for political or economic reasons; the US and Saudi Arabia would not view this development with equanimity. However, because of its internal weaknesses and problems, Iraq, both as a State and as a regional power, is not in a position to pose any kind of threat to the region. In case of Iran, it may like to carve out a special sphere of influence in Iraq for regional influence commensurate with its growing military and missile capabilities.

But the worst American fear is a situation in which social, ethnic and religious polarization in Iraq becomes so intense that they threaten the cohesion of the Iraqi state and government. Such a situation would be a bigger gain for Iran than that of a united Iraq in which Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis live in harmony. In this scenario, the US administration would like to see an Iraqi regime which is quite capable of handling these contradictions and Iraqi constitution on its own, particularly after the withdrawal of American ground troops. Some legal measures have been taken to ensure that post-US withdrawal Iraq will be able to stand on its own feet. So, there is no threat to the cohesion of the Iraqi state as long as the central government remains powerful.

Question: Would the social, ethnic, political and religious divisions, particularly Kurdish uprising in Iraq lead to the disintegration of Iraq?

At one point the threat of externally engineered disintegration of Iraq was a real possibility. Later, the US realized that a weakened Iraq will create a regional instability that will benefit neither the Americans nor any other power. This awareness arrested the vigorous pursuit of tripartite division of Iraq in which Shiite would dominate South, Sunni in the Center and Kurds in the North. Even though Iraqi society has always been laden with primordial ethnic sentiments but the Iraqi sense of nationalism was very distinct when it came to fighting against the external forces. It was this inherent nationalism that came into play in 1930 when the Iraqi society fought against the British.

The same pattern has continued and the successive US administrations—Bush and Obama—have been forced to view Iraqi insurgency as a nation-wide movement directed against the foreign forces. This realization exposed to the protagonists of Balkanization policy that it will take extraordinary and risky effort to divide up the country into three small units. So, the balkanization logic was trumped by the massive reassertion of the Iraqi nationalism against the American occupation of their country. Therefore Iraq has survived as a united entity not because Washington wanted it that way but more because of Iraqi people’s unwillingness to fall prey to the balkanization schemes promoted by neocons.

Fanning the fire of Kurdish separatism in Iraq might not serve the interests of any of the regional power including Syria, Turkey and Iran: Kurds are living in very large numbers in all the three countries. Turkey has had the problem of Kurdish uprising and irredentism. These regional powers have vested interests in keeping the Kurdish minority well within their separate borders. The broader movement for Kurdistan can destabilize all the three and let lose centrifugal forces of ethnic balkanization. Because of these dangers, there is an implicit regional consensus that Iraqi Kurds should stay within Iraq. At the same time, there is a distinct realization that Iraqi Kurds should be given greater sense of participation within the framework of a united Iraqi state. While it may seem tempting for Iran to fan the fires of ethnic separatism in Iraq, but the adverse blowback effects of this in the form of greater Kurdistan movement override this temptation.

Question: What is the future of democracy and relationship between Iraqi military and relationship?

The anti American sentiments at the public level are very strong and likely to remain so for a long time to come because of the massive abuses of human rights, killings, and destruction that the American invasion of the country brought with it. The story of American military actions against Iraqi people has not unfolded in all its terrible dimensions yet. The Iraqi people, who have suffered the atrocities at the hands of American soldiers, know very well what the invasion meant for them, resulting in making them intensely anti-American. In this backdrop, any future government in Iraq will have to take this undercurrent of deep anti-American resentment into account and craft its policy accordingly. No genuinely elected Iraqi government will be able to survive for too long if it is perceived as an extension of American interests. The US might be able to extract certain concessions from Iraq in terms of oil and privileged l access to its energy resources, but it would be very hard for it to find a regime in Iraq that would hold the US in a tight embrace against the will of the Iraqi people.

However, it is a widely known fact that the US leaders talk about spreading and supporting democracy but if democracy in a certain country produces leaders who are not willing to toe their line, they turn their back on such a democratic dispensation. Therefore, the US wants a democracy that produces leaders that are acceptable to the United States. This is an inherent problem in American attitude in international politics, particularly in the third world countries. Since the democratically elected leaders have their own agendas, compulsions and popular mandate, the US prefers lending its support to dictators.  

In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein fell afoul of these American gimmicks since the occurrence of Iranian revolution in 1979 till 1991. During these eleven years, the US was the biggest supporter of Saddam Hussein as is evident from some very important visits of Rumsfeld to Saddam Hussein who was projected as a force for regional stability. It also carried along Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in funding the Iraqi war against Iran because Iran was seen as a bigger threat at that time. Therefore, the US has never been shy of alternating support from dictatorship to democracy and vice versa according to its own interests and political needs.

Considering such an American attitude of supporting governments around the globe, the idea of a pro-American strong leader ruling Iraq with the help of American support cannot be ruled out. However, the US has created a new opening for the Iraqi people by destroying the autocratic system and Ba’athist one-party rule in Iraq. If Iraq wants to become a sovereign democracy, instead of a democracy which is seen to be subservient to the American strategic interests, the Iraqi leaders in particular and people in general will have to pursue their own democratic agenda.

The American trained military force may pursue the American agenda. The Iraqi leadership, particularly the military leaders, is beholden to the US because it trained them, gave them weapons, provided them with military equipments and put them into power. ‘Without mentioning his name, I met an Iraqi general during my last visit to Washington. While talking to him, I realized that he was more loyal to the American leaders than the ordinary Americans. That made me wonder how this general was going to rule that country with that kind of blatant pro-American stance. So if that is the tip of the iceberg then in terms of future leadership, Iraq does have a potential problem.’ The military will be seen as a pro-American institution with an extraordinary degree of US influence over it and the possibility of a repression of genuine anti-American democracy in Iraq at the hands of an American-trained Iraqi military force cannot be ruled out.

Question: What would be the role of regional and Global Actors in post-US Iraq?

One should not forget that even after the complete withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, it will not be a situation of total vacuum. The Iraqi government is in place and a lot will depend on who it chooses to align itself with. For example, no Iraqi government can afford to alienate its neighbors such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey etc. The US efforts will be to use some of these regional powers to maintain a degree of influence over Iraq. Although these countries have their own agendas, yet it can manipulate its influence in Jordan and Saudi Arabia for that matter. Besides, Iraq is not weak enough that it will actually become the battleground for all the regional powers, the way in which Afghanistan did after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces. Iraq is a proud nation and it has the resources, resilience and a nascent, strengthened, and enhanced sense of Iraqi nationalism—the biggest asset they have. It is going to be a critical deterrence against any country’s ambition to influence Baghdad in a decisive fashion. Therefore, there might not be an intensifying regional competition replacing the American military presence in Iraq.

Moreover, China has made ingress in Iraq because of the oil factor. Russia also has a long standing interest in Iraq. It had a 20-year friendship treaty with Saddam Hussein. With the exception of years 1990 and 2003, the Russian technicians were present in Iraq. But Russia has lost that influence and it will try to regain its toehold in Iraq. One can see how Russia and China are trying to develop a very special relationship with Iraq. These ties, however, will have to be motivated and propelled purely by logic and economic considerations rather than any kind of geo-political concern or they will have to contend with American presence and influence in Iraq which is going to remain very strong for a long time to come either through the political dispensation that the US has put in place; or through the U.S trained Iraqi military; or through their indirect presence.

Theoretically one cannot rule out the possibility of an anti-American coup in Iraq.  But this is highly unlikely given the fact that most of the Iraqi leaders are indebted to the Americans. The Iraqi sense of nationalism is very strong but it will not easily fuse with a pro-American strategic posture for too long. In view of these contradictory pulls, it is going to be very delicate balancing act for the Iraqi regime.

Question: What should be the policy goals of the US and Iraqi government?

For United States of America: The US needs to withdraw its forces from Iraq, and if it has to, it should keep them to a bare minimum and let the Iraqi people determine their own future. Besides, Iraq’s capability and capacity to devise a future for themselves should not be underestimated. Iraq is a literate, very sophisticated, and one of the most advanced societies in terms of literature and heritage. It is one of the oldest civilizations and it should not be considered a banana republic. So, if Iraq is left to its own devices, the Iraqi people are quite capable of fashioning their own future which would be democratic in essence; largely because they were ruled by dictators for a long time and those dictators launched attacks against the neighboring states and caused devastation. Having seen the devastating effects of dictatorial rule for themselves, the Iraqi people would do their best to avoid being ruled by a dictator like Saddam Hussain in the near future.

In addition, the civil society, particularly its media, is now very strong and the people have tasted democracy. They have seen the value of an open society. These are some of the positives that should be strengthened and reinforced. At this point, the US should realize its responsibility for waging war and causing such large scale destruction and should come forward to play a constructive role that it owes to the Iraqi people. The Iraqis would need the Western expertise and technology, and the international support to negotiate the democratic transition. So, the West in particular and the international community in general should not walk away from the Iraqi people in this very challenging situation. In the regional matrix, Iraq is not a kind of country that can be over-influenced or overpowered by any of the regional states. Nonetheless, the possibility of Iraq moving a little closer to Iran than it traditionally has been cannot be ruled out. In short, the US should give up its high handed approach towards Iraq, adopt a “hands-off policy,” treat the Iraqi people with respect and grant them the freedom to manage their own affairs.

For Iraqi Government: The Iraqi government has a massive internal construction and peace building task at hand that requires a single minded focus on dealing with these issues. It also needs to deal with the pockets of insurgency, the threats of terrorism, and lawlessness. There are a number of organized and violent armed groups that have popped up in Iraq, so dealing with these groups, putting them out of business, launching a deweaponization campaign, and inculcating in people the value of seeking a non-violent resolution of their problems are some of the very important priority areas. The Iraqis need to turn inwards and that is where their salvation lies. The economy needs to be put back on track as it was before the invasion—stable and resilient. The government still possesses the economic and natural resources to strengthen the country and to engage in the economic reconstruction. The important thing is to develop a political consensus, take the people on board, focus on the immediate needs of the people, and stay engaged with the international community.

Iraq should go back to its policy of non-alignment as it was under Saddam Hussain and send a message of reassurance to its neighbors that if Iraq regains its strength, it will not pose any kind of danger to them. It needs to negotiate a settlement with Iran over Shatt al-‘Arab and to resolve the territorial disputes peacefully with its smaller neighbors. It also needs to join the larger Islamic community and find its place of pride there because a non-aligned Iraq would be seen as a positive force by most of its neighbors. However, if Iraq is aligned with the United States and seen as the “American cat’s paw” vis-à-vis other neighbors, it will not be beneficial for Iraq. Siding with the US may revive its tension with Iran. So, Iraq has to be very careful in how it handles its relationship with the United States. In no circumstances should it let the US use its territory to launch attacks against any of its neighbors. At the same time, Iraq should not become part of the revisionist states vis-à-vis Israel. Since technically Iraq still remains at war with Israel, its relationship with Israel is going to be very sensitive.

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