Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Reidar Visser On Obama’s Options In Iraq

Reidar Visser is a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and is the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq. He also runs the blog. On November 7 he wrote a piece on policy options for in-coming president Barak Obama in Iraq.

Visser starts off with a brief overview of the U.S.’s position in Iraq. First, the Surge has reduced violence. From the latest reports, attacks are down to levels not seen since 2004. That was only one goal of the Surge however. The point of suppressing the fighting and protecting the population was to allow space for Iraq’s politicians to cut deals and make compromises to create a more lasting peace in the country. Visser argues that has not happened. As discussed earlier, Iraq’s parliament has passed a series of reconciliation laws such as an Amnesty act and a new DeBaathification process, but none of them has been implemented as planned. The lack of political movement makes Visser believe the changes in Iraq are only temporary.

Within Iraq the real winner of the Surge has been Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In 2007 he was nearly ousted from office by parliament before being saved by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in December. Since then he has launched security operations in Basra, Sad City, Mosul, and Maysan and Diyala provinces to establish himself as the leader of his country. He has learned to use the themes of centralism and nationalism to build up his support with the Iraqi public. As a recent Iraqi public opinion poll found, Maliki is now the most popular politician in the country. He now feels secure enough to challenge his main supporters, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the Kurds. The Prime Minister’s new position has direct consequences for U.S. policy because he is less susceptible to American pressure.

That brings Visser to President Elect Obama. As he ran for president Obama promised to draw down troops within 16 months of taking office. He also said he would use this withdrawal to pressure the Iraqi government into reconciling. This plan closely follows a June 2008 paper by the Center for a New American Security by Colin Kohl, Michele Florin, and Shawn Brimley entitled “Shaping the Iraqi Inheritance” that called for conditional engagement. The report argued that Prime Minister Maliki wants U.S. troops to stay a little while longer so they can strengthen the Iraqi army, which will consolidate his power. Kohl, Florin, and Brimley believe this gives the United States a meaningful way to pressure the Iraqis to compromise. This is in contrast to the Bush administration that has given unconditional support to Baghdad. Visser disagrees that the U.S. has this kind of influence. He doesn’t believe that Maliki needs nor cares whether the Americans will continue to support the Iraqi security forces. He has been demanding that U.S. troops leave by a set timetable for example, as a sign of Iraqi independence. If pressured, Maliki will probably tell the U.S. they don’t have the right to demand reconciliation because Iraq is a sovereign country.

What are the alternatives to Obama’s initial plans then? Another paper by Brian Katulis, Marc Lynch, and Peter Juul called “Iraq’s Political Transition After the Surge” argues that the United States needs to set a specific withdrawal date to force changes within Iraq. Their argument is that this will pressure Iraq’s politicians to cut deals so that they can stay in power because there will no longer be U.S. soldiers to prop them up. This will also make Iraq’s parliament and government more responsive to their public because they can’t rely upon the U.S. anymore to save them. Visser doesn’t believe this plan will be successful either. In 2007 Maliki claimed that the country had already reconciled. After the Sunni Accordance Front gave up on their boycott and rejoined the government in July 2008, he made similar comments. This doesn’t give the U.S. much of a chance to push for political compromises if the Prime Minister believes they are not necessary.

Visser finishes with two alternative plans of his own. One is to push for the next parliamentary elections to be as fair and open as possible. This would have the potential for new political parties to gain power and break the hold of the current ruling parties, and allow for more changes. This approach would have the added advantage in that Maliki could not use his nationalist argument against it. The issue with this recommendation is that the U.S. may not have the influence to get Iraq’s officials to change the election law to make it possible for smaller and newer parties to gain meaningful representation. The other policy wasn’t explained very well, but would be for the U.S. to get the Kurds to threaten to pull out of the government to pressure Baghdad. Visser doesn’t mention it, but the problem with that plan is that once the Kurds withdraw they may not agree to rejoin because they want independence and autonomy. At the minimum it will increase the growing divide between the central government and Arabs versus the Kurds.

It seems that none of these policies could realistically work to get Iraq’s government to move towards political compromise. As Baghdad and Maliki have gotten stronger, he has become less susceptible to U.S. demands. His new nationalist stance also makes it easy for him to reject any American pressure as an affront to Iraqi sovereignty. Withdrawing troops is already a demand Maliki is making, so that would not seem to be a good way to gain leverage. The U.S. probably doesn’t have the ability to get Iraq’s parliament to change the election laws to give more opportunities to newer parties. Finally, using the Kurds would only increase tensions within the country. This leaves the incoming Obama administration with even less ability to shape events in Iraq. That might mean Iraq will never have real reconciliation, leaving a large divide in the country in the foreseeable future.


Iraq Centre For Research & Strategic Studies, “Public Opinion Survey in Iraq; The Security & Political Situation in Iraq,” October 2008

Parker, Ned, “Iraq’s Nouri Maliki breaking free of U.S.,” Los Angeles Times, 9/16/08

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly report to the United States Congress,” 10/30/08

Visser, Reidar, “The Obama Administration, Iraq, and the Question of Leverage,”, 11/7/08


AndrewSshi said...

Maliki has definitely been pushing for U.S. troop withdrawal, but there's still a large space for U.S. leverage. Iraq's still a couple of years away from having any decent arty, and even further from having a decent air force. A firm but polite message stating that if Maliki decides to try and (for example) pull a Fallujah on parts of western Baghdad, he can't count on having air and artillery support.

AndrewSshi said...

Ahem, I meant to say, "...air and artillery support would be helpful."

Joel Wing said...

I think Maliki does want U.S. troops out, but he is also playing hardball with a lameduck administration, and also to build up his nationalist image with the public before elections. He knows that the Bush administration really wants this deal before it leaves office, so he can make these demands and know that the White House will give in on many of them. After the elections, which are going to take forever because that's just how Iraq works, then we'll probably get a better read on Maliki's true intentions.

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