Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Forgotten War in Iraq

In the presidential election this year, foreign policy was not a primary agenda, and both Obama and Romney hardly talked about Iraq and Afghanistan. However, stability in Iraq has direct influences on Iran and Syria. Also, it is necessary to keep an eye on resurgence of Al Qaeda, in view of the Benghazi attack in Libya. Not only those security challenges that matter. The regime change in Iraq has inspired youngsters in the Middle East, which led to the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Iraq was expected to turn into a show window of democracy as Japan and Germany are. America has not forgotten both allies. Why was Iraq such a small issue in the presidential election? Although the Obama administration has withdrawn troops from there, the War on Terror and security management in this country will have significant influence on the Middle East and even Sahel Africa. Fragile security in the Middle East will ruin Obama’s strategy of the pivot to Asia. Therefore, we must not dismiss what happens in Iraq after the pull out of the Western coalition.

To begin with, I would like to talk about current security environment around Iraq. Unlike President Barack Obama’s declaration as “sovereign, stable, and self reliant Iraq” when US forces withdrew from this country last December, things go the opposite. Frederick Kagan, Director at the American Enterprise Institute, and Kimberly Kagan, President at the Institute of the Study of War, point out that the Obama administration fails to make Iraq a reliable security partner (“Losing Iraq”; National Review; October 15, 2012). After the withdrawal, only 150 US military personnel stay in Iraq, but they are not engaged neither in training nor combat missions with Iraqi forces. As a result, US-Iraqi counterterrorism cooperation dwindled precipitously, and Al Qaeda revives. Violence increased since the withdrawal, particularly by the Islamic State of Iraq which is a frontline organization of Al Qaeda Iraq. Since they are Sunni, sectarian battles against Shiite militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr are being intensified.

In addition, Iranian influence is growing. Iran uses Iraqi air space to supply military equipments for the Assad regime in Syria. Iraqi air force is too weak to expel Iranian air intrusion without staunch security partnership with the United States. Iranian influence penetrates into the Iraqi authority. After the United States handed over Shiite extremists to the Maliki administration, Iraqi court decided to release them without disbanding their militias required by Iraqi law.

Strong US military presence in Iraq could have checked Al Qaeda and Iran as envisioned in the Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2008. However, the Obama administration refused the Maliki administration’s request for US deterrence in Iraq. It is a common security interest for both the United States and Iraq to stop Al Qaeda from building their bases in this country. Obama’s reluctance for defense involvement in Iraq is utterly strange, and it appears to me that he does not learn the lesson of 9-11, that is, America’s low attention to terrorist heaven in Afghanistan led to the attacks. Remember the Benghazi attack was done by Al Qaeda. The success in killing Osama bin Laden does not guarantee the end of the War on Terror.

If the Obama administration is so reluctant to deepen military commitment in Iraq, and wants to shift resource and manpower to Asia, then, the United States needs to use more diplomatic measures to keep Iraq close. Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, mentions communication gaps in US-Iraqi diplomatic channels. On the American side, few diplomats sent to Baghdad speak Arabic fluently.  It appears to me that things are somewhat similar to the case of the Iranian revolution. Just before the fall of the shah, there were not sufficient Farsi speaking US diplomats and CIA agents in Iran. Consequently, the Carter administration failed to act adequately. Will the Obama administration make the same mistake?

On the Iraqi side, they have not founded reliable diplomatic channels in Washington. America is a typical country of pluralistic democracy. Therefore, diplomacy with the United States needs informal gateways through the media, think tank, and the Congress, in addition to formal ones through the State Department, Pentagon, and the White House. Since Iraq has not founded such gateways, Washington policymakers pay little attention to Iraqi voices in dealing with Syria, Iran, and Al Qaeda (“Iraqidiplomacy has no voice in Washington”;Al Aalem; November 1, 2012). Rubin argues this just a problem on the Iraqi side, but I think that the American side needs to help Iraq found informal diplomacy network in the United States. That is because every communication is mutual.

As the only senator voted against the Iraq War, President Obama may want to this war swept way into oblivion. However, foreign policy needs national consistency, regardless of power rotation. Drastic contraction of US commitment to Iraq will undermine long awaited vision of Middle East democratization, while aspiration for freedom is rising in this region. Historically, Bagdad had been a center of the Arab world, from the era of the Abbassid caliphate to British rule after the Ottoman Empire. Considering regional impacts,         the Obama administration must reconsider the Iraq policy. No Middle East stability, no pivot to Asia.

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