A ‘Thaw In Arab Diplomatic Recognition Of Iraq’

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a national security consultant at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Yesterday, Kuwait named Ali Momen its first ambassador to Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion. In doing so, Kuwait becomes the third Arab state (after the United Arab Emirates and Jordan) to name an ambassador to Baghdad in the last month. The small island kingdom of Bahrain, which headquarters the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, is also set to name an ambassador to Iraq. These appointments represent an important if small step toward cementing the regional legitimacy of Iraq’s post-Saddam political system.

While welcome, this thaw in Arab diplomatic recognition of Iraq can only go so far in re-integrating Iraq into the region. For one, the truly big fish of the Arab diplomatic scene remain on the sidelines. Egypt, traditionally a diplomatic heavy-hitter, is preoccupied with matters close to home – namely the Hamas-Israel cease-fire in the Gaza Strip – and no doubt remembers the kidnapping and killing of its first ambassador to Baghdad in 2005. Saudi Arabia continues to view the Maliki government as an Iranian pawn bent on oppressing Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, and treats it accordingly.

What’s more, diplomatic recognition in and of itself doesn’t solve Iraq’s outstanding problems with its neighbors. While the UAE agreed to cancel $7 billion in Saddam-era debt when it appointed its ambassador, Kuwait has put off the question Iraq’s billions of debt and war reparations. Nor are improved relations with Jordan likely to improve the status of Iraqi refugees residing there. In short, while better bilateral relations with Iraq’s neighbors are important, they alone will not provide panaceas to Iraq’s pressing international problems.

What’s needed diplomatically is an effort to coordinate Iraq’s reintegration into the region. As a recent Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report on regional diplomacy noted, “every country bordering Iraq has its own policies… on how to deal with the problem on its doorstep.” Meanwhile, American diplomacy has either been adrift or lacked follow through – even though the United States is the only country with the ability to overcome the regional collective action problem when it comes to Iraq.

But the United States won’t be able to spur its allies neighboring Iraq into action as long as it keeps 150,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely or according to some vague time horizon. This sort of policy fosters moral hazard among the neighbors, in which they pursue their own policies without regard to the consequences, knowing that if things go awry the United States will be there to bail them out.

Serious regional diplomacy can only begin with a credible American threat to withdraw from Iraq in an orderly fashion.