Misunderstanding U.S. ‘Leverage’ In Iraq

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

iraq-war-426.jpgIn the Brookings Institution’s recently released Middle East strategy report, Stephen Biddle, Michael O’Hanlon, and Kenneth Pollack again advocate a policy of beginning U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq in 2010 rather than as soon as practical. But the realities of Iraqi politics — such as the recently concluded Status of Forces Agreement (pdf) — have rendered moot academic proposals that depend on fine-tuning American force levels and postures in Iraq. Unlike the Biddle, O’Hanlon, and Pollack proposal for tens of thousands of American troops performing a variety of missions in Iraq beyond 2011, the SOFA calls for all American forces to withdraw from populated areas by June 30 of next year and all U.S. troops to be out by the end of 2011. Simply put, the SOFA and Iraqi domestic politics have outpaced Biddle, O’Hanlon, and Pollack’s plan.

Other proposed Iraq plans –- such as the Center for a New American Security’s “conditional engagement” strategy, which we have criticized here previously –- fall victim to the same trap. “Conditional engagement” presumed the United States held leverage over the Maliki government because the Iraqis strongly desired continued U.S. military engagement in Iraq. But the SOFA negotiations demonstrated how little leverage the United States has over Iraqi political actors. Rather than forcing Maliki to make political accommodations, Maliki forced the United States to bow to popular pressure for a withdrawal timetable. Like Biddle, O’Hanlon, and Pollack’s proposal, “conditional engagement” has become irrelevant in the face of the SOFA’s limitations on U.S. military action in Iraq, and its firm timetable for withdrawal.

The common flaw in these strategies is that they rest on a distorted vision of American power in Iraq. They suggest that by subtly altering U.S. force levels and posture, the United States can achieve its political objectives in Iraq. However, reporters on the ground note that United States military power is becoming “increasingly irrelevant” in Iraq. This focus on eroding military power leads advocates of these strategies to ignore or misinterpret Iraqi politics, where agreeing to a SOFA with anything less than a timetable for withdrawal would prove politically fatal. Even the agreement on the table now may not be acceptable; Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top Shi’a cleric in Iraq, has voiced reservations about the SOFA. The agreement itself is slated to go before the Iraqi people in a July 30 referendum. If the SOFA fails to win popular approval, then U.S. forces would have a year from its failure to leave Iraq.

Since the election of Barack Obama, who pledged to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 16 months, and passage of the SOFA through the Iraqi parliament, Iraqi and American political leaders now appear to be on the same page. The President-elect called Prime Minister Maliki to assure him of the new administration’s support for the SOFA, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has indicated he is on board with Obama’s Iraq policy. These leaders have recognized the need to acknowledge Iraqi political realities and have moved to reset United States policy in Iraq and the Middle East. Clinging to abstract theories of conditional engagement or force level tinkering in the face of the new U.S.-Iraqi political consensus for a new strategic relationship is irresponsible and foolhardy.