Report Presumes ‘Strategic Imperative’ Of US-Iraq Relationship

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

iraq-peekabooThe Center for a New American Security recently released a report entitled “After the Fire,” detailing what the authors think the U.S. relationship with Iraq should be after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. There is little controversial or bold in the report for reasonable readers to disagree with — the basic thrust is that the United States should remain diplomatically engaged in Iraq after 2011 as it would in any other important post-conflict country with which it has diplomatic relations. Beyond this banal main point, the report suggests that the United States might maybe keep a number of adviser troops in Iraq beyond 2011 -– which is something of a CNAS hobbyhorse -– but political realities in Iraq (which the authors themselves point out) make such a development exceedingly unlikely.

But the report does suffer from two main flaws, one specific to the topic and another afflicting DC policy reports in general. First, the report doesn’t mention Iraqi refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs). These people will have to be dealt with one way or another, either by returning them to their homes or by resettling them elsewhere in Iraq or overseas. Either way, refugees and IDPs present a tremendous political problem for the Iraqi government –- one that could spark renewed violence if handled improperly. And if Iraqis choose or are forced to resettle overseas, the brain drain preventing Iraq’s economy from rebuilding itself will become permanent. This oversight is glaring given the relatively common-sensical main recommendations of the report.

More broadly, though, the CNAS report reflects a major problem with DC foreign policy reports -– assuming away strategic questions while focusing on operational and tactical issues. For instance, the report asserts that we have a “strategic imperative of establishing an enduring relationship with a key country in a region of vital importance to the United States” without establishing why this is so. It may be true, but no one actually argues why. Maybe we don’t have to have an “enduring relationship” with Iraq for it to be stable. Maybe we do, but DC discussions don’t really go beyond the assertion that this sort of relationship is necessary.

Moreover, the authors assert “the primary objective and guiding principle of U.S. Middle East policy must be to keep the region politically stable and secure in order to protect American allies in the region and avoid sudden disruptions in the supply of energy resources.” Which is well and good, but it really begs a broader US Middle East policy which isn’t really found beyond faint outlines in a report that, after all, focuses on Iraq. To my eyes, at least, it seems like the report’s goals for Iraq are informing the overall regional strategy (such as it is) rather than the other way around. This sort of thinking is all too common in various DC foreign policy reports -– there’s little questioning of overall U.S. strategy and too much focus on questions of technique.

There’s also a realist balancing impulse throughout — the authors view Iran as hostile, and want Iraq to be part of the group of states the United States is organizing to balance against it. But without a clearly articulated regional strategy, there’s no reason to choose the CNAS balancing view over, say, an attempt to bring Iran into a regional security architecture.

It also overstates U.S. leverage in Iraq. One of the report’s laudable goals is “a stable Iraq that can serve as a constructive partner,” which is defined as “An Iraq without the capacity to govern effectively and mechanisms to resolve internal conflicts peacefully would be a destabilizing presence that would harm U.S. interests in the Middle East.” But there’s no reason to believe that Iraq will be able to govern itself effectively and resolve internal conflicts peacefully even with an “enduring relationship” with the United States if yesterday’s New York Times article on the ineptitude of the Iraqi parliament and today’s LA Times article on the volatile situation in Nineveh province are any indicators. Quite frankly, we had our chance to shape Iraqi institutions in 2003-04, and we blew it pretty badly.

The United States can try to uses diplomacy to broker deals with Iraqi factions, which could be effective. But there’s little we can hold over the heads of the Iraqi government to make it compromise. We haven’t been able to squeeze much compromise out of the system even when we’ve had 150,000-plus troops in Iraq, and I doubt Iraqi factions do much at our behest that truly contradicts their own parochial interests. And Iraqi leaders can always play the nationalist card to wriggle out of U.S. demands.

While the CNAS report is a good if unremarkable contribution to its specific niche -– what our operational and tactical post-withdrawal relationship with Iraq should look like –- it doesn’t really answer the strategic questions. Instead, like so many DC think tank reports, it assumes that they’re already agreed on. We DC think tankers need to resist the temptation for groupthink that’s so prevalent in Washington and stop assuming everyone already agrees on strategic premises. There needs to be a more robust debate on the direction our country takes on foreign policy, and the operational and tactical focus of most of our reports don’t move that debate forward.