‘Conditional Engagement’ Vague On Regional Diplomacy Needed to Stabilize Iraq

Our guest bloggers are Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and Peter Juul, a Research Associate at the Center.

(Parts one, two, and three of this series.)

The fourth problem with the Center for a New American Security’s “conditional engagement” strategy for Iraq is its “regional diplomacy” section — which comes in two brief, underdeveloped pages out of a 51-page report.

For the first 80 percent of the report, Iraq is treated largely in isolation of a Middle East that is in turmoil. Iraq’s internal tensions reverberate throughout the region and the fallout from the Iraq war continues to impact the Middle East — most tangibly in the millions of refugees that have flowed out of Iraq into neighboring countries. Turkey, Iran, and Syria are all watching closely the tensions over the status of Kirkuk and the fate of Iraq’s Kurds. Yet the conditional engagement strategy — wedded mostly to a narrow, bilateral, U.S.-Iraq prism — does very little to acknowledge the multilateral dimensions of the Iraq challenges. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which released its report more than eighteen months ago, rightly acknowledged that the challenges posed by Iraq are interlinked with other regional challenges — and it provided a strategic pathway for moving forward that was solidly grounded in regional dynamics.


While ominously warning of the prospects of Iranian hegemony over the Gulf and regional war, the conditional engagement report is otherwise disconnected from its environment, and offers no rationale for how its proposed strategy builds into a larger framework for sustainable security in the Gulf. Rather than craft an Iraq policy toward a regional strategy, CNAS appears to be crafting a regional strategy around its preferred Iraq policy. Conditional engagement puts the Iraqi cart before the regional horse, making formulating a coherent strategy for the broader region more difficult.

Moreover, the strategy does the bare minimum on regional diplomacy, ignoring the broader regional security and intelligence initiatives that the United States might undertake to guard against threats like regional war and the spread of global terrorist groups. [For some ideas beyond vague “diplomatic” efforts to address these dimensions, see the Strategic Reset (pdf) report from the Center for American Progress.]

The most detailed attention to regional diplomacy comes in the report’s discussion of Iran, which is heavy on analysis and ultimately boils down a bland recommendation to engage Tehran. It asserts that conditional engagement could be a “game changer” in diplomacy with Iran. It is difficult to see, however, how keeping U.S. troops involved in Iraq would solve the moral hazard problem that currently holds in Iraq. Iran can engage in all sorts of disruptive behavior secure in the knowledge that the United States, not Iran, will have to deal with the negative consequences. While the report acknowledges that the United States and Iran have a common interest in keeping Iraq from becoming a failed state, conditional engagement does nothing to resolve the aforementioned moral hazard problem in order to encourage closer cooperation between Baghdad, Tehran, and Washington on Iraqi stability.

The strategy also seems to suffer from the same strategic confusion that is endemic in Washington policy circles we highlighted with our CAP colleague Matt Duss earlier this year — that some of Iran’s best allies are the top leaders in Iraq’s government, the same government that the United States supports in its current Iraq policy. It fails to address the dangerous blind spot for the United States in the Middle East — something Brian noted in a piece in May — the evolving relationship between the leaders of Iraq and Iran.  Furthermore, the report argues that military assistance will keep Baghdad from tilting toward Iran –- but ignores that the Maliki government is already walking a delicate line between the need to accommodate both Tehran and Iraqi nationalism. It also ignores the fact that some Iraqi nationalists may consider the United States a greater threat to its sovereignty than even the hated Persians. As shown by Maliki’s recent declarations in support of a U.S. withdrawal timetable, the sense of an American occupation may remain as great an affront to Iraqi nationalism as Iranian manipulation and subterfuge, real or imagined.

The report provides only a brief mention of the rest of the region. It makes little distinction between Arab states (save between Syria and other Arab states), noting only that they should do better by Iraq in opening embassies, relieving its substantial debts, and cracking down on the flow of foreign fighters into the country.


When it comes to substantive recommendations, the report engages in sleight of hand, arguing that Arab diplomatic movement on Iraq will only be possible when the United States withdraws from Iraq, and that conditional engagement –- a plan to stay in Iraq –- will actually serve to accomplish this goal. Motivating Iraq’s neighbors to the table and getting them to play more constructive roles may not be likely until we stop fostering moral hazard and set a clear plan that demonstrates the United States does not plan to stay in Iraq with an open-ended commitment. By not defining the conditions when U.S. troops would leave Iraq beyond vague terms like “accommodation” and “sustainable security,” the CNAS Iraq plan can be fairly placed in the same category as the existing Bush administration plan for Iraq.