Opinion-Does the U.S. Have a Plan for Iraq?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times Room For Debate blog--Does the U.S. have a plan for Iraq?
United States policy today is focused on maintaining the status quo in Iraq, offering unqualified support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in the name of stability. But the status quo is inherently unstable. Maliki, emboldened by this support, feels few constraints on his actions and has little incentive to compromise. He has steadily consolidated control over Iraq’s security and intelligence institutions, and has effectively isolated and fragmented his political rivals. Even in the current political crisis, Maliki has used questionable and even unconstitutional tactics to remove rivals without reducing American support. At the same time, the Maliki government has committed widespread human rights abuses in its crackdown on political dissent in Iraq. While the United States may feel Maliki offers the best chance for stability, his consolidation of power may make Iraq more unstable as Iraq’s rival factions seek other means to check him — either through politics or ultimately through force.
The United States has fewer ways to influence the situation in Iraq than it has had in the past, given the significant (but largely self-imposed) loss of leverage caused by a single focus on disengagement and withdrawal. Still, the United States should not exacerbate the underlying drivers of instability with continued unqualified support for the Maliki government.
Instead, the United States should pressure all political groups to work toward a political accommodation that is truly inclusive with meaningful power-sharing. U.S. policy over the next year should focus on making the relationship with Maliki more conditional by pegging continued support to progress on a variety of fronts, including the implementation of genuine power-sharing, a reversal of the politicization of Iraq’s security forces, and a willingness to uphold the rule of law. U.S. policymakers must also demand that the Iraqi government respect human rights.
It is also in U.S. interests to ensure that Iraq’s other groups, namely the Sunnis and Kurds, continue to participate in the Iraqi political system. The United States should use every opportunity to ensure that the Sunnis continue to have a meaningful role in Iraqi politics by preventing the Sunni political leadership from fracturing. Broad participation can prevent more anti-American groups like the Sadrists from exercising an outsize role in Iraqi politics.
At the same time, U.S. strategy must account for Iraq’s role in a region in flux. Any successful U.S. strategy for Iraq should reinforce U.S. interests in Syria, Iran, Turkey and the Gulf States. The United States should make clear to the Iraqi government that it will not tolerate an Iraqi foreign policy hostile to American interests. This would include Iraqi support for the Assad regime or an unwillingness to recognize the international sanctions on Iran.