Unfinished Business: An American Strategy for Iraq Moving Forward


Iraq still hangs in the balance. The dramatic improvements in Iraqi security between 2007 and 2009 have produced important, but incomplete changes in Iraq’s politics. These changes make it possible to imagine Iraq slowly muddling upward, building gradually toward a better future.

However, Americans must be constantly on guard against the considerable potential for Iraq to slip into all-out civil war. There are dozens of scenarios— from military coups, to official misconduct, to the assassination of one or two key leaders—that could spark such violence. The conflict might look somewhat different than before, perhaps featuring Arab-Kurd conflict, greater intra-Shi’i fighting, or various parts of the Iraqi security forces warring for control of the state.

-Iraq’s own internal dynamics and the history of intercommunal civil wars indicate that if Iraq does not find a way to muddle slowly upward toward greater stability, it is far more likely that it will slide quickly backward into the chaos of all-out civil war than that it would simply muddle downward toward an unpleasant, weak, but minimally stable state that need not concern the United States.

Washington has signaled its intention to withdraw U.S. military forces from the country, sooner rather than later. What is not clear, however, is what the United States hopes to accomplish before its troops depart and its other resources attenuate, or how it plans to reach its goals.

-Washington has announced a strategy to exit, but it has not yet formulated an exit strategy that will secure and sustain its interests in Iraq and the region.

Although U.S. influence in Iraq remains substantial, it is less than what it has been in the past. It is diminishing as American troops leave Iraq, as American resources are diverted elsewhere, and as the Iraqis themselves regain the ability to secure their country and govern themselves. This makes it all the more imperative that the United States have a clear strategic concept that establishes clear goals and well-defined objectives that can be achieved with this reduced panoply of tools.

-An American strategy for exiting Iraq must include a ruthless prioritization of U.S. goals and objectives to ensure that the United States directs its residual influence toward securing first what is absolutely vital, and only then whatever else is possible.

The United States will have several different goals as it exits Iraq, but these goals, and the objectives they imply, are not all of equal importance, and Washington must recognize the priorities among them. The following should be the priority for U.S. interests in Iraq:

1. Iraq cannot be allowed to descend back into civil war. Because of Iraq’s own resources and its position in the economically vital and geo-strategically sensitive Persian Gulf region, it would be disastrous for American vital national interests if Iraq were to slip into an all-out civil war, which still remains very possible.

2. Iraq cannot reemerge as an aggressive state. There is little danger of this in the near term, but as the United States works to build a strong, cohesive Iraq that would not relapse into internal conflict, it also must avoid building one that is so powerful and selfconfident that it will threaten its neighbors.

3. Iraq should ideally be a strong, prosperous U.S. ally. Because it will be difficult enough to ensure that Iraq averts civil war and does not emerge as a new “Frankenstein’s monster” of the Gulf, this last objective should be seen as an aspirational goal rather than an irreducible necessity.

Since Iraq is now a fully sovereign nation enjoying a resurgence of nationalism, it is essential that Iraqis see themselves as benefiting from continued American involvement in Iraq. The more the Iraqis believe that the relationship with the United States is of value to them, the more desirous they will be of preserving ties to the United States, and the more willing they will be to overlook American interference or see it as positive, and the more afraid they will be of losing those ties. In this respect, Iraqis generally desire continued American aid, investment, and technical assistance, as well as U.S. help regaining Iraq’s full international standing by resolving major diplomatic issues that arose from Saddam Husayn’s misdeeds.

-The Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), a partnership document between Iraq and the United States that was initiated by the Iraqi government, provides a foundation for this type of assistance. If the United States wants to maintain leverage in Iraq, the SFA must ultimately deliver outcomes that Iraqis value.

-For these same reasons, the United States must work in tandem with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, other international organizations, and its allies (in the region, in Europe, and elsewhere) more than ever before. The more that the United States can move in synch with the UN and American allies, the more palatable American initiatives will be to Iraqis.

The most important source of American influence moving forward is conditionality. Virtually all American assistance needs to be conditioned on Iraqis doing the things that the United States needs them to do, which in every case is likely to be something that is in the long-term interests of the Iraqi people and the Iraqi nation, albeit not necessarily in the short-term interests of various Iraqi politicians. Conditioning assistance means linking specific aspects of American activities to specific, related aspects of Iraqi behavior. It also means tying wider aspects of American cooperation with Iraq to the general course of the Iraqi political system.

-Ultimately, the United States must condition the continuation of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship on the willingness of the Iraqi political leadership to guide their country in the direction of greater stability, inclusivity, and effective governance.