American Policy Toward Iraq After 2011

Kenneth M. Pollack

Editor’s Note: In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, Kenneth Pollack discusses the current situation in Iraq and the shape of American policy toward Iraq beyond the end of the U.S. military mission there.

Mr. Chairman and distinguished Senators, I am honored to be able to appear before you to discuss the situation in Iraq and the shape of American policy toward Iraq beyond the end of the U.S. military mission there in December 2011. It is a great credit to this august committee that at a time when the nation appears to want to forget about our mission and our interests in Iraq, you refuse to forget. It is absolutely vital. Since 2003, the United States has invested a great deal in Iraq, and there is still a reasonable chance that we might see real benefit to the blood and treasure we have sunk into that country. Of far greater importance, Iraq remains deeply troubled, and retains the potential to cause great harm to the rest of the Persian Gulf region, with all of the awful consequences that would entail for our oil-addicted global economy. Unfortunately, it is a task that will be much harder in the future even than it was in the past, when it was very, very hard.

It seems pointless to ask who “lost” Iraq. Iraq may not yet be lost; although the most likely scenarios for the country seem dark, historical events sometimes unfold in ways that defy human prediction. If our concern on the other hand, is “what were the worst mistakes that the United States made in Iraq and who was responsible for making them?” then we have a very daunting challenge ahead of us. Those mistakes are almost numberless. They stretch back in time to the months before the invasion itself and continue on up to the present day. The George W. Bush administration committed any number of catastrophic, senseless errors in Iraq. Even at the very end, when they had reversed some of the worst of their early mistakes, they were still making new ones and compounding other old ones. For its part, the Obama administration inherited a very weak hand on Iraq from the Bush administration, but then played it very badly as well. The recent negotiations over extending an American troop presence—in which the administration negotiated with itself more than it negotiated with the Iraqis—was only one such example, and it was not the only one. Ultimately, the United States never formulated an exit strategy for Iraq, we simply exited.

So much water has passed beneath that bridge that it seems far more constructive—and time-efficient—to instead focus on what U.S. policy toward Iraq ought to be moving forward. We cannot reverse time and undo our many mistakes. We cannot change the past or conjure a new present. We can only ask what is possible for America and Iraq in the future.

Of necessity, any discussion of the future must begin with a stock-taking of the present. By any objective standard, Iraq remains weak and fractious. It is not ready to be without an external peacekeeping presence. Its political leadership has not demonstrated anything like the maturity that will be required to prevent the country from sliding back into civil strife, as has so often been the case historically with countries that have experienced the same kinds of tragedies that Iraq has over the past decade (or three). Perhaps they will surprise us all and become the selfless, far-sighted and wise leaders that Iraq desperately needs. So far, their behavior during the past two years as the American drawdown from Iraq became ever more tangible, has shown little to be sanguine about. Indeed, Iraq’s leaders generally continue to hew to the worst patterns, those which typically lead to civil war, tyranny or state collapse rather than stability, prosperity and democracy.

Yet be that as it may, that is where we and the Iraqis are headed. To a very great extent, Iraq is passing beyond America’s influence. The administration’s recent decisions have made this situation an irreversible, if unfortunate, reality. There is no turning back the clock, even if Washington suddenly had a change of heart. The decisions that have been made are now virtually set in stone. There will not be a significant American military presence in Iraq in the future. That train has left the station and it cannot be recalled or reboarded at some later stop.

And so, the critical question that lies before us unanswered is how can the United States protect its interests in Iraq without troops in country, without the ability to act as peacekeeper, and without any expectation that the administration or the Congress will commit significant resources to Iraq? That question is critical because Iraq remains critical to America’s vital interests in the Persian Gulf region, and particularly the flow of oil from the region upon which the global economy depends. It is especially true in the midst of the great Arab Awakening that began this year and has rolled across the Middle East bringing hope and fear, progress and violence in equal measures to a region that previously seemed utterly moribund—and now seems entirely up for grabs. The United States cannot afford to have Iraq turn bad, both because of its own intrinsic importance and its ability to poison other key Persian Gulf states. However, our ability to steer Iraq away from rapids and cataracts has suddenly diminished. In the end, we may simply be along for the ride as Iraq’s leaders squabble over course and speed, but it would be all to the good if we can pick up an oar or grab the tiller and help guide Iraq toward safer waters.

Iraq’s Persistent Problems

Iraq is still far from sustainable stability, let alone prosperity or true pluralism. The state institutions that have evolved since 2003 remain weak and characterized by political factionalism. Appointments to ministries and other state institutions, especially in the economic and social services spheres, are driven primarily by the notion of “sharing the pie” of power and patronage, rather than by qualification or competence. Ministries themselves remain largely political fiefdoms and massive graft machines, with jobs and services frequently provided on the basis of ethnic, sectarian, or party affiliation. Not surprisingly, politicization of the ranks of the civil service has accelerated, in turn diminishing technocratic competence, especially as experienced personnel have been culled, either as a result of age or perceived links to the former regime. Thus, the institutional vacuum created by the U.S.-led invasion and collapse of the Iraqi state has still not been properly filled, and Baghdad continues to struggle to extend its power and administration throughout the provinces.

Complicating these problems have been two core issues that remain unresolved and that threaten stability and the functioning of the Iraqi government: the dispute over federalism and the absence of progress toward genuine national reconciliation. While Iraq is defined as a federal state in the 2005 Constitution, serious disagreements remain over the extent to which decentralization is mandated, and ultimately over where sovereignty lies. This issue does not just divide Arabs from Kurds (and Irbil from Baghdad). There is also a lack of common vision among Iraq’s various Arab constituencies. Some Islamist Shi’i parties, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), have promoted a sectarian-based system of regions modeled on the power of the Kurdistan Regional Government. ISCI has since backed away significantly from these ideas, but some officials in individual provinces, notably al-Basra and Salah ad-Din (and to a lesser extent Maysan and al-Anbar), continue to seek extensive decentralization of power for themselves, with some of the same security and economic authority—including over hydrocarbon resources and revenue—that Irbil has amassed. Indeed, there is still considerable discussion of the three majority-Sunni provinces of Anbar, Salah ad-Din and Nineveh forming their own region on the Kurdish model, and that Basra might declare itself autonomous. On the other side of the equation, a dwindling majority of Iraqi Arabs—Sunni and Shi’i—appear to favor preserving Baghdad’s centralized authority; they see Kurdish efforts, and tentative similar moves by various Sunni and Shi’i Arab groups as a serious threat to the territorial integrity of Iraq.

This festering dispute has undermined both governance and stability. Until now, the failure to reconcile the rival visions of federalism has been papered over through ambiguity—as in the case of the Constitution, of subsequent legislation on devolution of power, and of the budget. This has blocked the passage of key laws altogether. Worse still, Irbil and Baghdad have pursued policies based on their own interpretation of their constitutional mandates, widening the gap between them and complicating the steps that will need to be taken to accommodate their rival visions of the state, not least because of the growing mutual mistrust between the two sides. For the Kurds, creating what amounts to a confederacy of Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’i regions throughout all of Iraq is viewed as an existential priority to ensure that no future government in Baghdad will ever have the power to repeat historical abuses and past ethnic cleansing against Kurds. But each initiative Irbil takes to facilitate this objective—and to block the central government’s efforts to restore its former power—raises the hackles of Arab politicians in Baghdad who suspect that the Kurds’ ultimate goal is the dismemberment of Iraq. The Kurds in turn interpret what they see as foot-dragging on fully implementing decentralization provisions called for in the Constitution as evidence that the mindset in Baghdad has not really changed. These mutual concerns and fears have driven political leaders there to ever-more hardline reactions, raising the risk of local confrontations escalating out of control while holding up key national events such as elections and the census.

The absence of progress toward genuine national reconciliation is similarly destabilizing. While Iraqis have embraced representative politics wholeheartedly, Iraq’s political leadership has refused to clarify unambiguously who can participate in government and under what terms. In fact, it has often allowed the most radical groups and individuals to manage this process and establish the framework for determining who is in and who is out. Thus, de-Ba’thification procedures have been abused for political gain, especially among Islamist Shi’i politicians seeking to protect their gains since 2003. Both the process and the institutions that administer it lack full legislative underpinnings, and the refusal to draw a line under the procedures—or to institute a truth and reconciliation process comparable to post-apartheid South Africa’s—create political disruptions (as was evident in the run up to and after the March 2010 election). In the longer term, this will be a ticking time bomb if Sunni and nationalist constituencies feel that de-Ba’thification is being implemented as a way of denying them a legitimate share of power.

Left unaddressed, the disputes over federalism and national reconciliation could unravel the progress toward stability. At the very least, they will retard Iraq’s ability to become an effective, well-managed state, dooming it instead to continued muddling-through and ineffective governance. As such, resolving the disputes should be a priority for Washington. Tensions between Baghdad and Irbil, and between the KRG and neighboring Iraqi provinces, have been high for some time, with occasional threats of violence. Indeed, U.S. military commanders still talk of it as the most vulnerable fault line in Iraq. But Baghdad could also face unmanaged challenges from elsewhere in the country, as recent regionalism initiatives in Salah ad-Din and al-Basra attest. Meanwhile, ambiguity over political participation rights could spark violent antipathy among constituencies formerly associated with the insurgency in the west and north-west of Iraq. Many of these groups remain deeply suspicious of the new regime in Baghdad, and the Islamist Shi’a that dominate it, suspecting that they will never create the space for other constituencies to share political power. For them, the specter of periodic purges and exclusion from power under the guise of de-Ba’thification will limit the extent to which genuine national reconciliation is possible.

Meanwhile, the inability/unwillingness of Iraq’s leadership to address Iraq’s basic political divisions is beginning to re-ignite Iraq’s smoldering security problems. Prime Minister Maliki’s dependence on the Sadrists and Iran (who were the keys to his retaining office) has meant that violent Shi’a groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, Khitaib Hizballah and the Promise Day Brigades of Muqtada as-Sadr’s own Jaysh al- Mahdi, have been able to operate with relative impunity. Their attacks on U.S. forces are creating a real force protection problem for the United States that will persist past the withdrawal of American combat troops at the end of this year because Muqtada has already announced that the U.S. Embassy still constitutes an occupying force that must be resisted just as the troops themselves were.

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Of greater importance still, rising Shi’a violence, mistreatment of the remaining Sons of Iraq, and the growing sense that the Shi’a “stole” the election and are now using their control of the government to deprive the Sunni community of its fair share of power and economic benefits, appears to be pushing many Sunnis back in the direction of fear and violent opposition. The recent arrest of nearly 600 Sunnis by the government on outlandish claims that they are all Ba’thists seeking to overthrow Iraq’s current government and return it to a Ba’thist dictatorship, coupled with numerous smaller, but similar actions, has many Sunnis convinced that Shi’i Islamists intend to use their control of the government’s security forces to kill and oppress Sunnis exactly as they had been doing in 2005-2006 before the U.S. surge put an end to ethnic cleansing. Slowly growing support for nationalistic Sunni terrorist groups like Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN, or The Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order) is a particularly important canary in the coal mine because they represent a more nationalist opposition compared to al-Qa’ida in Iraq, which remains largely discredited by its foreign influence and extreme religious beliefs. Worse still, many Sunni tribal leaders and mid-level officials talk openly about having to take up arms to defend their communities from the Shi’a terrorists, since the government won’t and the Americans are leaving.

Scenarios for the Future of Iraq

It is not hard to discern that Iraq today is not headed in a positive direction. The government remains utterly paralyzed by the country’s divisions, and by leaders absolutely unwilling to make compromises of any kind to break the logjam. Efforts to fight corruption, nepotism, and politicization of the military and bureaucracy have been discarded and all of these problems are running rampant. Indeed, corruption currently appears to be the only engine of government activity. Were there no corruption, the government might not be doing anything at all. Violence has re-emerged as a tool of various groups—including the governing coalition—seeking to advance their political agendas. This in turn is pushing other groups in the direction of taking up arms again if only to defend themselves against other groups using violence since the government is unwilling to apolitically enforce the rule of law.

Looking forward from this state of affairs, it is possible to imagine four broad, plausible directions in which Iraq might move. None would be worth celebrating, although some would be much worse than others. Evaluating these scenarios is important both as a sobering reminder of what is truly plausible as opposed to some rosy fantasies we might like to believe, and that might have been possible several years ago, but in today’s context can only be seen as long-term aspirations at best. They also provide a sense of what the United States ought to be striving to achieve in Iraq, and what is most important to try to prevent.
A New Dictatorship

Many Iraqis and many observers of Iraq, believe that the most likely future for Iraq is a new dictatorship, this time by the Shi’a. Although Prime Minister Maliki almost certainly is not consciously seeking such a position, his approach to Iraq’s problems is nonetheless taking him that way all the same. Maliki evinces considerable paranoia, something entirely understandable from someone who was a member of a small, revolutionary party relentlessly chased by Saddam’s security services for almost 30 years. This makes him prone to see conspiracies, especially among Sunnis. He is often impatient with Iraq’s democratic politics, and he just as frequently acts arbitrarily, extra-constitutionally, even unconstitutionally to root out a suspected conspiracy or overcome political opposition. He is consolidating power within Iraq, and even within the Iraqi government, in a tight circle of people around himself. He is purging large numbers of people from other parties, groups, sects and ethnicities and rapidly politicizing Iraq’s relatively professional armed forces.

From an American perspective, a stable new dictatorship might be perfectly acceptable, at least from the perspective of short-term American material interests in Iraq. The problem is that any new dictatorship is unlikely to be stable and is far more likely to lead to civil war. It is worth keeping in mind that Saddam was the only dictator Iraq new who could rival a Mubarak or a Hafez al-Asad in terms of relative stability (and that is a very relative statement). And it required near-genocidal levels of violence to do so. Even Saddam had to fight frequent revolts by the Kurds and, in 1991, by elements of the Shi’i community. In Iraq’s present circumstances, however, any bid for a new dictatorship, whether consciously or absent-mindedly, would be more likely to produce civil war than a return to centralized autocracy. Whether it is Maliki or another would-be strong man, any effort by someone (probably a Shi’ah) to make himself dictator of Iraq would doubtless provoke various political and ethno-sectarian rivals to take up arms to prevent his consolidation of power. The government and military would most likely fragment (a la Lebanon) and the result would be far more likely to be a civil war, not a stable tyranny.

In addition, if Maliki, or another Shi’a were to emerge as a new dictator, he would inevitably be pushed into Iran’s arms. A Shi’a dictator of Iraq would axiomatically be rejected and ostracized by the majority Sunni states of the Arab world. The only ally he would have would be Iran—and perhaps Syria, if the Asads can hold power (and indeed, Maliki’s government has come out publicly in support of the Asad regime in Syria’s own civil war). Moreover, a Shi’i dictator would face tremendous opposition from Iraq’s Sunni community, particularly the tribes of Anbar, Salah ad-Din and Ninevah, all of whom would be supported by the Sunni regimes. Again, an Iraqi Shi’a dictator’s only source of succor would be Iran.

Renewed Civil War

Historically, this may actually be Iraq’s most likely future. Although academic studies of intercommunal civil war show some variance, a considerable body of work—including the best and most recent studies—indicate that states that have undergone one such round of conflict (as Iraq did in 2005-2007) have anywhere from a 1-in-3 to a 1-in-2 likelihood of sliding back into civil war within about five years of a ceasefire (which in Iraq came in 2008). Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq has followed the quintessential pattern for how states descend into civil war, how they emerge from it, and now how they fall back into it. Everything that is going on in Iraq today as American peacekeepers prepare to leave—the resumption of violence, the rapid deterioration of trust, the expectation that things are going to get more violent and corrupt, the unwillingness of leaders to compromise, the determination of actors across the spectrum to take short-sighted actions to protect themselves at the expense of others’ trust and security—shows that Iraq continues to hew closely to these awful patterns.

Civil war in Iraq would be disastrous for the United States for a variety of reasons. It could affect Iraq’s own oil production, and spillover from an Iraqi civil war could produce civil war in any of Iraq’s neighbors—including, most importantly, Saudi Arabia—or a regional war over the carcass of Iraq that might also affect oil prices or even oil production itself. Moreover in the short term, Iran would likely find itself able to dominate significant areas of Iraq by backing Shi’a militias in the fighting—militias that would have no one to turn to except Iran, as was the case in 2005-2007.

A Failing State

Another plausible outcome of Iraq’s current state of affairs would be a weak, fragmented, or even a failed state. The central government has a certain amount of power, but it is not efficient and Iraq’s provinces have a certain ability to resist. Moreover, as Maliki attempts to centralize power, so other groups are pushing in the opposite direction. Thus, while one set of scenarios would have to envision Maliki (or some other Shi’a leader) prevailing in this contest and establishing a new dictatorship, so another set of scenarios would have to imagine him failing because the provinces/regions/ethno-sectarian communities were successfully able to resist and to pull away from the central government. Indeed, Salah ad-Din province recently declared its autonomy, and there is widespread talk of Anbar and Nineveh joining it in a Sunni region akin to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Likewise, numerous groups and influential figures in oil-rich Basra are talking about doing the same. If they were to succeed, they would cripple the Iraqi central government. Because Iraq actually requires a fair degree of integration for economic reasons, such a centrifugal trend would likely result in an across the board breakdown in public services, economic affairs and security. Local groups (militias, but likely operating in the name of provincial governments) would fill the vacuums as best they could, but their efforts would be uneven at best, and at worst—and probably far more likely—would be corrupt, incompetent and prone to violence. Iraq might not quite look like Somalia, but it could end up bearing more than a passing resemblance to it, with all of the terrible implications for terrorism and instability in the wider region that implies.

Muddling through, perhaps ultimately upward. The only plausible, positive (in a purely relative sense) scenarios that one can imagine for Iraq given its current state of affairs are ones that envision long, painful processes during which Iraq does not fall apart or fall into dictatorship, but not much positive happens either for some period of time. Then, at some point in the future, either because Iraqi voters are somehow able to bend Iraq’s politicians to their will in a way that they could not in 2010, or because a charismatic and altruistic leader emerges who galvanizes the Iraqi polity, things begin to move in the right direction. Leaders begin to make compromises, small at first, but growing as they build trust in one another and reap the benefits of cooperation. Outside powers and businesses see progress in Iraq and begin to invest again, creating an economic stake for everyone in continued cooperation and progress. Violence is discredited. Eventually, this could produce a strong, self-confident, truly democratic Iraq that would have the strength and confidence to limit Iranian influence to what is customary among neighboring states.

Such scenarios are not impossible, but at present they also seem quite unlikely. There simply is no evidence in contemporary Iraq that would suggest that this is happening or could happen soon. The macro trends in politics, security and the economy are all negative, and while there are certainly some positive trends at a more micro level, these are all almost certain to be swamped if those macro trends continue to move in the wrong direction. When one looks at what is happening in Iraq today, it is very hard to find evidence to make a compelling case that Iraq is likely to muddle through its current problems, find a way to unlock its paralyzed political process, and begin to replace its vicious cycle with a benevolent one.

American Priorities and Iraqi Domestic Politics

The most likely scenarios for Iraq are dark ones, but some are much blacker than others, and the United States must make every effort to help Iraq avoid the worst and achieve the best, even if that best is a far cry from what might once have been imaginable.

As those scenarios also make clear, Iraqi domestic politics has become the center of gravity of the American effort toward Iraq. The future of Iraq, and American interests there, will be principally determined by the course of its domestic politics, and that in turn will determine whether America’s vital interests there are safeguarded. Security in Iraq has improved significantly, but it will only hold over the long term if Iraqi politics sorts itself out and is able to provide for the people, govern the country, and resolve its internal antagonisms. If Iraq’s domestic political framework collapses, so too will the country’s security. Iraq’s economy continues to sputter along and it will only improve when there is a government in Baghdad able to govern effectively, harness Iraq’s oil wealth, and use the proceeds to redevelop the entire country. Moreover, if there is going to be an economic collapse in Iraq, it will almost certainly come from some failure of Iraq’s domestic politics (like mismanaging the oil sector). In other words, while a civil war might technically be the result of a deterioration in the security situation or an economic meltdown, in actuality the many things that could give rise to such situations now lie largely, if not entirely, in the realm of politics.

Because Iraq’s domestic politics is the key to the future stability or instability of the country, and because it remains so fraught, it must be the principal American focus moving forward. Consequently, the absolute highest priority for the United States for the next several years must be to see Iraq’s domestic politics work out right. That means ensuring some degree of respect for democracy, transparency, and the rule of law; some development of bureaucratic capacity; no coups d’état; no dictators; some movement toward reconciliation among the various ethno-sectarian groupings, as well as within them; a reasonable delineation of center-periphery relations including a workable agreement over the nature of federalism; and an equitable management and distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth.

The problem is that domestic politics may well prove to be the area where Iraq’s political leadership are least desirous of an American role. Iraq’s political leaders have a less than stellar record of playing by the rules of democracy and enforcing the rule of law. Especially when they are in positions of authority, there has been a dangerous tendency to skirt, avoid, or flat-out ignore the Constitution in both letter and spirit. Iraq’s political leadership tends to be dominated by former warlords, clerics, tribal shaykhs, and expatriates, few of whom have experience with democratic processes and even fewer of whom seem to understand that respect for the Constitution establishes precedents and norms that will constrain their rivals just as it constrains their own behavior—and that that may someday be very important to them. Most struggle to find ways to play Iraqi politics the old-fashioned way and only grudgingly obey the rules when they must.

Since 2003, the United States has provided the ultimate insurance that no group will be able to completely overturn the system and dominate others. This is a U.S. role that many Iraqis continue to regard as at least a necessary evil if not a positive good. Most Iraqis want greater democratization, even if they don’t always use the word. They want to see their new political system succeed and their leaders forced to deliver goods and services for them, rather than vice versa, which has too often been the case in Iraq. They want more transparency and more accountability and blame corruption for the dismal state of service delivery in the country. They want governmental institutions they can rely on and political parties that represent their interests rather than someone else’s. They want all of the things that the United States wants.

Iraq’s leaders recognize this as well and they fear the residual influence of the United States will force them to deliver. It is why those out of power regularly call on the United States to “play a more active role” in Iraqi politics, and why those in power often chafe at American interference in Iraqi politics. It is why Iraqi leaders in power call on the United States to stand aside and allow the Iraqis to solve their own problems, especially when those leaders are acting in an extra-constitutional or even entirely unconstitutional fashion.

Thus, it is important for both the future of Iraq and for America’s vital interests that the United States focus its energy and resources on Iraq’s domestic politics. Yet, domestic politics is also the arena in which Iraq’s political leaders, particularly those in power, will be most determined to exclude the United States. For that reason, the United States must be prepared to subordinate virtually every other aspect of its Iraq policy by making major sacrifices in areas previously held sacrosanct, to maximize its ability to influence Iraq’s domestic politics. It is why virtually every other element of the U.S.-Iraq relationship needs to be seen as leverage to get the Iraqis to do the necessary in the one area of greatest importance to us (and to their own long-term best interests as well). For this reason, the political arena should be the one where America applies conditionality most clinically.

As important as Iraq’s domestic politics are to American interests, it is critical that the United States recognize its own limitations. The United States can shape Iraqi politics, but shape is all it can do. The United States cannot dictate to the Iraqis anymore. Especially between 2003 and 2006, Americans often drew up virtual blueprints for the Iraqis and then demanded that they adopt the U.S. project in toto. Those days are gone. In fact, much of the success that the United States enjoyed in 2007-2010 has been a result of new American political and military leaders who recognized this reality and were far more solicitous of Iraqi views. It is that practice that must continue and even expand in the face of the diminishing American role in Iraq and the r