Spring/Summer 2014
Number 26

Dispatches - How Not to Foster Stability in Iraq

Ramzy Mardini

AMMAN—Today, the bilateral relationship between the United States and Iraq is dominated by American hard power. Deteriorating security conditions in the country (a byproduct, at least in part, of the Syrian civil war) have garnered Baghdad more and more military hardware and security assistance from Washington. But while this approach is clearly intended to promote stability and bolster an American ally in the Middle East, the current policy isn’t just fraught with complications, it is actually quite counterproductive.

The United States invaded and subsequently occupied Iraq (2003-2011) based upon misplaced certainty, misconstrued assumptions, and poor strategic foresight. Nevertheless, for all of these faults, Iraq is not like Vietnam—a strategic void from which the United States can simply disengage after its military withdrawal. Situated in a critical region, and with immense oil and gas reserves that could potentially rival those of Saudi Arabia, Iraq is vital to the world’s energy needs and future requirements. But moreover, Iraq represents an important component of regional stability, sitting as it does at the center of the sectarian Shi’a-Sunni religious divide and serving as home to the most advanced Kurdish secessionist movement in the Middle East.

But the emphasis that has been placed upon American “hard power” to date in both shaping the bilateral relationship and confronting its deteriorating security environment misdiagnoses the problem, and misunderstands how to solve it.

The process of maintaining the U.S.-Iraqi relationships has become an end in and of itself, rather than a means to one. That sort of thinking may have succeeded during the Cold War, when the Middle East was a battleground for great-power politics. But today, new geopolitical realities require a new approach.

In an effort to combat the increasing violence in Iraq, Washington and Baghdad have only expanded the security dimension of their bilateral relationship. This might be prudent in a democratic, representative state, where the government behaves as a central and credible arbiter between factions. But today’s Iraq is none of those things; rather, Iraq is ruled by a regime which behaves as a political organism whose core purpose is to survive and thrive at the expense of other political factions.

This makes America blind to a critical reality: insurgencies are not causally derived from the absence of security, but from the deep social, political and economic ills of the state. Terrorism has become a part of everyday life in post-Saddam Iraq, claiming the lives of thousands of Iraqis each year. Indeed, violence from low-intensity conflict will remain a feature of the new Iraq for the foreseeable future. This is not because of any shortage of security capabilities, but rather because of what Iraq essentially is: a broken state characterized by deep ethno-sectarian cleavages, weak institutions and an increasingly authoritarian political order.

Moreover, although militants are a threat to security and public safety, they by themselves do not constitute a threat to the stability and territorial unity of Iraq. Instead, the real threat to long-term U.S. interests stems from Iraq’s self-destructive form of politics—which have the power to spawn systemic problems such as a widening insurgency and renewed civil war, societal and political fragmentation, and even secessionism.

Sadly, an inadvertent by-product of the overly securitized U.S.-Iraq relationship has been a strengthening of the authoritarian roots and staying power of the current regime. This, in turn, has aggravated Iraq’s already-fractious politics and fragile political system. The widening imbalance of power—between prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the rest of the Iraqi political class, between the central government and provincial ones, and between the executive and legislative and judicial branches—represents a threat to Iraq’s territorial unity and stability over time. The greater the pull towards an authoritarian system, the greater the risk that the country breaks into pieces, the boundaries and resources of which would be fiercely contested by internal factions and external powers.

While the Syrian conflict has unmistakably breathed new life into militancy in Iraq, it represents only part of the story. A collapse in the power-sharing government in Baghdad, deadly clashes between Shi’a security forces and Sunni demonstrators, and a sharpening of sectarian fears and hubris have all contributed to a rejuvenated terrorist threat in Iraq.

Nor has the United States been able to create any meaningful leverage over Baghdad through its continued military sales. This is primarily because of the existence of multiple arms sellers available to the country by virtue of its petrodollars, which has diluted the level of dependency on the United States. Baghdad has diversified its sources of arms acquisition, inking multi-billion-dollar contracts with both the United States and Russia, and thereby lessening its vulnerability to any single external power.

Moreover, Washington is handicapped because it values the simple maintenance of the relationship more than any concession it might seek from Baghdad. In other words, the U.S. cannot credibly threaten to cut off support should the Iraqi regime not comply, because that would push Baghdad into the arms of Russia, China or Iran to a greater extent. So what was supposed to be leverage becomes liability.

Of course, arms sales can strengthen the bonds between allies. But they are not—nor should they be—the cause for alliance. As a result, a disconnect exists between the role of the United States and its interests in Iraq. Without a realignment in policy—and a strict conditioning of U.S. arms deliveries on genuine reconciliation and institutional reforms in Baghdad—America’s current role in Iraq will only serve to undermine its long-term interests there.

Ramzy Mardini is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.