Why the U.S. should reverse course on Iraq

David Lienemann/White House

Vice President Joe Biden addresses U.S. soldiers at Al-Faw palace at Camp Victory, outside Baghdad, Iraq, Dec. 1, 2011.

This month, Obama administration officials revealed plans to dramatically reduce embassy staff in Baghdad, the largest U.S. diplomatic mission abroad. Along with the announcement in December of the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq — the message President Obama is sending is clear: The sooner we put Iraq in the rearview mirror, the better.

But this is a mistake. Far from distancing ourselves from Iraq, we should draw it, and its Shiite prime minister, closer still. Iraq could be the linchpin of a new U.S. strategy for the Middle East at a time when one is desperately needed.

A year ago, it appeared that the United States was committed to Iraq for the long term, with a small but necessary troop presence and an overwhelming diplomatic one. But American ambivalence and Iraqi politics got in the way of maintaining a U.S. military footprint. Not to worry, senior administration officials said; troops in camouflage would be replaced by “troops” in pinstripes. But the commitment was little more than rhetorical; after the military exited, U.S. officials quickly decided that Iraq was too unstable for a full, continuing engagement with its government.

Unfortunately, the administration has mistaken cause and effect. Although ethnic and religious differences undoubtedly make working with Iraqis difficult, it was the U.S. vote of no confidence in Iraq’s future that helped precipitate renewed sectarian violence, breathed life into al-Qaeda in Iraq, empowered Tehran to stir the Iraqi political pot and gave vent to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s worst instincts. He feels insecure — rightly so — and is casting about for patrons in a neighborhood where any will exact a heavy price.

Washington has lost a valuable opportunity to nurture and support a key counterweight to Iranian influence among Shiites in the Arab world.

Great hopes were once vested in Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior-most cleric in Shiite Islam and leader of its most influential seminary, in Najaf, Iraq. Sistani is everything that the leaders of the Iranian regime are not: sage, venerated and opposed to the doctrine — “velayat e-faqih,” or the jurisprudence of the clerics — that underpins Iran’s theocratic system.

Faced with this challenge, Tehran has taken great pains to constrain Sistani and his “quietist” Shiite tradition — aggressively promoting its own, more politicized seminaries, subsidizing education for Shiite clerics throughout the Persian Gulf region and attempting to install Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a former Iranian judiciary chief, in Najaf as a counterweight to Sistani.

If Iran succeeds in sidelining Sistani, any chance of Iraq assuming the mantle of leader of the Arab Shiites and providing a model distinct from the Iranian/Hezbollah recipe of extremism and violence will be lost.

Yet, because Iraq’s Shiites have historically rejected both Iranian leadership and Iranian models of governance, there remains the possibility of an alternative Shiite vision. That vision, and Sistani’s influence in shaping it, ultimately depends on the success of Iraq itself.

Washington can reclaim the partnership with Maliki and once again set Iraq on the path to a stable future. How? First, the president must rethink his decision to drastically downsize the U.S. Embassy. It’s easy to understand his decision, as many are hard-put to imagine how thousands of diplomats, contractors, aid managers, security officers and spooks can manage in a complex and increasingly turbulent political situation in Baghdad.

Ideally, they could do so if Obama were willing to reverse course on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. Why revisit the failed negotiation that preceded the troops’ withdrawal? For one thing, while the Iraqi government was undoubtedly a difficult negotiating partner, nearly all the major parties in Iraq stated publicly that they wanted U.S. troops to remain. For Maliki, an American presence would offer a chance to sustain outside investment, restore stability and renew regional confidence in Iraq. And, most important, it would give him greater confidence in dealing with Tehran.

Realistically, however, Obama is unlikely to risk the ire of his base or take on the complicated task of reopening the troops agreements with Iraq. But this does not mean that any U.S. enterprise in Iraq is doomed. Rather, it will require a redoubled commitment to Iraq’s democratic government and urgent efforts to knit Iraq into the gulf community.

As Sunni gulf nations look with growing concern toward Iran, they must be convinced that supporting Iraq’s government and empowering Maliki against Iranian predations and Sunni extremists is in their vital interest. Americans, working in concert with Iraq’s neighbors, including Turkey and countries along the gulf, must fight diplomatically and economically to retain the territory that was won militarily.

None of this will be easy. But with so much of the Muslim world in turmoil, the last thing we need is to compound that turmoil by turning our backs on Iraq.

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