Uh oh, Meghan O'Sullivan has something to say about Iraq...
While visiting Iraq this month, Biden spoke of a need to broker a grand bargain between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and to resolve disputes between "the different confessional groups." He made clear that he -- and, presumably, the United States -- saw Iraq's challenges and solutions largely in terms of sectarian or ethnic groups. Discussing Iraq's problems in such terms pushes Iraqis back toward the boxes they have been trying to leave behind -- and undermines incipient movement away from the dominance of sectarian political identities toward issues-based politics.
To many Iraqis, such language is familiar. The failure in security from 2004 well into 2007 crystallized sectarian and ethnic identities; Sunni extremists and Shiite militias identified both their targets and those they protected on sectarian grounds. But this language is also increasingly outdated. Security improvements over the past two years have created space for Iraqis to begin moving away from seeing themselves and their problems in such terms. Indeed, in the provincial elections held in January, issues seemed to matter to voters at least as much as identities...
The current tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government are frequently presented simplistically as manifestations of historical animosities between Arabs and Kurds. Certainly, cultural factors do matter, and Iraq's long history -- including, of course, Saddam Hussein's brutal efforts to eradicate the Kurds -- shapes the nature of the problems and the lens through which they are viewed.
But the reality is that Iraq's most difficult problems are primarily about substantive issues. Iraqis and their leaders are divided on fundamental questions about the nature of the state -- specifically, whether the locus of power should be in Baghdad or in the provinces. Should Iraq be a more traditional Arab state, where power is centralized in the capital? Or should the regions and the provinces -- i.e., the KRG -- have substantial authorities and autonomy?
Now, I don't think this is bad advice--I've also questioned Biden's "appointment" as the de facto special envoy to Iraq. In a lot of ways his--and, more broadly, America's--conception of power-sharing and national reconciliation in Iraq seems trapped in the Bosnia paradigm of divvying up territory along ethnic lines and calling it peace. I don't think that's particularly helpful for Iraq. We have to avoid policies that reinforce the country's ethno-sectarian divisions (which, to be honest, O'Sullivan and some of those she advised played a role, even if inadvertently, in exacerbating in the early years of the war).
But do you really think the average Kurd or Arab in the street, let alone their respective leadership in Erbil and Baghdad, is thinking about this in terms of abstract federalism? I think it's likely that the identity issue is salient. There's a long history there that predates Saddam, and nobody's forgotten it. That doesn't mean that Kurds and Arabs are destined to fight for eternity, but it does make the situation much more dangerous and harder to solve than a federalism dispute between Washington and Sacramento.
I've also been keeping track of the apparent controversy over Iraq's (gasp) tough enforcement of the SOFA terms to limit U.S. operations. Is this really that much of a surprise? It shouldn't be--I'm not sure what else we were expecting. It was clear from the beginning of the SOFA negotiations that the Iraqis were deadly serious about it. They want to run the show, and we have to respect that. They might not be as "ready" or effective as U.S. forces, but it seems like we really have to learn to let go a bit on the security front. Let's wait a bit and see how this shakes out before pronouncing it a disaster.
So Vice Prez Biden is apparently President Obama's envoy to Iraq, possibly due to criticism that the administration hadn't been giving a lot of outward signs that Iraq remains a high-level priority. While I'm sure that there are a lot of people at the NSC, State, DoD, and elsewhere in the government who are paying close attention to ensure Iraq doesn't fly off the rails, it has certainly been striking (and concerning) that we've got a special envoy for Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan-Pakistan, and even Sudan--but no single top-ranking person with the president's ear who is solely focused on our Iraq policy. Which, you know, seems kind of important. In that sense, it's good to know that someone is minding the shop in Washington.
That said, it's not quite clear, at least to me, that Biden is the right guy for the job. It seems that the Iraqis haven't forgotten his earlier position in favor of soft-partitioning the country into a Shiastan, Sunnistan, and Kurdistan united in name only. Now that's a bit of a caricature of the position, but that's how it was perceived. And if you're one of many Iraqis or other citizens of the Middle East (or, frankly, the rest of the world) who believes that the U.S. objective in entering Iraq was to cut it into pieces and exploit its resources, then you might find Biden's role in overseeing U.S. Iraq policy to be a confirmation of your views. Or simply not be inclined to take him seriously.
I'm also a bit iffy on the message he sent. He was very pointed in saying that the United States has no "appetite to put Humpty Dumpty back together again if, by the action of people in Iraq, it fell apart." But it seems like Maliki and some other Iraqi political leaders could care less and would prefer to do "national reconciliation" on their own, thankyouverymuch. (They can also buy their guns from someone else.) I'm not sure that's something we should welcome, given Maliki's unwillingness to rehabilitate former Baathists and his sometimes-dangerous relationship with the Kurds, both issues that might undermine the security situation if mishandled.
More pointedly, if Iraq really does go to pot for some reason, is the United States and the Obama administration prepared to let it happen, basically giving the finger to our Iraqi partners and other regional allies, with unclear-but-probably-ugly consequences for stability in the Persian Gulf and American interests there? I understand we've spent a lot of blood and treasure in Iraq and the public will to continue to do more ran out a long time ago. But honestly, isn't Iraq a lot more important to the United States from a geo-strategic standpoint than Afghanistan? I don't see how we can afford to just let things slide there, and I don't think we will. So is Biden bluffing? Posturing for the benefit of the American and Iraqi publics? Or is it a real statement of policy? If it's the latter, it just seems wrong to rule out a reaction to renewed conflict in Iraq without thinking about what a strategic game-changer that might be.