April 23, 2008

Iraq's Arab Neighbors Won't Stand Up Until We Stand Down

For years, the United States has tried to get Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors to more actively support the Iraqi government. Yet no Sunni Arab country currently has an embassy in Iraq, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the only head of government in the entire region to visit Baghdad since the invasion. Arab states have also failed to follow through on promises to write off Saddam-era debts. (Approximately half of Iraq’s remaining $56-$80 billion debt is owed to Gulf Arab countries.) U.S. and Iraqi officials pushed for a reconsideration of this policy during a regional meeting this week in Kuwait, but to no avail (see here and here).

The excuses are plenty, but the main ones include: the Shia dominance of the Iraqi government, the insecure environment, the presence of large numbers of U.S. troops, and undue amounts of Iranian influence.

Rectifying this situation is something we want and something the Iraqi government appears to want. It is crucial to reintegrate Iraq into the region, encourage long-term stability, and avoid the kind of regional isolation that promotes closer ties between Maliki’s government and Tehran.

What to do? To win over Arab states, Maliki will have to make additional good faith steps toward reconciliation with Iraq’s Sunni population. Especially important will be credible efforts to integrate the 90,000 (mostly Sunni) “Sons of Iraq” into the Iraqi security forces (or otherwise provide them with employment), and fairly implement recent de-Baathification reform and amnesty laws.

That said, while these steps by Maliki are probably necessary, they may not be sufficient. The Bush administration is pushing Iraq’s Arab neighbors to counter Iranian influence, but by keeping a large-scale, open-ended military presence in Iraq, the administration is also giving them an excuse not to do so. Right now, Sunni Arab states are more than happy to free ride on U.S. efforts to prevent the collapse of the Iraqi government and check Iran (however ineffectually). Only in the context of a phased withdrawal from Iraq and a “surge” of diplomacy will Iraq’s neighbors come to realize that they will have to forge their own ties to the Iraqi government if they wish to avoid a failed Iraqi state and counter-balance Iran. I’m not talking about the United States abandoning Iraq through a rapid and total withdrawal (that way madness lies). But we have to make it clear to Iraq’s neighbors—all of whom have an interest in preventing a return to anarchy and avoiding Iranian hegemony—that they must become part of the solution . . . and carry some of the burden.