July 04, 2009

Joe Biden, Iraq Envoy

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.