June 11, 2009

After the Fire: Shaping the Future U.S. Relationship with Iraq

By Brian Burton and John A. Nagl

Since 2003, debates about America’s role in Iraq have focused on how to withdraw U.S. forces. Yet the search for an “end game” emphasizes a short-term objective - getting out of Iraq - and sidesteps the strategic imperative of establishing an enduring relationship with a key country in a region of vital importance to the United States. It is time for America to take the long view. Neither Iraq nor America’s stake in a stable, peaceful, secure Middle East will vanish when the last American combat brigade departs. American policymakers must advance U.S. interests in Iraq and the Middle East through a long-term, low-profile engagement to help resolve Iraq’s internal challenges, strengthen its government and economic institutions, and integrate it as a constructive partner in the region.

This report outlines the constraints on the U.S. role in Iraq, including the need to refocus on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan; domestic political opinion and President Obama’s pledge to end the war; and the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq that mandates a U.S. withdrawal.  At the same time, U.S. interests in preserving stability and security in the Middle East, countering transnational terrorism, and promoting responsible governance require a stable Iraq.  Iraq faces a number of internal challenges to its stability, and its political, security, and economic institutions remain fragile.  The United States cannot play a leading role in addressing these problems, but should support peaceful reconciliation and foster a responsibly-governed Iraqi state.  The United States must help ensure that Iraqi factions cement the progress that has been made and settle their outstanding internal disputes through negotiated processes rather than violence.  It must also make a concerted effort to improve the capacity and strengthen the institutional base of Iraq’s government and economy.  To bolster regional security while balancing against Iran’s increasing power, America should cultivate Iraq as a long-term ally while developing strong bilat-eral and multilateral security and economic ties between Iraq and other U.S. partners in the Middle East.  By facilitating Iraq’s reintegration into the region, the United States can help ensure that the country reemerges as a constructive player in the Middle East, a development that would advance American national security.


  • Brian Burton

  • John A. Nagl

    Member, CNAS Board of Advisors, Associate Professor of Warfighting Studies at U.S. Army War College

    Dr. John Nagl is the ninth Headmaster of The Haverford School in Haverford, Pennsylvania and a member of the Board of Advisors at the Center for a New American Security. He wa...

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