Panel 5: Iraq and The Broader Middle East
This session raised the difficult questions surrounding the future of Iraq and, particularly, the role of the United States in Iraq after the 2008 elections. Panelists engaged on a number of issues, ranging from the internal developments within the Iraqi government to the political and military capability of the United States to remain in Iraq, and from the implications of the situation in Iraq for the Middle East to broader issues of global politics.
While the panel did not offer any concrete solutions to the challenges in Iraq, a few key themes emerged. First, while some presidential candidates have called for a withdrawal from Iraq, such a full withdrawal could have significant and dangerous consequences. Rather, it is far more likely and appropriate that some minimal US presence will remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future. The real debate is about the size and shape of that presence. Second, relations with Iran will prove critical to the future of Iraq. Panelists thought carefully about the US-Iranian relationship, the shared interests of the two states in a stable Iraq, and the possible Iranian desires to build a client state relationship with Iraq. Finally, there was consensus that the situation in Iraq has far broader consequences for US global leadership and political developments as far away as south Asia.
Chris Dickey, the Middle East Bureau Chief for Newsweek, moderated the session.
Colin Kahl, Assistant Professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, began by reframing the US national interests in Iraq and suggesting that those interests are currently defined far too expansively and in a way that is largely Iraq-centric. He suggested an alternative framing of US national interest in Iraq that is, perhaps, more minimalist in nature and more focused on international terrorism, regional stability, and US global leadership. Preventing international terrorism requires ensuring that Iraq does not become a safe-haven for Al Qaeda, though Kahl sees that as highly unlikely. The regional stability imperative is to ensure that Iraq is not dominated by Iran, while recognizing that Iran will continue to have significant influence in Iraq. Third, Kahl observed that maintaining US global leadership might actually require a reduced US presence in Iraq, but a presence sufficient to ensure some stability and prevent genocidal levels of violence in Iraq. A longer term US presence in Iraq actually increases Iran’s influence by limiting US options in the region. Kahl also noted the military challenges facing the US in Iraq, particularly as a large-scale US presence for the long-term is unsustainable because the military is simply stretched too thin. Hence, Kahl argued that while the US has a vital national interest in avoiding a failed state in Iraq, the US must also downsize its military presence in the country.
Kahl observed some improvements in Iraq recently, suggesting four reasons for the positive developments: the increased US force presence there, the fact that tens of thousands of Sunni have switched sides, Muqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire, and the separation of combatants into defensible enclaves. While the US has benefited from these developments, Kahl cautioned that the current situation was likely not sustainable over the longer term. Kahl suggested that we might have reached the minimum of violence that can be achieved without greater political accommodation within the Iraqi system itself. Hence, he suggested that the next steps involve a critical engagement with Iran on the common interest of avoiding a failed state in Iraq. Likewise, Kahl proposed that we think about the US withdrawal from Iraq as a negotiation with the Iraqi government, which would allow the US to bargain with Iraq on a number of issues.
Malcolm Chalmers, the Former Special Advisor to the Foreign Secretary at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a Professorial Fellow at RUSI observed that policymakers like to portray foreign policy as something under their control, but that particularly in the Middle East over the next few years events outside the control of policymakers are likely to dictate the agenda. In Chalmer’s view, the test for the next American President will be how he or she responds to these unpredictable events we are likely to face. Chalmers then turned his attention to Afghanistan, largely from the British perspective, commenting that the UK-Afghanistan relationship is linked to a longer, deeper, more troubled history. Chalmers closed on a hopeful note, observing that in an ideal future, Iraq will provide a bridge between the Sunni and Shia worlds in the region.
Anatol Lieven, Professor at King’s College London, opened his comments, observing that the war in Iraq is very costly, particularly for Britain and the war has had consequences for both British and American power. Real power, in Lieven’s view, is relative power that can be aimed on a particular problem in a particular place. He noted that the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan are extremely recalcitrant to outside influence. Lieven then turned his attention to Russia and its role in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He suggested that Russia had interests that may well be opposed to those of the US in Britain in the region and could become problematic should the Russians seek to operational that influence. With respect to Iran, Lieven argued that Iran is not so much firmly backing the Taliban in Afghanistan, but rather has been creating lines of supply and communication that could be used to enlist the Taliban to attack US interests in Afghanistan should the US attack Iran. In order to address this growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US needs to establish a different relationship with Iran, particularly after the replacement of Ahmadinejad.
Andrew Shearer, Director of Studies of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia, addressed the consequences of the situation in Iraq for US policy and influence in the Asia-Pacific. He suggested that there is no other part of the world where the credibility of US power and political will is more important than Asia. In Shearer’s view, Asia is still very much living in the era of geopolitics; the Cold War is not finished in Asia. He noted declining attitudes toward the US in Asia and, particularly, in Islamic South Asia. Yet, he also underscored the fact that the key Asian alliances are now stronger and more militarily capable than they have been. The US and Indonesia for example have restored their military relationship. Shearer observed that should the US withdraw fully and prematurely from Iraq, it would have highly destabilizing consequences for the Asia-Pacific region as well. In closing, Shearer commented that China’s energy use will double between 2000 and 2020 and that terrorism is still a very real threat in Asia. Therefore, in Shearer’s view, both China and Japan have significant interests in the Middle East and the success of US policy there.
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