Iraq on the horizon at the Council on Foreign Relations
This afternoon I did a panel discussion at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations with Max Boot, moderated by Michael Gordon. It was on the Chatham House rule, which means that I can talk about the general issues discussed but not attribute anything to any particular individual (other than myself, I suppose). ...
This afternoon I did a panel discussion at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations with Max Boot, moderated by Michael Gordon. It was on the Chatham House rule, which means that I can talk about the general issues discussed but not attribute anything to any particular individual (other than myself, I suppose). Most of the discussion covered the ground you'd expect, about the pace of withdrawals and the political situation in Iraq and so forth, and I don't want to rehearse those old and ongoing debates here. But I did want to quickly mention a few points which the discussion raised for me -- not really points made during the discussion, particularly, but food for thought.
This afternoon I did a panel discussion at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations with Max Boot, moderated by Michael Gordon. It was on the Chatham House rule, which means that I can talk about the general issues discussed but not attribute anything to any particular individual (other than myself, I suppose). Most of the discussion covered the ground you’d expect, about the pace of withdrawals and the political situation in Iraq and so forth, and I don’t want to rehearse those old and ongoing debates here. But I did want to quickly mention a few points which the discussion raised for me — not really points made during the discussion, particularly, but food for thought.
1. Domestic consensus. What struck all of us the most, I think, was the degree of agreement on many of the key issues — a degree of agreement which would have been unthinkable six months ago when Boot was (I believe) advising the McCain campaign and Gordon was publicly skeptical of Obama’s withdrawal plan. That has very much been reflected in the public discourse, high approval ratings for Obama’s Iraq policy, and the institutional buy-in by the military.
As I’ve written before, I think that this reflects a great deal of movement towards Obama’s position, since the consensus is in support of what is essentially the same plan Obama laid out during the campaign (abandoning the "two brigades" a month concept seems to me to be simply a tactical adjustment in the service of the strategic goal of withdrawing U.S. troops on a clear, fixed timeline; the residual force, with combat brigades transitioning into assistance and advising brigades with a new mission, was part of Obama’s original plan and is entirely consistent with the SOFA timeline).
Significant differences still remain beneath that veneer of consensus, I strongly suspect, especially about the desired end-state, what kind of U.S. presence will remain in Iraq over the mid-term, and how involved the U.S. should be in shaping Iraqi politics and security. But still — achieving this level of domestic agreement on Iraq policy is nothing short of amazing. I wonder how long it will last.
2. Thinking regionally. At the same time as the U.S. is drawing down in Iraq, it will probably be increasing its commitments to regional security and its diplomatic engagements around the Gulf. The regional security architecture remains a vital American national interest, and now is the time to think seriously about how the U.S. would like to see Iraq integrate into the region and how that will affect other important political tracks.
Over the next year, U.S. engagement with Syria will affect its role in Iraq at the same time as it shapes the prospects of peace with Israel and its reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and the Arab "moderates". The unfolding of dialogue and engagement with Iran will involve not only its role in Iraq but also the nuclear issue, Hezbollah and Hamas. American commitments to the GCC countries and its relations with Saudi Arabia will touch on all of these issues, perhaps leading Arab states to play a larger role in Iraq to offset Iranian influence. The shifting relationship with Turkey, including Obama’s planned visit as well as the growing Turkish role in Arab politics, will also impact relations between the Kurds and Baghdad.
In short, this is the time to really be thinking regionally and working the connections between the different issues — something which has always been a feature of Obama’s approach to the Middle East, and which needs to be constantly kept front and center. And yes, this must include serious engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in pursuit of a two-state solution — which is necessary, though certainly not sufficient, to make the moving parts move in the right direction. (It’s worth noting, at the same time, that Iraq is really not on the forefront of people’s minds in the region right now — Israel, Iran, and the economy weigh more heavily. But that could change.)
3. Uncertainty. During my recent trip to the region, I was struck by the fact that most of the Arab journalists and politicians I met were asking me questions about American policy rather than lecturing me about American policy. That’s to be expected with a new administration, and it’s a positive sign. People are genuinely uncertain about the new policy, whether it’s on Iran or the Arab-Israeli front or on Iraq. The key both in the region and inside Iraq is to make that uncertainty work in positive rather than destructive ways — which requires constant, careful diplomatic engagement at all levels.
Most everyone I talked to in Qatar and Jordan was impressed favorably with Obama’s Iraq speech, but continued to wonder if the U.S. is really going to withdraw, about its political strategy with regard to Maliki, and about the role of Iran in a post-American Iraq. I think that this is a good foundation to build upon, and also shows that it will take more time and more signaling to convince Arabs of the reality of the policy.
At the same time, I think that Obama has done a good job with introducing the right mix of uncertainty and confidence inside of Iraq — a clear commitment to withdrawal triggering attempts to consolidate a political center, while a gradual enough pace to reassure against the fears of renewed violence. A key question will clearly be whether the U.S. sticks to those commitments in the face of challenge (a serious upsurge in violence, a political crisis, etc.) — and here it will be absolutely vital for the U.S. to resist the temptation to relax its commitment to the drawdown.
There’s more, I’m sure, but I’ll leave it at that as I run off to another meeting.
UPDATE: In case there is any confusion, let me clarify that this post is not an account of the panel discussion. That was under the CFR version of the Chatham House rule, and I am not allowed to — and didn’t — attribute any information or statements to anyone involved. The above post reflected my thinking after the panel, including a number of conversations before and after, and not necessarily the contents of the panel itself. Certainly, Max Boot and Michael Gordon can speak for themselves and nothing I wrote above should be attributed to them. Apologies for any confusion.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark
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