From the Green Zone to Foggy Bottom: Reverberations of the changes in Iraq

It is easy to be cynical about the kind of changes that are taking place in Iraq these days. Renaming the mission and reclassifying troops as no longer playing a combat role are steps that could be seen to constitute mere window dressing. Celebrating this transition as a "promise kept" even though the Iraqi government ...

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

It is easy to be cynical about the kind of changes that are taking place in Iraq these days. Renaming the mission and reclassifying troops as no longer playing a combat role are steps that could be seen to constitute mere window dressing. Celebrating this transition as a "promise kept" even though the Iraqi government is in the midst of a protracted crisis seems to be, on one level at least, whistling past a graveyard full of promises and predictions that did not come to pass.

But something big is afoot, with important ramifications not just for Baghdad but for Washington. Because Iraq has yet to be "won" or "lost." The next few years will play as important a role in determining the strategic consequences of the 2003 invasion as have the battles fought to date. The central questions, from the narrow U.S. perspective at least, are: Will the United States have, in Iraq, a government that is a friend or at least one that is moderately well disposed toward us? Will this effort have produced not just stability within the country -- Saddam's government was stable even if he was not -- but a player in the region who is a constructive partner, neutral or an impediment to regional peace?

It is easy to be cynical about the kind of changes that are taking place in Iraq these days. Renaming the mission and reclassifying troops as no longer playing a combat role are steps that could be seen to constitute mere window dressing. Celebrating this transition as a "promise kept" even though the Iraqi government is in the midst of a protracted crisis seems to be, on one level at least, whistling past a graveyard full of promises and predictions that did not come to pass.

But something big is afoot, with important ramifications not just for Baghdad but for Washington. Because Iraq has yet to be "won" or "lost." The next few years will play as important a role in determining the strategic consequences of the 2003 invasion as have the battles fought to date. The central questions, from the narrow U.S. perspective at least, are: Will the United States have, in Iraq, a government that is a friend or at least one that is moderately well disposed toward us? Will this effort have produced not just stability within the country — Saddam’s government was stable even if he was not — but a player in the region who is a constructive partner, neutral or an impediment to regional peace?

Perhaps we will measure future success in terms of whether the United States can base troops there. Perhaps we will measure it in terms of the nature of Iraq’s relationships with its neighbors — all of whom play vital roles in the region. But whatever the metric, the results will be achieved going forward more through diplomacy than by military means, more by the U.S. State Department than by the Pentagon.

That’s a big deal in terms of tactics and leverage and in terms of how America is perceived. But also, bureaucratically, in Washington terms, it represents a huge sea change. Winning "the peace" in Iraq is as big and important a mission as the State Department has had in recent years. It is fraught with challenges — not the least of which is that it will require post-conflict stabilization capabilities that are new or insufficiently supported in terms of available resources.

Taken with the centrality of the stabilization roles State is playing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the urgent diplomatic roles that it is also playing in those countries as well as with Iran and in Israel and the Palestinian territories, it is the beginning of a new era for U.S. involvement in the region, one in which the diplomats and the development specialists play a more important role than the soldiers for the first time in a decade.

Taken with the other urgent diplomatic missions of the moment — the situation in North Korea, non-proliferation, China, Myanmar, to the rise of the BRICs, to the fashioning of new international institutions, and the crafting of new, shifting alliances that will be ever more central as American resources dwindle — it will mark a major reversal of a decades-long trend diminishing the importance of the State Department relative to other cabinet departments with international missions. Indeed, it marks a return to centrality for State that was almost unimaginable during the Clinton and Bush years.

The implications are broader than just for those seeking to assess future bureaucratic influence. The new broader role for State will require new thinking, a new effort to win America’s best and brightest back into the Foreign Service, new ideas about managing the balance of power in a complex, multipolar environment, new resources devoted to emergency stabilization missions, new forms of collaboration among other civilian agencies, new deployment of intelligence assets, etc.

The leadership in the State Department and at the White House are considering these issues and these new missions as we speak. But how quickly they move and to what degree the Congress will embrace and empower the changes needed remain open questions.

That said, of course, a key to success in the new mission in Iraq is knowing what we can control, what we can’t and the difference between the two. Much, of course, depends on the will of the Iraqi people. That was the point Vice President Biden was trying to make the other day when he hammered that "they" "they" "they" will have to assume responsibility for their sovereign future. I think his heart was in the right place when he said it but it made me wince. Because even though it was another administration that decided to invade, it was still America who violated Iraqi sovereignty. For us to lecture them on how they must reclaim that sovereignty… from us… strikes the kind of dissonant diplomatic chord that we will have to learn to avoid if the United States is to win this battle for Iraqi hearts and minds going forward.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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