Elephants in the Room
The U.S.-Iraqi Relationship Is Coming to a Head—and That’s a Good Thing
After 17 years, there is little love left between Washington and Baghdad. Upcoming talks may be the last opportunity to save their dysfunctional partnership.
In June, the United States and Iraq will launch a “strategic dialogue” that is supposed to address all issues in their bilateral relationship, including the presence of U.S. forces. With Iraq now serving as ground zero in the escalating confrontation between the United States and Iran, it’s hard not to feel like the U.S.-Iraqi relationship might be coming to a head. That is a good thing, and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump should make sure that it does.
It’s high time that Washington reassessed its Iraq policy. Over the past year, the relationship has grown increasingly dysfunctional from the standpoint of U.S. interests. Iraqi security services have brutally killed hundreds of innocent civilians for peacefully protesting the government’s rampant failings. Iran has systematically exploited the Iraqi economy to circumvent U.S. sanctions. Worst of all, Iranian-backed militias—some sanctioned by the United States, most on Baghdad’s payroll—have conducted several rocket attacks against U.S. troops, diplomats, and private-sector actors, with the Iraqi government holding no one to account.
This situation is not sustainable. Since 2003, year in and year out, the United States has provided Iraq with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military assistance, as well as crucial diplomatic backing. That support was premised on the assumption that Iraq would emerge over time as a key partner in preserving stability and security in the Middle East. Instead, the Iraqi government today is headed increasingly in the opposite direction, visiting horrific levels of violence on its own people, while standing aside as its territory, institutions, and economy are subverted by the United States’ most dangerous foe in the region, Iran.
The upcoming strategic dialogue offers what could be the last chance to reverse this destructive trajectory and salvage a viable long-term U.S. partnership with Iraq. This opportunity should not be squandered.
At the heart of the Trump administration’s approach should be the introduction of much stricter conditionality of U.S. support. This is a matter of necessity as much as choice. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout will put unprecedented strains on the U.S. budget for years to come. Going forward, there will be no tolerance for foreign assistance programs that fail to pay visible dividends for U.S. interests—let alone those which appear to be strengthening enemies such as Iran. The time has come for some hard choices to be put before the Iraqi government. It needs to be brought to the full realization of how much it has to lose if it doesn’t begin demonstrating at least some minimal resolve to resist Iranian imperialism and fight for Iraqi sovereignty.
The Trump administration is seeking more than $600 million this fiscal year to help train and equip Iraqi security forces in the ongoing fight against the remnants of the Islamic State. That’s on top of the critical contributions that the U.S. military provides to Iraqi counterterrorism operations in terms of logistics, intelligence, and combat air power. The administration is also requesting more than $120 million to support the Iraqi economy and for other programs, including land mine removal. In addition, the United States has long served as Iraq’s key advocate in gaining access to billions of dollars of economic assistance from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Perhaps most important, however, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York maintains a dollar account for Iraqi foreign reserves and annually ships the country billions of dollars’ worth of $100 bills to keep its cash-based economy afloat and functioning.
Needless to say, much of this assistance would be irreplaceable. Iran is certainly in no position to supply it. Absent U.S. support, Iraq’s economic and security situation, already dire, would slide ever closer to disaster. Especially in the context of the current collapse in world oil prices (the source of 90 percent of Iraq’s government revenues), the last thing Iraq can afford to lose is the political, economic, and military backing of its most powerful international benefactor.
That constitutes significant leverage for the U.S. going into the June discussions—if it’s prepared to use it. That leverage would be even higher if Washington let Baghdad know that its growing acquiescence to Iranian hegemony could increasingly put Iraq in the crosshairs of more punitive U.S. measures—from travel bans and asset freezes against senior political leaders to targeted strikes against sanctioned militia commanders. Even restrictions on Iraq’s ability to sell oil, similar to the sanctions against Iran, could be credibly put on the table, especially at a moment when global markets are massively oversupplied by as much as 20 million barrels of oil per day.
To further bolster the U.S. bargaining position, a serious contingency plan should also be developed to consolidate all U.S. forces in Iraq to the relative safety of the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. Unlike the Iraqi political elite, the Kurdish government and security forces are universally supportive of the United States’ military presence and have gone out of their way to combat threats to U.S. troops and diplomats they host. From a secure foothold in a pro-U.S. Kurdistan, the United States would still be able to conduct essential counterterrorism missions against the Islamic State, including in Syria, but without the severe force protection concerns that currently constrain its operations elsewhere in Iraq. Having significantly reduced the vulnerability of its troops, the United States would arguably also have greater flexibility to take action, as needed, against the continued threat posed by Iran and its militia proxies.
In exchange for its continued support, the United States should keep its demands of the Iraqi government limited and realistic. No matter how much pressure Washington might apply, Iraq will not go to war with Iran. Nor will it act to eradicate militias overnight. But the administration can legitimately insist that the Iraqi government start taking meaningful, but realistic steps that, first and foremost, stand up for Iraq’s sovereignty, while simultaneously addressing several core U.S. concerns.
Politically, the violent repression of peaceful protests should end. Elements of the security services and militias responsible for the worst atrocities must be held to account through a credible process of investigation, prosecution, and punishment. A serious national dialogue with the protest movement should be established.
Economically, the government needs to partner with the United States to choke off Iran’s most egregious sanctions-busting schemes in Iraq, particularly the export of Iranian oil and Iran’s access to U.S. dollars via Iraq—activities that put Iraq’s own economy at serious risk of U.S. secondary sanctions.
Militarily, the United States needs to see evidence that the Iraqi government is making a concerted effort to end the attacks against U.S. military and diplomatic personnel—even if it doesn’t end them completely. That not only means unequivocally condemning them as unlawful, but assertively deploying Iraq’s intelligence and security services to deter, disrupt, and punish attacks, including by cutting off government salaries to militia members. While the United States will never forgo its right to act unilaterally to defend its personnel, it’s also true that the more Iraq does, the less U.S. forces will need to do on their own.
The resource demands on the United States during and after the coronavirus pandemic will be staggering. Maintaining support for Iraq would be an uphill battle in the best of circumstances. But it will be an impossible mission in an environment where the Iraqi government increasingly appears more invested in being an Iranian satrapy than a U.S. partner. Time is rapidly running out for the Iraqi government to alter that perception by demonstrating that it’s at least as committed to defending Iraq’s sovereignty as the United States has been for the past 17 years.
That’s the stark reality that the Trump administration needs to drive home to Iraqi leaders in the upcoming strategic dialogue. For better or worse, this difficult, tortured, but important relationship is now almost certainly hurtling toward a fateful inflection point. While the stakes are no doubt important for U.S. interests, they could well be existential for Iraq. The government in Baghdad needs to be disabused of any illusions to the contrary.
John Hannah is a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.