Iraq’s Disappearance From Biden’s Agenda Is a Big Mistake
Upcoming elections offer an opportunity to turn Iraq around—and contain Iran in the process.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
On Thursday morning, Baghdad witnessed twin suicide bombings in a busy market that killed 32 people and wounded more than 100 others. It was the bloodiest such attack in many years. Coming only a day after the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden, the attack is a reminder that the dangers facing Iraq from extremism remain very real, and that the country’s situation is still precarious in many ways.
The attack also serves as a reminder that Iraq needs to be on the Biden administration’s agenda, even though it does not appear to be a priority at all. Because of its strategic impact on Middle East politics and the implications Iraq’s success or failure has on the United States’ standing in the world, how Biden and his team handle Iraq will be watched closely in the Middle East and beyond.
Iraq is at a critical moment as it prepares for national elections in October that could help the country to finally emerge from the grip of corrupt, sectarian political parties—or reverse the gains it has made.
The Biden team is taking office 10 years after the Arab uprisings that the United States largely mishandled. In today’s Iraq, as elsewhere in the Middle East, there is a nascent but significant movement among young Iraqis to reject identity politics based on sectarianism, which has a bloody history of being exploited to divide Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and other groups from one another. The worst thing that could happen is if the new U.S. administration reverted back to old proposals to deepen Iraq’s sectarian divisions as a way of ruling the country, as Biden has proposed in the past. Instead, Washington should support Iraqi sovereignty, stability, and good governance.
Like Biden, many in the new administration will have an Iraq legacy—even if they do not want to own it. The new president, for one, visited Iraq many times as a U.S. senator and vice president.
As the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden played a significant role in giving then-President George W. Bush authorization for the Iraq War in 2002. In a 2006 op-ed in the New York Times, Biden proposed a dismemberment of Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines. And while sources close to Biden say he has long abandoned that position, he has yet to revoke it directly. As vice president, Biden was assigned by then-President Barack Obama to oversee the Iraq file and was widely considered a kingmaker when he threw his weight behind Nouri al-Maliki getting another term as Iraqi prime minister in 2010. At the same time, however, the Obama administration did its best to ignore Iran’s destructive meddling in Iraq.
Biden isn’t alone in having a significant history with Iraq that has remained largely unspoken during the campaign and transition. His nominees for secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, and secretary of state, Antony Blinken, are both well acquainted with Iraq. Austin served as a commander in the 2003 Iraq War and later headed U.S. Central Command, where he oversaw the drawdown of U.S. troops and their consequent return to fight the Islamic State. By naming Barbara Leaf as senior director for the Middle East and North Africa in the National Security Council and Brett McGurk as coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, Biden brings two seasoned diplomats who have worked in Iraq to the top of decision-making in national security.
These officials bring experience and personal relationships in Iraq to the table, but Iraq has changed dramatically since they were last in office. The current Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is the first non-Islamist prime minister since 2005. He has advocated civilian, nonsectarian rule in Iraq. President Barham Salih is also an advocate of nonsectarian and progressive politics. The opportunity to work with both of them should not be squandered.
There is a narrow but important opportunity to turn Iraq around—but it won’t be easy. With elections in October, the window to act with Kadhimi and Salih leading Iraq is limited to less than nine months. As the elections are held and the next government is formed, corrupt militia leaders and Iranian proxies in Iraq will do everything in their power to push secular, progressive parties and politicians from power.
To avoid that happening, the U.S. administration should have three priorities in Iraq.
First, Washington should not allow extremist elements, whatever their creed, to attack U.S. interests in the country. These interests include not just the safety of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. troop bases but the stability of Iraq more broadly, including its government, infrastructure, oil installations, and borders with U.S. allies, in particular Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait. The United States should also support the current government by aiding its ability to provide security and basic services to the Iraqi people, helping secular and progressive rule to gain greater legitimacy.
Second, there is a battle of ideas and ideals raging in the Middle East—and the United States is part of that battle. Be it in Iraq or Lebanon, young people are pushing against sectarianism and the corruption and nepotism that come with it. Thirty years have passed since the 1991 uprising, when Iraqis demanded change in their country. Iraqis rose up in 14 out of the country’s 18 provinces in a revolution that few outside Iraq remember—because it was not televised and predated the ability of social media to capture cries for help. When the uprising was quashed following Operation Desert Storm, in which a U.S.-led coalition ejected Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, the United States stood by and allowed thousands to be killed.
For over a year now, young Iraqis have once again been taking to the streets to demand a better future. The United States should not stand by the wayside again. It should engage in the Iraqi and Middle Eastern battle for progressive ideals and support the secular nation-state over militia and sectarian rule.
Third, Washington must counter Iran’s expansionist agenda in the region by helping Iraq regain its sovereignty and limiting foreign intervention in the country. Ensuring Iraq is firmly on a path to becoming a more neutral and influential actor in the region would benefit U.S. interests and bring more stability to the region.
Oddly, Iraq is barely even mentioned in Washington even as there is near-consensus that Iran will be among the top foreign-policy issues the Biden administration will tackle early on. But to address Iran and its nuclear program in isolation is short-sighted. Iran’s expansionist policies in the region, and particularly in Iraq, are part of the problem and have to be addressed and curtailed.
In his Senate confirmation hearing, Blinken said that the Gulf Arab countries and Israel would be involved in potential talks with Iran about its role in the region. There was no mention of Iraq, even though it is at the heart of Iran’s expansionist ambitions in the region.
There is a common misconception that Iran has what is often described as a “natural role” in Iraq, whether because of cultural links or Tehran’s imperial ambitions. Yet there is no reason for Iran to have a political or security role in other sovereign states. Undoubtedly, cultural links are important. But having Iraq-based militias report to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian military commanders freely cross borders goes far beyond cultural influence. Iraq must not be seen only in terms of Iran’s agenda.
The United States has a number of powerful tools of influence it can use in Iraq. A physical presence—whether U.S. troops or embassy staff—is required to show commitment and help stabilize Iraq. Apart from the most ardent of Iran’s allies in Baghdad, who wish to push the United States out of Iraq, political leaders prefer a U.S. presence that creates a counterweight to Iran. Even the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers rail against the United States, would rather keep Washington engaged in order to avoid a complete Iranian takeover. Another tool is sanctions, which the Trump administration used frequently. Sanctions are a clear indicator of whom Washington will work with and with whom they won’t. Being designated by the United States as a militia leader can end the political aspirations of anyone wanting to enter government and wield power.
Politicians in Iraq recognize that the Biden administration has little time or resources to squander in their country. That worries those who hope to see the United States play a role there and to have close ties. For those aligned with Iran, who see the United States as a challenger to their plans, this is a welcome development. They shouldn’t get what they are hoping for.