Next week the world will watch Iraqi and US officials meeting in Washington to hammer out agreements on how the two countries will go forward together at a time when Iraq is mired in political chaos and the Trump administration remains at a dangerous crossroads in the Middle East.
There has been plenty of speculation about the talks, their goals and the purposes and the interests that they serve. Questions have also been raised as to whether adequate preparations have been made for the meetings.
The talks, dubbed a “strategic dialogue,” are scheduled for mid-June, and the future of the US military presence in Iraq is expected to be high on an agenda that has yet to be worked out in detail.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who broke the news of the dialogue on 7 April, said the talks had been proposed by the US and would cover “all strategic issues between our two countries.” He said they would include discussion of “how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq.”
Iraqi former foreign minister Mohamed Ali Al-Hakim said his office had received a letter from the US State Department “suggesting procedures for negotiations based on the concepts in the Strategic Framework Agreement.”
New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has discussed the upcoming negotiations briefly with Pompeo, but his office has disclosed no details about their telephone conversation following his endorsement by the Iraqi parliament on 6 May.
While it is hard to know the possible approaches that each side will be taking to address the increasingly difficult issues in Iraqi-US relations, the talks will likely provide a perspective on the possible trajectory of future ties.
From Pompeo’s remarks and a statement by the US Embassy in Baghdad, Washington seems to be setting out guidelines for a strategic US-Iraqi partnership on a stable and long-term footing.
In such a perspective, Washington is probably looking for a framework for its relations with Baghdad that will be capable of maintaining the current level of cooperation and of preserving a functional order for the future.
Moving beyond press-release diplomacy, however, multiple questions remain about how the Trump administration will be able to resolve the serious issues that have been bedeviling US-Iraqi relations and move the ball forward.
The US has to face up to Iran, the active regional power in Iraq, after years of US policy failures which have turned the Islamic Republic into a key player in the country’s affairs and a Middle East powerhouse.
A major component of the upcoming talks will relate to US efforts to apply concerted diplomatic, economic and military pressure to constrain Iran and its allies in Iraq.
This will be part of Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran, a confrontational posture aimed at diminishing Iran’s influence in Iraq and helping to empower anti-Iran forces and the US’s Iraqi allies.
However, in order to achieve such goals Washington will need to have a clear, comprehensive and functional strategy in Iraq, in addition to another grand strategy in the Middle East and concrete plans to implement them.
Apart from lacking a viable strategy, miscalculations and political blunders by successive US administrations have created a geopolitical void in Iraq and the region that has helped Iran’s influence to surge.
A critical first step towards creating some form of lasting US-Iraqi relationship will be to help Iraq get back on its feet, a mission that the US failed to fulfil after its invasion of the country in 2003.
American Middle East pundits have been making proposals to the administration with regard to the upcoming talks focusing primarily on the number of the US troops in Iraq and other issues that the American negotiators should discuss with their Iraqi counterparts.
The discussions among the US experts on Iraq have focused on whether Washington should keep the same level of its combat assistance mission in Iraq or maintain a smaller force of military advisers to help train and develop Iraqi military capabilities.
However, in order for the US to help Iraq defend itself it will also need to retake the responsibility it has abandoned in helping the Iraqis to rebuild their state and nation, fractured by the US-led invasion and the mishandling of the US occupation of Iraq.
If Washington is keen to have a constructive “strategic dialogue” with Iraq, it should start by engaging in state and nation-building efforts in the country, an obligation it has long ignored in favour of the “no strategy” and “non-decisions” successive US administrations have adopted in Iraq.
The upcoming talks should focus on forging a stable strategic partnership and one that will not centre on countering threats from extremism and Iran, but will help the Iraqis to fix their failed state that has become a breeding ground for terrorism and Iranian intervention.
The US approach in the talks should start with a new playbook for bilateral relations that seeks to upgrade the Strategic Framework Agreement that was intended to shape “the legal, economic, cultural and security relations between the two countries.”
The 2008 agreement, which states that the US should work to “support and strengthen Iraq’s democracy and its democratic institutions and enhance Iraq’s capabilities,” suffers from a lack of clarity and gaps in the mechanisms by which these goals are to be put into effect.
For Pompeo’s words that the dialogue will show “how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq” to be meaningful, Washington should now seek a newly assertive and reliable framework for this new phase of Iraqi-US relations that is coherent with the outlines of longer-term strategic cooperation.
On Iraq’s side, now is the time of choice – either to continue to be a playground for regional tensions, conflicts, the ambitions of international powers and terrorism or open a new chapter of opportunity to achieve stability and sovereignty.
The “strategic dialogue” with Washington could be a rare opportunity for Iraq to break free from the vicious circle of Iran’s hegemony and effectively re-establish a solid position for itself in the world geostrategic environment and promote its own national interests.
Thus far, indecision has reigned in the Iraqi leadership, however, with this having been paralysed by inefficiency, corruption, political and sectarian divisions and competitive foreign and regional influences.
The core question for Iraqi policy-makers at this juncture is whether Baghdad should ask Washington to withdraw its troops from Iraq or seek to keep those troops in the country until the Islamic State (IS) group has been completely defeated on the battlefield.
Iraqis are sharply divided on this issue, which is expected to top the agenda of the talks, with the Internet ablaze with rumours and speculation about a US withdrawal, limited withdrawal, or no withdrawal and the implications for both sides.
In January, the Iraqi parliament voted to remove the US troops from Iraq. Some 168 members of the 328-person assembly endorsed a resolution submitted by Iran-backed Shia groups specifically calling for expelling US troops from Iraq.
Most Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the session, which was held two days after the killing of Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Al-Quds Force, in Baghdad by a US airstrike.
Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish political leaders have repeatedly made it clear that they do not want the US troops to leave out of fears that Iran will fill the resulting vacuum and Iraq could be dragged down into chaos.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq’s caretaker prime minister at the time, said his government would work to implement the parliament’s resolution. He also said that if the US troops remained, they would be considered to be an occupying force.
Tehran-backed militias in Iraq, which have frequently attacked US interests in the country in the past, also vowed to target some of the 5,550 US personnel which are believed to be in Iraq if they stay on.
While Al-Kahdimi’s government has yet to make up its mind about its security needs from the US troops, it also has to tackle the accumulation of problems left by the former government as well as other challenges that emerged thereafter.
With the Covid-19 pandemic raging and plummeting oil revenues threatening Iraq’s economic collapse, the country’s leadership will likely need help from outside sources to fix its economic and financial woes.
In addition to direct assistance from Washington, the Iraqi leaders realise that US support is essential for getting help from sources such as the World Bank, the Gulf Arab states, the European Union and the United Nations in order to confront its systemic difficulties.
More specifically, the Iraqi leadership needs a comprehensive strategy based on a careful assessment of both its needs and US intentions and purposes in order to negotiate a new deal with Washington that will guarantee Iraq’s rebuilding, a commitment which has been overlooked by successive US administrations since 2003.
Thus far, the shallow rhetoric from both sides about the talks has had little to show with regard to efforts that could successfully put Iraq on a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity.
How Baghdad and Washington can resolve such a dilemma remains unclear at a time when there is little political and diplomatic infrastructure being prepared for what may come from their “strategic dialogue.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly