The United States Institute for Peace has just released a briefing entitled "Iraq in the Obama Administration" drafted by Daniel Serwer and Sam Parker. The report reflects a series of discussions by USIP's genuinely bipartisan Iraq group, a legacy of the Iraq Study Group (keeping in mind that "those whose names are listed at the end have participated one way or another in the discussions on which the paper is based, but do not necessarily agree with it in its entirety").
The report focuses on the need to pay careful attention to Iraq during the transition period and early months of the administration, a time when issues might be expected to fall between the cracks. I am not going to present the whole report here -- I agree with much but not all of it, and would have preferred some other points be more central, but I recommend that those interested in Iraq policy have a look at it. Some of its recommendations can't wait for the new team to mull over -- such as the urgent need to quickly fill the key policy positions, including Ambassador, or the need to be prepared for the provincial elections scheduled less than two weeks after the inauguration. Others will hopefully help prepare decision-makers for some important issues inevitably coming down the pike.
In the meantime, I would like to say a bit more about one issue, bouncing off of the first recommendation in the report (while saying, FWIW, that no inside information, animal testing, or artificial growth hormones went into the writing of this post):
The President-elect has an opportunity to reconfigure the U.S./Iraq relationship, relying in part on the SOFA. The Bush Administration gave Prime Minister Maliki largely unconditional support from 2006 onwards, because the future of the political process was in doubt and the overarching priority was for the government to stand up and fill the security and governance void. Maliki became increasingly confident that there was no alternative for the U.S. but to support him.
The time has come for the U.S. to take a more institutional approach to support for Iraq, one in which Washington communicates clearly that it will implement the SOFA respectfully, effectively and transparently and that its support is not linked personally to the Prime Minister, but is instead intended to help build a stable Iraq that meets reasonable expectations:
- Power sharing and integration of disenfranchised groups into government institutions;
- Respect for basic human rights and the rule of law;
- Resolution of disputed internal boundaries;
- Cooperation with international efforts to fight terrorism.
This approach is not intended to restore U.S. influence, which inevitably will continue to decline, but rather to use the influence that remains most effectively in the pursuit of a future stable Iraq that meets U.S. interests, which are broadly consistent with the political objectives that the Iraqi parliament adopted when calling for a referendum on the SOFA.
Let me put on my public diplomacy hat for a moment. Right now, in the absence of clear statements from a President-elect wisely determined to adhere to the 'one President at a time' rule, anxious Iraqis and Arabs, the American media, and those hoping to pre-emptively shape the new administration's policy are filling the void with a wild range of theories, projections, and suspicions. Contradictory comments from Gen. Ray Odierno and Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh have fueled these suspicions. A whole lot of Iraqis seem to think that the Biden Plan to partition Iraq is coming back or that there are secret riders to the SOFA/WA allowing permanent U.S. bases or that Obama has "abandoned" his commitment to withdraw from Iraq, to mention only three that I hear a lot. I believe that there is very little basis for most of what's circulating (in the U.S. or in Iraq) but in a sense that's the point -- that's what happens in the absence of good information.
This is a good example of where public diplomacy and foreign policy come together -- by listening to what Iraqis are saying, and moving quickly and judiciously to respond to those concerns, the administration might be able to pre-empt the emergence of unnecessary problems. Lord knows there will be enough real problems -- why add on popular fears of, say, the Biden Plan if there's nothing to it? Most policy types probably wouldn't see the point of denying the partition stories because nobody in the U.S. is really talking about it... but the fact that Iraqis are should be reason enough to take it on. The new administration could save itself a lot of headaches down the road by addressing these fears and suspicions (and hopes) head on, saying clearly what is and is not the new administration's policy and then living up to it in practice.
I'm not just talking about words, though. Words must be matched by deeds to be credible. Statements should be backed up with clear, strong, "costly signals" that demonstrate the seriousness of the public commitment to withdrawal, to Iraqi territorial unity, to respecting the terms of the SOFA (I expect an early challenge on the immunities question, for instance, probably with an arrest of some kind for which the new administration had best be well-prepared). Another example: I continue to argue that Obama should announce early, significant troop withdrawals in spite of the powerful internal pressures to postpone them. Early withdrawals would take advantage of the transition's unique, single opportunity to reshape the foundations of America's role in Iraq. They would demonstrate -- to Iraqis, Arabs, Iranians, and Americans alike -- that policy is really changing. They would force Iraqis to make the painful accommodations avoided for so long (particularly since the Political Reform Agreement passed alongside the SOFA/WA by the Iraqi Parliament lays out a remarkably comprehensive pathway to such political accord). They would likely help win Iraqi support for the SOFA/WA in the upcoming referendum. And, though this is less important to me, they would likely be politically popular at home. But above all, to get back to the original point, such costly, public steps would build credibility and go a long way towards reassuring skeptics and thus have a positive effect across a whole range of other related issues.
Anyway, enough about my own issues. Let me just again direct attention to Parker and Serwer's USIP report which will likely be only the first of many such reports to drop in the next couple of months.