Ambassador Ryan Crocker
Dr. Nussaibah Younis
National Security Interests of the United States
The objective of the United States is an independent, stable, and prosperous Iraq: one at peace within its borders and with its neighbors, reflecting legitimate and effective governance, and strongly inclined to cooperate closely with the United States in the Middle East. Iraq now is in a state of civil war that has given space to terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) that directly threaten US national security interests. Although military force can limit the capacity of terrorist groups, it cannot eradicate the underlying causes that give rise to such groups. Only an effective, responsive, and legitimate government can tackle the root causes of radicalization. This does not mean that the United States should engage in a large-scale, nation-building program in Iraq, but rather, that it should support progress on key legislative programs and reform initiatives that directly tackle Iraqi grievances.
The Case for Prioritizing Iraq
Advancing US interests in Iraq will have a positive impact on the following US national security interests across the Middle East:
Denying safe haven to terrorist groups in Iraq reduces the strategic depth of connected groups operating in Syria and limits their capacity to threaten US and allied interests.
Offering US support to the Iraqi government will eventually reduce Iraq’s vulnerability to regional, and especially Iranian influence, and limit Iran’s capacity to project power across the Middle East.
Bringing key trade routes between Jordan and Iraq back online would help to strengthen the Jordanian economy, thereby stabilizing this vulnerable US ally.
Achieving Iraq’s oil and gas export potential and modernizing its economy could fire a new and powerful engine of regional and global economic growth, potentially undermining the appeal of extremist ideology among youth in the Middle East.
The United States has already built a multilateral architecture to fight ISIS: the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS. The March 2017 meeting in Washington at which all sixty-eight states in the Coalition were represented was an affirmation of Coalition solidarity with Iraq. This Coalition can be repurposed toward strengthening the resilience of the Iraqi state. The sustained leadership of the United States will be critical, but the burden of dealing with Iraq’s deficiencies in governance can and should be shared with allies, partners, and friends. Given the substantial investments that have already been made, a relatively modest additional investment in the stabilization of Iraq may yield disproportionately positive results. By investing, rather than withdrawing, at this critical time, the United States can ensure that the gains made against ISIS are sustained in the long term.
Recommendations for US Iraq Policy
Publicly Commit to Engaging in Iraq in the Long Term.
US policy in Iraq is undermined by Iraqi perceptions that US engagement is superficial and transitory. Both ISIS and Iran promote the idea that the United States cannot be relied on for a long-term partnership.The recent visit of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford, and Senior Adviser to the President Jared Kushner are a good start. President Trump’s March 20, 2017 meeting with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi provided some assurance to the Iraqi government and the public that the United States is committed to helping Iraq even after the military defeat of ISIS.
Focus on Improving Governance.
Violent extremism flourishes in societies where the government is seen as corrupt, weak, and illegitimate by its population. The United States can most effectively tackle violent extremism in the long term by pressing the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to better meet the needs of the Iraqi people. In the short term, this must involve supporting free and fair provincial and parliamentary elections.
Strengthen the Iraqi Economy.
The Iraqi state needs a functioning economy in order to fight violent extremism, provide employment for youth vulnerable to radicalization, and to protect itself from Iranian intervention. The United States should continue to support the Iraqi economy through direct financial assistance and support for the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and multinational aid.
Keep Training Iraqi Forces.
The security threats to Iraq will not end when ISIS is driven out of Mosul. Iraqi security forces need to be prepared for the long-term defense of Iraqi territory from resurgent violent extremism. This can be achieved by maintaining an appropriate number of US troops in Iraq beyond the liberation of Mosul, and by pursuing a long-term mission to advise, train, and equip Iraqi Security Forces.
Mediate between Baghdad and the KRG.
Any military conflict between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government would seriously undermine US efforts to achieve a permanent defeat of violent extremism in Iraq. The United States should continue to mediate as appropriate between Baghdad and the KRG as they deal with complex issues such as disputed territories, oil and oil revenues, security, and Kurdish independence and should escalate its support for the United Nations in such mediation.
Maximizing Prospects for Success
Engage with the Iraqis.
The United States can only be successful in Iraq with the support of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people. There must be a greatly enhanced public diplomacy strategy in Iraq to communicate to the population that the United States seeks to support stability and growth for the country. At present, Iranian propaganda is far more effective than US efforts.
Ensure Dedicated White House Support.
It is essential that President Trump and his National Security Advisor are fully on board with a governance-focused strategy for Iraq. The White House must remain directly engaged, rather than subcontracting Iraq to a special envoy.
Consult with Congress.
The US Congress should be fully consulted in the preparation and execution of this strategy. By embracing an inclusive process, the Trump administration is likely to gain invaluable guidance, in addition to the support and backing of Congress. The March 20, 2017 letter from a bipartisan group of senators led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker is an excellent platform from which to build a long term strategy of engagement.
Engage the American Public.
It will be important to explain to the American public that future US efforts in Iraq do not represent a return to the days of nation building. Rather, the strategy should be explained as a strategic engagement designed to protect US security interests.
Maintain a Multilateral Approach.
Leverage the counter-ISIS coalition to develop an ongoing stabilization partnership between Iraq and the international community. Build on the strength of European engagement to share costs, divide responsibilities, and better tackle sensitive areas in which the United States is not seen as neutral. Persuade the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to more positively engage with Iraq.
Take a Long View.
By measuring success along governance, rather than military, indicators, the Trump administration can ensure that it is on the path to achieving a real and lasting defeat of violent extremism in Iraq. Success will take years, rather than months, but it will be meaningful once achieved.