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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 2, January 24, 2009

The Many Roads to Iraq…

Monday 26 January 2009, by Seema Sridhar


It’s official now. Barack Obama has been elected as the 44th President of the United States by the 538-member Electoral College as mandated by the US Constitution and shall take charge at the 56th presidential inauguration on January 20 amidst tremendous anticipation. Much before this, the wheels of US diplomacy had started turning to coax Iraq into accepting the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that is going to determine the future of the country. The long debated US-Iraq military pact, that allows the retaining of about 1,50,000 US forces in Iraq until 2011, was passed by the Iraqi Parliament on November 27. However, keeping the forces there without building the foundation for a sustained political process would only plunge the country into chaos and lawlessness from which it is just recovering.

Iraq, which proved to be doomsday for George W. Bush, would take Obama down the same road if he fails to devise a long drawn compre-hensive policy to address this boiling pot. Obama’s election and his promise to consider talking to Iran over the negotiating table has had a substantive role to play in the crucial security pact being approved by Iraq. Any sort of military adventurism by the US at this juncture in Iraq’s neighbourhood would only thrust Iraq into an abysmal state of instability. The pact calls for he complete withdrawal of all US forces by 2011 and the probable retention of about 60,000 to 70,000 residual force, under Obama’s plan to build and equip Iraq’s armed forces. The agreement can of course be subject to amendment depending on the situation on the ground and on the developments in the region. The extent of the American success in Iraq is closely related to the nature of American involvement in its extended neighbourhood.

The SOFA should be seen as just the first step in Obama’s policy towards reconstruction and stabilisation of Iraq and a lot depends on the implementation of the policies that follow suit, not only towards Iraq, but also towards its European allies, the Middle East and multi-lateral agencies. Although most nations view Iraq as an American quandary, instability in Iraq would have a ripple effect in its troubled neighbourhood and its grave repercussions would be faced in most parts of the world. A failed state plunged in civil war would provide a fertile haven for recruiting terrorists, destabilise the energy markets. Working towards a sustainable political solution in Iraq is not only critical to US credibility but also to regional and global security.

IT is imperative that US policy towards Iraq be complemented with constructive engagement of Europe and Middle East, and careful addressing of the multiplicity of issues that govern these respective relations. The progress in Iraq is closely linked to US ties with other powers in the region, and to what extent it is able to rein in and extend their co-operation in the troubled state. Garnering the support of Muslim countries for facilitating political settlement in Iraq would go a long way in the US gaining legitimacy amongst Muslim populations. Continuing to combat international terrorism by infusing change in the campaign so that it is not perceived as a war against Islam and estrange the Muslim world is critical. Creating conditions for achieving a lasting peace in the Middle East is of prime significance in revamping the American image in the region.

The Managing Global Insecurity (MGI) Project launched by the Brookings Institution, New York University and Stanford University, recommends that the US should take the lead in expanding the Group of Eight (G-8) framework into G-16 that would allow greater representation of emerging powers such as India, Brazil, China and South Africa and Muslim countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia. The project calls for commencing a ‘diplomatic surge’ in close co-operation between the US and the UN with the support of the G-16 that would foster better conditions for negotiating a political settlement between factions in Iraq. Opening dialogue with regional heavyweight Iran, as promised, is crucial to the ongoing stabilisation process in Iraq. The new actors in the G-16 framework could influence Iraq’s neighbouring states to co-operate in restructuring Iraq’s political processes either though constructive involvement or through studied non-interference.

The recommendations of the Salzburg Global Seminar, convened in Austria in November this year bringing together leading thinkers and policy-makers from sixty countries to discuss ways and means by which America could better engage the world, also called for a peace conference on the lines of the Bonn Conference for Afghanistan to gather substantive support from other powers and rope in their commitment to the reconstruction challenges in Iraq. The memorandum addressed to Obama and presented to the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and key staff on Capitol Hill, Washington D.C., reiterated that the normalisation of the security situation in Iraq is linked to a sustained commitment to normalising the security situation and institution-building in Afghanistan.

Greater co-operation with the EU needs to be fostered in technical assistance and capacity-building in the fields of the rule of law and justice and human rights, education, health, financial and budget management, the strengthening of federal, regional and local government institutions, civil society organisations. UNSC Resolution 1770 (2007) that has significantly expanded the mandate of the United Nations Mission in Iraq provides the broad framework for EU involvement in Iraq. However, only enhanced US co-operation with the UN would give the US the standing to ask the EU to step up to the plate on Iraq. The bitter fallout between the US and its European allies over the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003 has created a massive trust deficit between the two and until this trans-Atlantic rift is bridged, co-coordinated efforts in Iraq would be a pipe dream. Addressing shared interests and concerns, a renewed commitment to a ‘rules based system’ and inter-national humanitarian law would go a long way in cementing the trans-Atlantic divide. The road to a peaceful Baghdad is strewn with challenges and each one needs to be dealt with separately as well as in cohesion. A policy of firm, tactful, multi-layered diplomacy to engage all the actors involved is the key. Is Obama capable of carrying out this task?

Seema Sridhar is a Research Scholar, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a Salzburg Seminar Fellow. Her
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