President Obama and the Middle East

Jan 23, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

January 23, 2009
Number 01/09 #08

With new US President Obama now safely ensconced in the White House, it is appropriate to again look at the Middle East challenges he is likely to face.

First up, we offer a general summary of American interests in the Middle East, the specific challenges to them, and how Obama appears likely to handle them, from Dr. Harvey Sicherman. Sicherman, a former advisor to three US Secretaries of State who now heads the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has some particularly interesting points to make on Iraq and Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Iran’s nuclear program. He also offers some candid remarks on the strengths and weaknesses of Obama’s team, and hopes Obama can improve America’s Middle East image. For all Sicherman’s important observations, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, top American foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead makes a surprising argument about how the global financial crisis will affect Obama’s foreign policy options.

Next up, American academic Robert Freedman looks more specifically at issues likely to affect Obama’s relationship with Israel. He concentrates on two key issues – the relationship with Hamas, and the problem of Iran’s nuclear program. He says the relationship will largely turn on whether Obama maintains his stated policy of continuing to boycott Hamas until it meets the conditions set by the international community, and how he handles both the negotiations he promised with Iran and the follow up if they do not appear to be stopping Iran’s bombmaking. For Freedman’s look at these questions, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Kenneth Pollack, a former Clinton-era National Security Council member, now at the Brookings Institute, writes a must-read discussion of Obama’s challenges in Iraq. He warns that contrary to popular wisdom, the war in Iraq is not won and could still fall apart if not handled correctly. He describes the military situation well, but is especially good on the political achievements in Iraq that now need to follow the security improvements before the drawdown in the US presence goes too far. For this long but essential reading on the policy challenges for Obama in Iraq, CLICK HERE. MERIA, the magazine from which this article comes, had a whole issue packed with similar analysis of Obama’s Middle East challenges, which are well-worth reading.

Readers may also be interested in:

New Policies and Old Realities in the Middle East

By Harvey Sicherman

FPRI E-Notes, January 2009

American Interests

Let me begin by noting that the U.S. literature on American policy in the Middle East is hypercritical. In reading it, one could conclude that the sky is falling down or that the sky will fall down tomorrow or that it fell down yesterday, but Washington is too dense to understand it. I propose that, although we have failed to reach our ultimate goals, we have come a very long way and quite successfully.

Since 1948, all U.S. administrations have eventually settled on three vital American interests: (1) access to oil at a tolerable price, (2) the security of the State of Israel, and (3) preventing the region from coming under the domination of a hostile power.

Over the course of these sixty-odd years, we’ve managed to move the oil question from one of access to one of price. Israel has moved from a very vulnerable state to quite a defensible one, and as far as the region’s being dominated by hostile powers, no one today would prefer to go back to the era when we were competing with the Soviets. The situation has changed from one that threatened a global confrontation to one that threatened a regional confrontation to one that threatens a basically local conflict.

We have not entirely secured access to oil at a reasonable price, the State of Israel still faces considerable dangers, and there are always people who think that the Middle East belongs to them. Although we have succeeded very well compared to our starting point back in the late 1940s in meeting these three objectives, today we face several challenges to our interests.

Challenges to U.S. Interests

Iraq: The Three Negatives

The first is Iraq. Now that the idea of Iraq as a beacon of democracy has been retired by reality, our interest in Iraq may be stated succinctly: we do not want it to become a base for an al Qaeda-like terrorist operation nor do we want it to become a subsidiary of Iran. These objectives and Iraqi stability are within reach, if we understand that Iraq has a natural constitution, what may be called the “three negatives.” (1) the Shiites and Kurds will not accept another Sunni dictatorship; (2) the Sunnis and Shiites will not accept an independent Kurdistan; and finally (3) the Kurds and Sunnis will not accept a Shiite Islamic republic. Any political system that respects those three negatives may be called a democracy, in that it reflects the popular wishes.

The main U.S. political objective then is to get the various groups to understand that they cannot achieve their most far-reaching objectives: the Sunnis’ to restore the dictatorship, the Shiites’ to create some kind of Shiite Islamic republic, or the Kurds’ to go independent.

The counterinsurgency military policy we have employed to pacify the country thereby facilitating an inter-communal accommodation around a three-negative constitution seems to have mystified a lot of people but it is actually fairly easy to understand. It consists of what I call the three Cs: co-opt, corrupt, and coerce.[1] We need a coalition government in Iraq that co-opts the major political figures, corrupts those who will be corrupted, and therefore reduces the numbers who have to be coerced. In counterinsurgency, when the number of those who have to be coerced begins to drop, success is in sight.

The so-called surge was basically the application of counterinsurgency under Gen. David Petraeus, and it worked extremely well. We had to do a good deal of the co-option and the corruption, because the current Iraqi government either didn’t know how or was unwilling to do so. But by now the success of this policy has been manifested and we can see how something similar has to be used in Afghanistan.

The reality we face with Iraq is that the American military enterprise there is going to wind down, either on the basis of what’s happening on the ground or because the new president has pledged to do so in a certain time frame. Whatever decision he takes, we can foresee the gradual withdrawal of most American military forces. If the result is an Iraq that is neither an al Qaeda base nor an Iranian puppet then several important consequences will follow.

First, Iran will have been dealt a serious blow, because Iraq will not be a subsidiary of Iran and Baghdad is far more important to Tehran than Beirut or Damascus. Second, the terrorists will have been dealt a heavy blow. Ideologically, it was very important for al Qaeda to capture Baghdad, which was once the seat of an important Arab caliphate. Finally, it will have an impact on the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. We should recall that the Madrid Conference of 1991 came about only because Saddam and the Rejectionist Front were defeated in the war over Kuwait.

The three-negative constitution, however, has still not taken firm hold in Iraq. To complete that, the country needs an army willing to back it up and an equitable division of oil revenues, and these pieces should be put in place before U.S. forces leave. Such an outcome will not have the region-wide revolutionary effect that some progenitors of the Iraqi operation believed, but nonetheless it can secure some basic U.S. interests.

The Israeli-Palestinian Relationship

A second challenge is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Two models of peacemaking have been tried. In one, the outside powers impose a settlement on the locals with more or less rough justice. We had an example of that in 1957, when in the aftermath of the Suez crisis the United States and others imposed an armed truce. There was no peace involved but at least it was quiet until June 1967.

That agreement failed because the guarantors failed to live up to their guarantees when the test came. Afterwards, and particularly after 1973, Henry Kissinger led the way in discovering a new model of peacemaking. Arab and Israeli leaders—Sadat and Begin—convinced each other that they wanted to make a deal and were capable of delivering it. Once that happened, the role of the United States and other powers was to reduce the would-be peacemakers’ risks in doing so. If the Middle East leaders are to take the risks involved in this negotiation, they also expect an America president to be there with all four feet at the right time in order to bring them together.

As to the success of this model, we have had two peace treaties (Egypt-Israel and Israel-Jordan) based on it. Those treaties have been very sturdy, outlasting assassination, war, and recession. At Oslo in 1993, it was believed that Rabin and Arafat had begun a similar process and, after a transition of five years, would arrive at a final agreement.

The failure of the 2000 Camp David Summit, followed by the Intifada, convinced the United States and Israel that Arafat was not the partner, a view reinforced by Arafat’s behavior after 9/11. Following his death in 2004, the new leader Abu Mazen lacked strong control over the Palestinians. After an extremely unwise election in 2006, Hamas came to power and the model fell apart.

Today, we have a Palestinian leader who rules the West Bank primarily because the Israeli army is still there but who is willing to negotiate a two-state solution. Simultaneously, a Hamas-run operation in Gaza, supported largely by guns and money from the outside (Syria and Iran), rejects a two-state solution. How exactly do you reach any kind of a deal? There are several elements that have to be understood as we go forward.

First, all this notwithstanding, by late 2006/early 2007 and certainly by early 2008, everyone—except for Hamas and other violent groups—became convinced that you had to have some kind of a negotiation. The Annapolis process promised a virtual peace, where the Israelis and the Palestinians might reach an agreement that would remain on the shelf until that wonderful day when the Palestinians were able to carry out their part of the bargain. This was, and is, a full-employment act for diplomats, but motion-making is not the same as movement. Nonetheless, there is some virtue to it.

Second, Arafat’s most precious legacy was lost when, in summer 2006, the kidnappings of Israeli soldiers and the resulting crisis moved the power of decision on the Palestinian issue from Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, to Damascus and Tehran. The Palestinians have got to recover that one way or another if ultimately they are to form a state.

Third, there is the military problem that the Israelis discovered in 2006, in the second Lebanon war, and we discovered in Iraq.[2] Our military organization as well as that of the Israelis and most Western powers is very high tech. Relatively small numbers of forces—a couple of brigades with high-precision air bombardment and all the rest—have firepower that in the old days would have taken a division or two. Against that, various terrorist forces, such as Hezbollah, with the aid of the Iranians, developed a very well-trained force—up to infantry standards, including body armor and the rest—but using civilians as both targets and shields. They deploy themselves among a civilian population and then attack another civilian population.

How do you deal with that? If you go with firepower, you’re going to kill a lot of civilians. If you go with infantry, it’s hard, street-by-street work. You lose your technical advantage. The Israelis have experimented with a third way, which is to kill the mid- and upper-level commanders. That’s fine, if the other side doesn’t have the power of escalation. The six-month lull between Israel and Hamas came about in part because the Israelis feared that rockets with greater range, fired much deeper into Israel, could compel them to act before they were ready.

Worse, if you go into Gaza to evict Hamas, what you get as a reward for your success is the responsibility to run Gaza. That’s why the Israelis haven’t been in a hurry to go there. [Author’s note: Israel’s current Gaza campaign tries the middle way once more, namely, severely weakening Hamas’ military capability without reoccupying Gaza.]

We’ve used a middle way between firepower and infantry quite successfully in Iraq to get at this particular problem not only against al Qaeda but also against the Iranian agents there. But we’re going to face that problem in the future. Our opponents are convinced that that’s the best way to handle our military superiority. If we can persuade them otherwise then we may find them far more amendable to diplomacy.

Fourth, there are the unexpected Israel-Syria negotiations run under the auspices of the Turkish government. The Syrian regime is now riding high: it has survived its isolation and the events in Lebanon, has secured dominant influence there, and feels that it has a fairly strong political hand. But Assad has run out of oil. He needs investment, and he’s much closer to the Iranians than he cares to be. So he’s been negotiating with the Israelis. Where the issues of water and demilitarization on the Golan prevented an agreement with the Syrians before, those are not as big a problem as they used to be. Instead, the critical issue is the Syrian relationship with Hezbollah and Hamas and their alliance with Iran. It’s not clear whether the Syrians are interested in negotiation for its own sake or if they’re actually trying to reach a conclusion. The Syrian option may be a political mirage—the closer to it you seem to be, the further away it actually is, while the further away it seems to be, the closer to it you actually are. On this front as well as the Israeli-Palestinian front, the parties may wish to prolong the negotiations but not necessarily come to a conclusion.

Iran: Arsonist into Fireman?

Iran, like Syria, is a country we hope to convert from an arsonist into a fireman. Since the 1979 Revolution, the country has become a curious hybrid. On the one hand, it’s at war with the world—not only with the Western powers, but as a Shiite power, with the Sunnis. On the other hand, it is heir to the subtle traditions of Persian-inspired diplomacy. Iranian academics are quick to remind you of events that are 500-1,000 years old or even further back, when they were the premier power.

Coming to grips with this Iran has been very difficult for the United States. President Carter was arguably undone by it; President Reagan was almost undone by the Iran-Contra controversy; and Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, who offered an olive branch to the Iranians, met little success.

Nonetheless, there were a couple of opportunities to do business with the Iranians that we missed. One came after the 1991 war, when the Iranians didn’t expect us to do as well as we did. They were in a hurry after that war to talk to us about a new security arrangement in the Gulf. But the George H. W. Bush Administration, which was more interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict, preferred an abortive initiative that would have posted Egyptian and Syrian troops to protect Kuwait. The Kuwaitis declined.

The next opportunity was probably in 2004, when our Iraqi venture still looked like a success and the Iranian government had halted its reprocessing effort on uranium, indicating that they wanted to talk about several subjects. But the Bush Administration wanted the Iranian government to fall, not to talk, and so did not open any overture with it. Now we’re on the brink of what everyone thinks is going to be a most awful development, their attaining the capability to make a bomb.

Most analysts, including me, do not believe that if the Iranians got a nuclear weapon, they would immediately launch it. Nuclear deterrence still has an impact. Nonetheless, Iranians are the principal sponsors of regional terrorism, and if they think that their territory is inviolable because they have a nuclear weapon, this will encourage them to push their aims. Sooner or later that will lead to some kind of a confrontation.

How do you prevent Iran from possessing a bomb or the capability to get there? The last offer (2008) was made to the Iranians after 3-4 years of negotiations led by the Europeans. It had the signature of Secretary of State Rice and the presence in the room of the deputy secretary of state, which gave an American imprimatur to it. The Iranians were surprised by the American presence, but their reaction to it can only be described as insulting. So we’ve not gotten very far with the current attempt to give the Iranians some kind of incentive to stop their nuclear weapons or anything else.

The Iranians today do not fear any kind of an American military strike at their facilities. Because they assume that the Israelis need American permission to do so, they probably aren’t very afraid of what the Israelis might do, either. They feel free of a military threat and at the same time haven’t been responsive to any carrot or economic sanctions. The latter are more serious today than they were even six months ago because of the international economic crisis and the startling reduction in the price of oil. The Iranians were already in serious trouble when they had too much oil money; now they’re in even more serious trouble when they don’t have enough. That’s because the economic team headed by Ahmadinejad believes that the best way to deal with Iran’s economic development is to pay subsidies, especially to those who are out of work. Of course, giving purchasing power to people who don’t produce yields inflation. Iran has terrible inflation which is affecting everyone. Because this is a regime that’s careening from economic disaster to disaster, sanctions could have a serious effect on them. But I haven’t met anyone who thinks that that will necessarily put them off their decision to go with nuclear development, unless of course the regime itself feels so threatened that they will seek outside assistance in order to survive.

If the three challenges—Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian, Iran—are not met, access to oil, the security of Israel, and a Middle East free of hostile domination will be jeopardized.

Incoming Administration

What kind of administration is President-elect Obama putting together to deal with these problems? The appointments that have been made so far represent a group I call the pragmatics. Obama evidently likes to find a consensus and then get a little bit ahead of it. He has put together a foreign policy team that includes the pragmatics in both parties. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State on the one hand, Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense on the other, and Gen. Jim Jones as National Security Advisor are quite representative of this group. Obama has also read Dorothy Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. He’s got a bit of a Lincoln complex. What Goodwin forgot to mention was that the team of rivals, Lincoln’s cabinet, proved wholly incompetent to run the war. Lincoln actually had to work around them. Secretary of State Steward was so embittered by cabinet discussions, he refused to attend them. The foreign policy business was done between the president and the secretary of state without benefit of the cabinet. It’s one thing to get a team of rivals, it’s another to make it work.

The appointment of Gen. Jones resembles another model, that of President George H.W. Bush. His National Security Advisor was Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who brought to the position a great deal of discipline and a refusal to be drawn into fights with the State Department. And so, unusual in postwar American history from the 1960s onward, that Bush Administration did not have serious combat between the NSC and the Secretary of State. Obama’s appointment of Gen. Jones suggests that he wants to duplicate this feat.

What will the pragmatics advise the new president? A sample can be found in a document that is now somewhat forgotten, the Baker-Hamilton Commission that delivered some bipartisan advice to President Bush in 2006. They wanted us to get out of Iraq fairly quickly, with a diplomatic smokescreen to disguise the fact that we’d lost. Their advice with respect to the surge was not to do it, which was ignored. Another piece of advice was to try to detach Syria from Iran through negotiations that would settle the matter of the Golan between Syria and Israel and offer American guarantees of the Syria regime. I think we will see some kind of an initiative on that score although not necessarily as far-reaching as I have described it. Probably the willingness of the new administration to enter into the Syrian-Israeli negotiations will produce a direct Syrian-Israeli negotiation, which is different from saying an agreement. But it could elevate the process.

The pragmatics also favored a diplomatic approach to Iran, although it’s hard to tell whether they meant unconditional or conditional (and I’m not sure those words have any meaning anyway), but their approach to Iran would have been “global”—i.e., that not only the nuclear issues but also all the other issues (Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict) should be taken up. Finally, on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, they were anxious to have the process renewed, which did happen with Annapolis, but there is within the pragmatics a sharp division, with people like Brzezinski and Scowcroft arguing that you have to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first, while others want to focus on Iran first and don’t think that the president should risk himself on an Israeli-Palestinian deal that may not be in the offing, not simply because the Palestinians don’t have a functioning government, but because there’s an Israeli election coming up so you’re not quite sure whether you have any partners on this kind of a deal.

Last, but not least, Obama’s national security appointments are people who know how to get from A to B. Once it is decided to move from A to B, they know how to do that. But don’t ask them to define Point B, because their record on Point B is awful. If it had been up to most of the pragmatics, Saddam would still be in Kuwait and the surge would never have happened.


On Meet the Press on December 7, Obama said that his policy toward Iran would be to present a series of carrots and sticks, giving them a clear choice. He would say to the Iranians: get out of the terrorism business, don’t build a nuclear weapon, and in return for that we’ll end sanctions and you’ll be brought into paradise, the U.S.-led international community. If you don’t then we will make the sanctions tighter. He has said that military action is not off the table, but he clearly wants to try the diplomatic approach.

Other speakers in these Fox Lectures, including Kenneth Pollack on Iran, talked about this.[3] The problem is that you’re presenting an ultimatum to the Iranians, who are good at not saying yes or no. What happens then is not clear but indications are that Obama wants to accelerate or elevate both sides of the carrot and stick without getting into the military issue, in the hopes of bringing the Iranians to bear, and he thinks he’s somehow going to get the Chinese and Russians to do this with him so that there will be a solid front.

Obama has a special idea about what he’s going to do in the Middle East. He said on December 9, 2008, “I think we’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular.”[4] His message is that we’re unrelenting with respect to terrorism but otherwise we’d like to be on a respectful and friendly basis. He probably will try to make some major address to this effect in a Muslim capital.

We see here the president-elect’s belief that he himself, representing change and an improvement in America’s image, will begin to change the way people think about the United States in the Middle East. Unhappily, whether the population likes or dislikes you doesn’t make much difference in the Middle East. Polls and press coverage say that we’re very popular among Iranians, but that doesn’t make any difference to Iranian foreign policy. These same sources say we’re very disliked by Egyptians, but that doesn’t make any difference to Egyptian foreign policy. It’s better to be liked rather than disliked, but in the Middle East no one is particularly liked by anyone, even themselves.

In conclusion, I’ve spoken of the old realities in the Middle East, namely, our enduring interests and the challenges to them. I’ve also given you some idea of the “pragmatics,” Obama’s new appointees who will have to deal with this perpetually troubled region. Let me end this speech by advising you about another speech. That will be the one on U.S. policy delivered by either the President or the Secretary of State. And then we shall see whether Obama is leading the pragmatics or they are leading him.


^ See Harvey Sicherman, “Iraq Endgame,” FPRI E-Notes, January 2007, http://www.fpri.org/enotes/200701.sicherman.iraqendgame.html
^ See H.R. McMaster, “Learning from Contemporary Conflicts to Prepare for Future War,” Orbis, vol. 52, no. 4 (Fall 2008).
^ See Kenneth Pollack, “The Future of Iran,” FPRI E-Notes, September 2008, http://www.fpri.org/enotes/200809.pollack.futureiran.html.
^ See interview with Barack Obama in the Chicago Tribune, December 9, 2008.

Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D. is President of FPRI and a former aide to three U.S. secretaries of state. This essay is based on his talk given December 11, 2008, as part of FPRI’s Robert A. Fox Lectures on the Middle East.

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Obama and Israel: problems ahead?

From Robert O. Freedman
Jan 21st, 2009 by MESH

As President Barack Obama settles into the White House, there are two immediate issues facing the Israeli-U.S. relationship. The first relates to U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli Conflict in the aftermath of the fighting in Gaza and concerns possible official contacts between the United States and the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas. The second issue concerns Iran and involves two basic questions: (1) How much time will Obama allot to “creative engagement” with Iran, and (2) will Obama, unlike George W. Bush, give Israel the “green light” to attack Iran’s nuclear installations to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons?

Gaza and Hamas. Several foreign newspapers, normally not friendly toward Israel, have run stories stating that “unnamed members of the Obama Administration” are actively discussing the possibility of talks with Hamas, in order that the United States could rebuild its position in the Arab world after eight years of the pro-Israel Bush administration, and the devastation caused by the U.S.-backed Israeli military attack on Gaza.

Should Obama initiate talks with Hamas, it would be a massive reversal of a U.S. policy going back more than three decades which stated that the United States would not talk to Palestinian terrorist organizations until they renounced terrorism and formally recognized Israel. Indeed, the Reagan administration refused to talk to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization, until, in November 1988, the PLO formally recognized Israel’s right to exist and renounced terrorism. For its part, Hamas, despite a divided leadership between Gaza and Syria, continues to employ terrorism, both in the form of suicide bombings aimed at Israeli civilians and by firing missiles at Israeli cities. Hamas also continues to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, proclaiming, very openly, its goal of destroying Israel and making the area between the Mediterranean an

However, how likely is it that the Obama administration would, in fact, speak with Hamas before it recognized Israel and renounced terrorism? In her mid-January 2009 confirmation hearings for the Cabinet position of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton explicitly stated that the United States would not deal with Hamas until it changed its policies on terrorism and on recognizing Israel. In his inauguration speech, Obama himself stated emphatically that the United States would defeat those “who use terror and slaughter innocents”—a clear description of Hamas. In addition, if the Obama administration, following these statements, reversed its position on Hamas, Obama would not only massively hurt his credibility among large sectors of the U.S. public at a time when he is trying to preserve his political capital to reform the U.S. economy, he would also badly damage U.S. relations with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader pledged to peace with Israel, and would also raise questions in the minds of the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, all allies of the United States who oppose Hamas—and Iran, which backs Hamas.

If, however, as a result of its losses in the war with Israel, Hamas decides to reunite with Mahmoud Abbas’s PLO in a Palestinian national unity government, which restores Abbas’s control of Gaza, then one could perhaps expect U.S. interaction with the new Palestinian government, even if it contained Hamas representatives.

The Iran question. In a major change from the Bush administration, Obama has decided to “creatively engage” Iran in an effort to get it to halt its nuclear enrichment efforts. As Hillary Clinton stated in her confirmation hearings, the United States would follow “tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at the time and place of our choosing,” in an effort to convince Iran to abandon its “dangerous behavior” and become a “constructive regional actor.”

There are a number of questions raised by the new policy. First, given the enmity of Iran’s leaders toward the United States, will the Iranians really want to engage the United States? Indeed, Iranian President Ahmadinejad has made a change in Iran’s position toward the United States conditional on the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Middle East, something which the United States is highly unlikely to do. Second, even if the Iranians choose to talk with the United States—and it should be remembered that the Ayatollah Khamenei, and not Ahmadinejad is Iran’s top leader—how can the Obama administration be sure that the Iranian goal is not simply to string out the talks until Iranian scientists succeed in weaponizing Iran’s nuclear program and put nuclear warheads on Iran’s medium-range missiles that can reach Israel? Third, if and when the Obama administration decides that Iran is not serious about negotiations, will the United States be willing to use force to stop Iran’s nuclear program? Finally, if the Obama Administration is not willing to use force—despite Hillary Clinton’s assertion that ”all options are still on the table”—will Obama act to facilitate an Israeli attack on Iran?

Even the pro-Israel Bush administration refused to help Israel undertake an attack, denying it the bunker-busting bombs it had requested, and denying Israel permission to overfly Iraq on the way to Iran. These are the questions that Israel, and its supporters in the United States, will watch closely as the Obama administration conducts its policy toward Iran.

Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science at Baltimore Hebrew University, and Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University

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Kenneth M. Pollack*

Middle East Review of International Affairs, Dec. 2008

All across America, people increasingly seem to believe that the war in Iraq is won. Republicans proclaim it triumphantly. Democrats acknowledge it grudgingly and then try to change the subject to Afghanistan.

There is only one problem. The war in Iraq is not won. Despite the remarkable progress since 2006, the situation in Iraq remains extremely tentative and could easily fall apart again.

The United States–and particularly the U.S. military–will be a critical determinant of whether it is able to build on that progress and leave a stable, functional Iraq that picks its way toward a better future, or squander all of the gains made and lives lost and allow it to sink back into civil war–a civil war that would be deadly for the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East.

Taken together, however, the perception and the reality create a conundrum for the new Obama Administration. President Obama cannot be seen as “losing” the war that George W. Bush is now increasingly seen as having “won,” albeit only after nearly losing it himself. The fact that this perception is inaccurate is also unfortunately irrelevant in the world of politics.

On the other hand, candidate Obama promised a rapid withdrawal from Iraq based on an unconditional timetable–an even faster one than the goals set in the new Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) between the United States and Iraq. He also announced on the campaign trail that Afghanistan, not Iraq, would be the focus of his foreign policy, and he will need to shift troops there if he is going to honor those pledges. Yet the truth is that Afghanistan has little strategic value for the United States, while Iraq is vital. Consequently, jeopardizing the real priority of Iraq for political gains and the lesser priority of Afghanistan would leave the new president vulnerable to a harsh verdict from history and require a lot of explaining during his 2012 reelection bid should he pull the plug on Iraq too soon.

Fortunately, the situation in Iraq is not hopeless for President Obama, although it will be hard. If progress in building a new political foundation in Iraq can proceed at even a fraction of the pace that security has improved since 2006, a reasonably rapid drawdown (albeit hardly the total withdrawal of combat brigades in 16 months he promised during the campaign) should be possible. If, as seems more likely, Iraqi politics encounter problems, a slower pace of withdrawal should still allow the new President to run for reelection having left a secure Iraq and having removed virtually all American combat troops in his first term.


The reason that growing numbers of Americans are reaching the conclusion that the war in Iraq has been won is that the security situation there continues to improve in an impressive fashion. The civil war has been virtually extinguished–there have been close to zero instances of sectarian violence for months. The Sunni insurgency is over. There are still frequent terrorist attacks in Baghdad, Mosul, and other cities, but these are more lethal nuisances than serious threats to the political order of the society. Reflecting this, the numbers of Iraqi casualties have fallen from nearly 4,000 per month in 2006 to about 500 per month over the summer of 2008.

Across much of Iraq, a sense of normality is creeping back. In areas that had previously experienced horrific violence, barriers are being torn down, soldiers replaced by police, and parents are once again allowing their children to play in the streets.

In response, Iraq’s micro-economies are beginning to revive in much of the country. With security much improved, traffic–in the cities and on the highways–is thick again. The stores are open, and open for longer, and the markets are bustling. Iraq’s macro-economy remains moribund (more on that later), but average Iraqis are having an easier time with many routine tasks of day-to-day life than they once had.


As hoped and predicted, the improvement in security (and, to a much lesser extent, economics) has caused profound changes to Iraqi politics. The logjam that paralyzed Iraqi politics from 2004 through early 2007 has broken wide open. Instead, Iraqi politics today are remarkably fluid, with constant alignments and realignments producing unexpected coalitions. The old ethno-sectarian divisions among Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurds are not gone, but they are now only one of several different axes around which Iraqi politics are coalescing. In one positive development, a number of the new divisions are driven by policy differences–over federalism, the American presence, relations with Iran, Iraq’s oil industry, and the like–which have created important splits within the Sunni and Shi’i camps. Indeed, as of this writing, the most important rivalry in Baghdad is not Sunnis vs. Shi’a, but the alliance between the Shi’i Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the two main Kurdish parties on the one hand, pitted against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Da’wa Party, the Sadrists, and a Shi’i tribal movement that is trying to shape itself into a new political force.

In Iraq today, it is all about politics. All of the remaining problems–and they are still many and daunting–are problems of politics. Integration of the Sons of Iraq (SoIs) into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the treatment of thousands of (mostly Sunni) detainees who will be transferred from Coalition custody to the jurisdiction of the (mostly Shi’a) government of Iraq, the status of Kirkuk and wider Kurdish-Arab tensions, the residual violence in Mosul, the potential for a military coup, and Maliki’s steady effort to centralize autocratic power in his own hands are the most likely sparks to renewed violence and even a return to civil war. All of them stem from failings of Iraq’s political process.

The same is largely true today of Iraq’s enduring economic problems. Direct foreign investment in Iraq increased from about $10 million per month in 2007 to roughly $100 million this year. The fact that it is not soaring even higher, like that of the region’s other major oil producers, is no longer a product of poor security but increasingly a product of poor governance. In both the ministries of oil and electricity, the security factors affecting basic performance have largely been solved: attacks on pipelines, pumping stations, power lines, transformers, generators, and the like are way down. At this point, the remaining problems (which are very sizable) are the results of incompetence, dysfunctional bureaucratic practices, and the intrusion of venal politics into the provision of services.

For instance, Iraq is now generating roughly the same amount of energy that it did before the invasion and Coalition advisers to the Ministry of Electricity report that the national grid is stable. Instead, the reasons that most Iraqis get only a few hours of electricity per day are about demand and politics. Since 2003, Iraqis have gone on a buying spree, importing air conditioners, freezers, TVs, and all manner of other energy-gobbling appliances. As a result, demand has gone through the roof.

There is no question that Iraq desperately needs to build vast amounts of new generation, distribution, and transmission capacity to meet this new demand (and eventually replace the old grid infrastructure), but Minister of Electricity Karim Wahid al-Hasan is an old-style Saddamist who micromanages, has difficulty delegating authority or making major decisions, and is a non-aligned Shi’a who lacks the political base to back him against stronger foes in the government. His ministry is bloated with huge numbers of useless personnel–friends and cronies of powerful Iraqi leaders looking for sinecures–and too few capable technocrats. He is engaged in a moronic feud with Oil Minister Husayn Sharastani, in which Sharastani refuses to provide fuel for Iraq’s generators and Karim retaliates by cutting power to the Bayji refinery.

Meanwhile, Sharastani is guilty of failings of similar scope and dimension, including a baffling failure to repair the main pipeline from Bayji to Baghdad even though there is no security reason not to do so. Add to that unintelligible disputes among Sharastani, Karim, and Finance Minister Bayan Jabr over funding, and it is easy to see Iraq’s energy ministries are not doing better despite the improvements in security. Why these various personnel have not been replaced or compelled to do their jobs properly stem from Iraq’s dysfunctional politics.

In short, if Iraq reverts back to widespread conflict and/or its economy continues to flounder, the cause will be the failure of Iraqi politics, not security. This means that continued progress in Iraq is now all about politics. That is especially true for 2009, which will see provincial elections at the start of the year, municipal elections in the spring, and then national elections in the winter (probably in December, but possibly in January 2010).

The 2009 Elections

The upcoming elections are critical because Iraqi politics today are in a state of disequilibrium. The fluidity roiling Iraqi politics will not last. Iraqi politics will settle into a more stable pattern, a state of equilibrium, and the elections will play a huge role in determining which type of equilibrium prevails. Many of the imaginable states of equilibrium are very dangerous–the kind of political equations that would likely push Iraq back into all-out civil war, albeit perhaps more slowly and in a different manner than what was happening in 2005-2006. These include a bid by Maliki or someone else to make himself dictator; a coup by the military; or a recrudescence of the monopoly on power by the main Shi’a militia parties–ISCI, the Sadrists, Da’wa, and Fadhila.

All three of these scenarios would likely produce tremendous violence. Anyone attempting to make himself dictator will galvanize all of the other parties to oppose him by force and there is no leader out there who seems to have what it takes to win such a fight and unify the country under his iron fist, at least not for long. It is worth keeping in mind that the only Iraqi dictator who successfully held power for more than a few years was Saddam Hussein, who required genocidal levels of violence to do so. The Iraqi military is not strong or unified enough to pull off a coup, and the effort to do so could easily cause it to fragment. Finally, it was the chauvinistic misrule by an ISCI-Sadrist-Da’wa-Fadhila alliance that was driving Iraq to civil war in the first place in 2006.

There are also some more positive potential outcomes for Iraq’s political process. However, it is worth noting that while Iraqi politics could crystallize very quickly–in weeks or months–around one of the bad scenarios, it would take much longer–several years at least–to settle into one of the better scenarios and, even then, Iraq would hardly be Switzerland.

Still, all across Iraq, average Iraqis desperately want political change. They consider the current parties ruling in Baghdad to be thoroughly corrupt, the cause of the violence, the source of their other miseries, unresponsive to their needs, and ultimately unrepresentative of their perspectives and aspirations. The sentiment of “throw the bums out” seems ubiquitous, including among both Shi’a and Kurds. In response, hundreds of new independent political parties and candidates have emerged all across the country (even in Kurdistan), reflecting the desire of the average Iraqi for new leadership.

Of course, the current power-holders in Baghdad have no intention of going gently. Instead, they are fighting back every way they can. To a limited extent, they are trying to deliver good governance and basic services to the people to show that they can be responsive and responsible representatives of their constituents. Yet their main effort has been to subvert the political process as best they can, by killing, intimidating, or buying off potential rivals.  What this means is that many of those “independent” candidates and parties may already be under the thumb or in the pocket of one or another of the big parties.

Nevertheless, there are still several positive scenarios despite this harsh reality. The first is if the people choose–and feel safe enough–to vote for true independents, unaffiliated overtly or covertly with the big parties. Such an eventuality would be a tremendous boon for Iraq, because it would break the monopoly on power held by the current parties. It would force them to begin delivering on political compromises, good governance, and basic services so as to hold onto a (dwindling) share of power in future elections. Over the course of two to three election cycles (eight to twelve years), it might actually produce a reasonably representative Iraqi parliament.

Even if the elections do not produce this most positive of the feasible outcomes, there are other paths toward stability, progress, and pluralism for Iraq. For instance, if significant numbers of independents are elected, even if they are all coopted by one or another of the major parties, this could still maintain the fluidity of Iraqi politics and prevent its crystallization around one of the bad alternatives if the independents are not wedded to one of the major parties.

In other words, if there are large numbers of independents who are always open to the highest bidder and willing to sell out one patron for another, this would make it difficult for any one party to secure the kind of permanent majority they all seek. For instance, in southern Iraq, a new political movement among the Shi’i tribes, claiming to have over a million members, is selling itself to the highest bidder. While it would be much better if they were to form a party of their own and run candidates, as long as they do not become permanent constituents of Da’wa, ISCI, or the Sadrists, and are willing and able to shift their allegiance among them–thereby preventing any one of them from emerging with a clear, permanent majority–they can still play a positive role in Iraqi politics.

Moreover, because so many Iraqis are so desirous of change, even the illusion of change would be better than a clear-cut triumph by the same old parties using the same old methods of intimidation, fear-mongering, bribery, extortion, and violence. Even Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has recognized this by announcing that, unlike in 2005 when he told all Shi’a to vote exclusively for one of the chauvinistically Shi’i parties, in 2008, he believes Iraq’s Shi’a should feel free to vote outside the bonds of sectarian loyalty. This too should help secure some change, which is important because no one knows what would happen if the vast majority of Iraqis were disappointed by elections that failed to produce any meaningful change. Whatever their reaction, it certainly would not be positive.


While the problems of Iraq have increasingly become issues of internal politics, that should not be taken as a sign that the United States, and particularly the U.S. military, have done their job and can head home. Quite the contrary is true. Today, American forces and the wider American effort remain absolutely vital, although their role has changed significantly. Today, the refrain heard all over Iraq–from Americans, Iraqis, Europeans, UN personnel, and others–is that the American military is the glue holding the country together. A better metaphor would be that the U.S. military is more like a cast placed on a broken arm that is allowing the fractures to knit together properly, a process that can produce a strong arm again, but only slowly.

The role of American military forces in Iraq has changed significantly since 2007, and continues to evolve. American forces continue to lead the fight against the remnants of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), in Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq. However, elsewhere, American forces are increasingly shifting over to two different sets of missions: on the one hand, advisors and enablers to Iraqi military formations, and on the other hand, peacekeepers.[1]

The advising and training role was always one foreseen by American commanders, and it remains crucial. Thousands of American soldiers are partnered with Iraqi formations; they provide guidance, occasionally sources of emulation, and often are able to call in critical enablers that only the United States possesses–air power, artillery support, predator drones, intelligence, and surveillance capabilities, even medical evacuation.

However, the second role–as peacekeepers–looms ever larger, especially because of the criticality of Iraqi politics during the next stage of Iraq’s reconstruction. American troops are increasingly seen by Iraqis as a neutral force preventing all of Iraq’s bad actors (including the government) from employing force against them and one another. It removes violence as a means of resolving disputes among different Iraqi groups, forcing them to try to solve their problems through the political process. It is absolutely essential for moving forward because it gives various Iraqi groups the confidence to “take risks for peace.” For instance, in the absence of American military forces it is virtually unimaginable that the Sons of Iraq would have agreed to be paid and controlled by the government of Iraq as it did earlier this fall. The large American military presence gave them the peace of mind to do so, knowing that if the government of Iraq tried to crush them then the United States would step in to protect them.

This American role is emerging across Iraq as the most important one given current circumstances. At Khanaqin earlier this year, Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga probably would have come to blows had American military personnel not been present to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the stand-off. The American military presence is also the greatest impediment to a military coup.  Similarly, the most important factor limiting Maliki’s efforts to consolidate autocratic power is the United States, and specifically the fact that the U.S. military remains the most powerful force in Iraq. American forces are critical to the economic and political capacity-building missions of both Coalition Provincial Reconstruction Teams, as well as the UN mission to Iraq. American and UN civilians have made clear that without the U.S. military, they cannot operate and if the U.S. military pulls back, they will also do so. American and UN personnel report that they commonly hear average Iraqis asking for American military personnel to be present at the polling places before and during elections because the Iraqis claim that only if the American troops are present will they really be free to vote for whom they want.


A key challenge then for the United States moving forward is how to continue to play this critical role in an era in which American resources and authority in Iraq will decline, perhaps precipitously. Whatever decision President Obama makes about the pace of the U.S. military drawdown from Iraq, it seems certain that there will be a drawdown. Moreover, in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it seems unlikely that the White House or the Congress will be willing to fund economic reconstruction in Iraq as extravagantly as in the past. Moreover, there will be no “surge” in American civilian personnel to take up the slack as the military reduces its presence. Simply put, there just aren’t enough Foreign Service Officers in the world to increase significantly the complement already in Iraq. The UN might be able to tap into the wider pool of international reconstruction workers and NGOs, but, as noted, they see their role as unavoidably dependent on the American presence.

The pull from Washington is also likely to be accompanied by a push from Baghdad. Unfortunately, if it comes–as seems inevitable–it will be for mostly the wrong reasons. It is likely to come from Prime Minister Maliki, who increasingly sees the United States as the main impediment to his consolidation of power, as well as his Sadrist allies, who have always attempted to win support by playing the ultra-nationalist card–which pitted them against the United States from the outset and provoked a consistent American effort to prevent them from acquiring the kind of power they seek.

Indeed, Maliki was reportedly very ambivalent about the new SOFA agreement. In large part because the Iranians successfully (but inaccurately) convinced much of Iraq’s Shi’i community that the SOFA would compromise Iraqi sovereignty, Maliki feared that supporting it would tarnish his nationalist credentials. This despite the fact that he had insisted on a SOFA rather than a simple rollover of the UN Security Council resolution as Washington had initially preferred. This coupled with frustration at the American efforts to prevent him from consolidating power left him toying with the idea of allowing the UNSCR to expire without a SOFA–thereby forcing a full American withdrawal.

However, Maliki also recognizes that he cannot allow the country to fall apart. What good is being dictator over a country torn apart by full-scale civil war? In late October 2008, at a dramatic meeting of the Iraqi leadership, Iraq’s defense and interior ministers stated flat out that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) would not be able to hold the country together if the Americans left at the beginning of 2009. Consequently, Maliki was forced to agree to the SOFA, although he used the popular nationalist backlash to extract numerous concessions from the United States that will make it harder for Americans to constrain his actions than in the past.

It is impossible to know how, where, or when the Iraqi government will choose to limit American freedom of action in the future, but it seems sure to do so–and more so over time. Nevertheless, it is still the case that that the United States will remain enormously influential in Iraq for years to come. Indeed, the United States likely will remain the most influential entity in Iraq for some time to come because of the size of its military presence, the ISF’s dependence on its presence, and the fact that so many Iraqis do not want to see all American troops removed immediately.

Moreover, there are actions that the United States could take that could potentially increase its leverage with the Iraqis. For instance, because Iraq’s economic problems increasingly derive from dysfunctional politics rather than American-caused damage from the invasion or misguided early reconstruction, it would be plausible for the United States to announce that it will no longer pay for economic assistance or capacity-building programs for Iraq’s economic ministries. Instead, the United States could propose a new model, perhaps based along the lines of the U.S.-Saudi Joint Economic Commission, to handle American support to Iraq’s further economic and ministerial development.[2] In that example, American and Saudi officials jointly assessed Saudi Arabia’s developmental needs and identified how best to meet them. In some cases, the U.S. government agreed to provide the expertise and materiel, but the Saudis had to pay for this assistance under a program similar to Foreign Military Sales. In other cases, the commission agreed that private contractors would be best suited to the task–and both countries then identified the right contractor, drew up the terms of service and oversaw the project.

The truth is that the Iraqis still need American assistance, not so much to prevent a further slide into chaos and violence, but to develop into the kind of country they would like to become. Consequently, they would likely want such an arrangement, which would remove the need for the U.S. taxpayer to pay for Iraq’s further reconstruction. Perhaps of greater importance, it would reconfigure the relationship from one in which the U.S. attempts to impose upon Iraq the development assistance it needs, to one in which Iraq is unambiguously asking for American assistance. This could be enormously helpful in recasting the relationship in a much more positive light for Iraqis and Americans alike.


There are three broad principles that an Obama administration should derive from this state of affairs in moving forward on Iraq.
Disengage slowly, with an eye on Iraq’s stability. One cannot take off the cast until reasonably certain that the bones have healed. Unfortunately, this is where the medical analogy breaks down, because mending a broken society is much harder and more complicated than mending a broken limb. As General Odierno and his lieutenants already intend, the United States is going to have to test the waters continuously to see whether further drawdowns and redeployments can be sustained. U.S. commanders on the ground should test these propositions aggressively, but err on the side of caution whenever the results are ambiguous, because major set-backs simply cannot be afforded. At a tactical level, the United States does not want to have to withdraw from a place or a mission only to find things falling apart and have to reassert themselves. At a strategic level, the United States just cannot afford to allow the country to fall apart.

In particular, the plans of both the military command and the embassy in Baghdad for the drawdown of forces is smart, sensible, and logical, but it is predicated on things continuing to go as well in the next three years as they have over the previous two. As both General Odierno and Ambassador Crocker understand, given the litany of problems plaguing Iraqi politics, that trajectory may prove illusory. Under those circumstances, the command and the administration are going to have to be willing to slow the drawdown to give the Iraqi political process the time that it needs, and give American p


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