Obama’s frantic foreign diplomacy drive incorporated a surprise visit to Iraq. While the US can point to hope and their “enormous sacrifice”, progress and national reconciliation in Iraq has clearly a long way to go.
US President Barrack Obama’s whirlwind eight-day foreign tour, encompassing six countries, ended with a surprise visit to Iraq and his first visit to a war-zone as commander-in-chief.
Obama met with key Iraqi leaders including Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdistan Region President Massaud Barzani. The meetings aimed to enforce US-Iraqi relations in what is a critical year for Iraq, as well as to showcase appreciation for the US forces based in the country.
The US adventure in Iraq, six years since the downfall of Saddam Hussein, has not come cheap. Whilst significant progress has been made in Iraq since 2003, the rewards are a scant consolation for the deep US involvement and the financial burden that George W. Bush in particular has paid in Iraq, with over 4000 US lives lost and over $600 billion dollars spent.
With the inauguration of Obama as president, this raised expectations that a new page can be turned in US foreign policy, where Iraq had become a symbol of its deficiencies and controversies.
Obama has made no secret of his desire to withdraw troops as soon as possible, alter the US mission in Iraq and also waste no time in realigning and leveraging US foreign policy and introduce a fresh impetus that is greatly needed to either mend or refresh ties with key global powers.
Perception of Obama in Iraq
Obama was generally well-received by Iraqis. Most Iraqis south of the Kurdistan border, prefer a speedy withdrawal of US forces and see Obama in a positive light compared to his predecessor.
The fact that Obama was against the Iraqi invasion from the outset and Iraq is deemed as Bush’s war, affords Obama an opportunity to revitalize Iraqi-U.S. ties.
Obama emphasized the need to transition to the Iraqis, after years of sacrifice and allow the Iraqis “to take responsibility for their country.”
Clearly, not only does prolonged US engagement play into the hands of insurgents and hard-line elements of the Iraqi landscape, the US can simply ill-afford to continue to watch Iraqis reconcile at a leisurely rate, where other fires in the US radar rage.
An unprecedented global economic crisis and a forgotten war in Afghanistan, as well as a US foreign policy vehicle that is in urgent need of repair, highlight the US need for all the partners it can get, let alone take ties with traditional allies for granted. Put simply, Iraq is no longer the “make or break” headache it once was, with the world ever changing over the past 6 years.
Clearly some elements such as the Sadrist bloc, favour only total US withdrawal and it came as no surprise when they attacked Obama’s visit as a “barefaced interference”
The end of the beginning for Iraq
As the US slowly plans the end of its Iraqi adventure, the work for Iraqis has just begun. 6 years of violence, sectarian feuds and lack of security, only veiled the fractured and deeply divided Iraqi social mosaic. Achieving true elusive national reconciliation is more than just achieving security and stability in the country.
Security and stability is just the bridge to national reconciliation, if there is indeed a strong deep-rooted desire for this concept amongst all the groups.
Many obstacles remain and many key issues remain unresolved. The US administration has clearly put a lot of hope that 2009 will form a strong platform for Iraqis to resolve key differences and promote a relative form of national harmony so desperately craved.
Much of this hope lies on the Iraqi general elections set for the end of this year, which promises to bring Sunnis firmly into the political arena, as well as revise coalitions and power-sharing.
However, how productive a platform the elections will serve depends much on what Baghdad can achieve in the remaining months leading up to the elections. If the track-record is anything to go by, then there will be a few optimists, with deep-rooted animosity and mistrust still at large.
The Iraqi hunger to implement constitutional articles such as article 140, adoption of a national hydrocarbon law and implement a system of governance that can appease all parties, is largely out of the hands of the US. However, this doesn’t mean that the dawn of the end of the US in Iraq, means that the US can be a by-stander in developments. If 2009 doesn’t become the all defining milestone in Iraq and broad violence in turn erupts, realization of the anticipated US withdrawal in August 2010 will be interesting indeed.
Obama urged Iraqi Prime Minister to quicken the reconciliation pace, a notion that the Bush administration have been pushing for years before, with the focus still largely on enticing minority Sunnis into the political fold as well as in to the predominantly Shiite based security forces.
Baghdad has often promised much when it comes to meeting US benchmarks but in essence has achieved insufficiently to foster real progress.
Meeting with Kurdistan Region Delegation
Obama also met with Kurdistan Region President Massaud Barzani to discuss a number of situations in Kurdistan Region and Iraq. Clearly, pressing agenda items include edgy relationships between KRG and Baghdad and assurances that the Obama administration will not neglect Kurdish ties at the expense of other alliances.
One of the looming dangers in Iraq is the increasing stand-off between Erbil and Baghdad. It is the firm duty of the US administration to ensure that bilateral ties are promoted between both sides and active steps are taken by the US to resolve fundamental differences between each side, particularly over disputed areas and jurisdiction of security forces, long before any reduction of forces.
While the US have so far chosen a more passive role in the disputes between the Kurds and Baghdad, pointing to the democratic apparatus in place to resolve such disputes, it is their duty to ensure that the disputes are indeed resolved via democratic principles and they do not leave Iraq in a perilous and tentative state, regardless of their commitments to withdraw from Iraq or other pressing matters that they have on the table.
Moreover, the US should oversee that the enticement of Baathists into the political sphere by the al-Maliki government is not at the expense of the greater peace between Kurds and Arabs. Baghdad has been looking to diminish Kurdish power and letting prominent former Baathist hardliners out of the ropes, may well see them in direct confrontation with Kurds in the contested areas. A promotion of Sunni power in the north of Iraq, may well come as a trade-off to maintain Sunni-Shiite peace further south.
Reach out to the Muslim World
Clearly, success in the Middle East goes much further than just achieving a relative notion of success in Iraq. US foreign policy requires much needed healing across the greater Muslim world.
Obama’s keenness to visit Turkey so early in his tenure comes as no surprise, with its strategic position as well as its perception as an important benchmark for the region, with Turkey housing a Muslim democracy, a pro-Western outlook and secular institutions.
Obama is keen to introduce a new dawn in US relations with the Muslim world, far from the legacy and negative perception of Bush.
Not only did Bush fail to sufficiently entice historical nemesis into the diplomatic fold, but US policies in this time also drove a wedge between traditional allies. With global crisis such the economic downturn and the broader battle against radicalism, even the might of the US can no longer afford a policy of unilateralism. If it can not sway contentious powers into the diplomatic arena, then the least it can do is not damage historical friendships.
Time is a virtue
As much as Obama’s historical ascendency to power has created much hope across the international sphere and with it the prospects of a new beginning, shifts in US policy will take time and concrete progress especially on matters relating to the Middle East may take even longer than the maximum of two presidential terms that Obama can achieve as president.
As much as Bush’s policies took time to implement and foreign relationships deteriorated over a period of time, it will take Obama time to unravel and renew US foreign policy and promote new bonds with global powers.
This concept is best demonstrated with Iraq, where any hasty decisions by Obama may well place a nail in his presidential coffin before his work has even begun. To a great extent, he will have to inherit and assume Bush’s policies, particularly in the short-term, and his hands will be inevitably tied by previous dealings in Iraq.
As much as he has touted swift withdrawal, a cornerstone of his election campaign, any withdrawal must be assessed and conducted in the most responsible manner.