Tuesday, March 09, 2010

US leverage over Iraq

The United States claims that it does not, and will not interfere in Iraqi affairs. Statements like this do not convince anyone with any skepticism about US motives or values but instead detract further from US credibility. The US really should stop issuing them just on the grounds that they are ineffective. They aren't convincing.
In a briefing at the White House last week, senior advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity hammered home two messages: "We can't and we will not tell them how to conduct their affairs," an official said of the Iraqis. "That's up to them." In addition, he said, "we see nothing that would divert us from the track we're on . . . to end the combat mission in August," even in the face of sectarian violence.
The most famous and blatant example of US interference in Iraqi affairs was George Bush's rejection of Ibrahim Jaafari as Iraq's prime minister in 2006.
Ambassador Khalilzad said that President Bush "doesn't want, doesn't support, doesn't accept" Mr. Jaafari to be the next prime minister, according to Mr. Taki, a senior aide to Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Shiite bloc. It was the first "clear and direct message" from the Americans on the issue of the candidate for prime minister, Mr. Taki said.
Bush's rejection was followed up by a trip to Iraq by Condoleeza Rice after which in a compromise Jaafari was indeed denied the position of prime minister in favor of his deputy. More recently, US Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Baghdad amid the controversy over disqualified electoral candidates after which many of the candidates were reinstated.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived Friday in a visit that underlined an enduring reality of Iraq under the Obama administration: As the United States prepares to withdraw, an Iraqi political system tailored to crisis and brinkmanship has repeatedly necessitated United States intervention to propel the political process forward.

The visit was Mr. Biden’s third as vice president and came amid a dispute over the disqualifications of hundreds of candidates for promoting the Baath Party of former President Saddam Hussein.
I guess the US position would be that the trips by Rice or Biden and the subsequent outcomes at least somewhat in line with stated US goals are just coincidences. Neither Rice or Biden actually intervened in any Iraqi political process according to this position. Some people are inclined to believe US positions regardless of how unlikely they appear.

I've always wondered what specific mechanism a US Secretary of State or Vice President could use to impact Iraqi politics. Post-invasion Iraq is notoriously corrupt. Possibly suitcases of cash are sometimes delivered to Iraqi parliamentarians from the US embassy, with high US officials able to authorize larger payments than normal. Very little specific information about specific US levers of influence over Iraq has made it to the public. From time to time there are hints, such as in the Washington Post article above:
Administration officials insist that the United States will retain significant influence with the new government, no matter who forms it. "Iraqis will continue to want our help in resolving their outstanding problems," including constitutional reform, disputes over internal boundaries and distribution of oil revenue, a senior administration official said in an interview.

"There are also things they want from us," the official noted. Under the Bush-era strategic agreement, the United States is committed to helping Iraq remove remaining U.N. restrictions on its oil revenue, as well as reparations to Kuwait for Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion, and to encouraging U.S. investment, trade and educational exchanges.
Iraq remains bound to Hussein-era UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolutions. The ability to eventually lift these resolutions will have on some small effect on Iraqi policy after the US troops leave. Basically Iraq is on a trajectory now towards greater and greater independence from the US, and a regional foreign policy orientation closer and closer to that of Nasser or Iran.

The fact that most Iraqis do not consider Israel legitimate is a fundamental determinant of Iraqi foreign policy. The ability of US officials to credibly promise bribes to Iraqi politicians who align with US preferences is a momentary determinant of Iraqi policy. The fact that Iraq is now recovering from tremendous war-time physical and societal damage will hold Iraq back from any assertive anti-US foreign policy more than US direct influence. But that is also a temporary factor that will phase out.

The US does have some leverage over Iraq. The leverage is temporary and at the margins, but as of today Iraq is not quite as independent as Iran or Syria. The US will never be able to get an unpopular measure enacted in Iraq. US influence over Iraq does not now, and never will rival US influence over the colonial states of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

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