Iraq Needs to Become Relevant Again
With Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen on the front-pages of major newspapers across the country, few in the United States (and indeed in the world) remember that 100,000 American soldiers are still engaged in Iraq. The failed operation by a Nigerian bomber against an American airline on Christmas day has only worsened the world’s attention span with respect to the Iraqi issue.
This OCD mentality is especially worrisome, given Iraq’s lingering domestic problems. Educational opportunities for young Iraqis who strive for a better life are at the bare minimum, while general infrastructure in the country is still lagging behind other states in the Middle East. Security has dramatically improved, but this peaceful time has not been utilized to the fullest extent by the Iraqi Government. Many Sunnis remain isolated from mainstream Iraqi society, prying the streets for whatever job they can find. The Sons of Iraq- the crucial group that was responsible for some of the security gains during the U.S. surge- are not receiving their pay-checks from P.M. Maliki’s administration. Water shortages and food supplies are concentrated in the most populous cities.
And of course we cannot forget about the 4.5 million displaced Iraqi refugees who are either too scared to return to their country or simply don’t have the means to act on their desires (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/01/12/life_in_hell).
At a quick glance, Iraq’s problems appear resolved. But upon further inspection, the struggle within Iraq is anything but over. The Iraqi Security Forces may be a more professional organization than in the past, but what is the point of security if political and social grievances remain at a standstill?
So what can the Iraqi Government do to become relevant again in the eyes of the United States and the world? Simple…take advantage of tensions inside your neighborhood.
If Iraq truly wants to get America’s attention, the best thing they could do is play a mediating roll between the United States and Iran. Geographically it makes sense; the country is in the very heart of the Middle East and is a main staging ground for regional trade.
This approach would work from a strategic standpoint as well. For a few years now, Baghdad has tried to rebuild its repertoire and credibility in the region…particularly towards an Iran that holds a vast amount of influence in Southern Iraq. And to be honest, the Iraqi Government needs all the help it can get. P.M. Maliki’s spat with Syria over Sunni insurgents and Iraq’s short standoff with Iranian forces on the border (over oil of all things) serves to shore up this claim.
In retrospect, a mediation role would serve Iraq in two ways. First off, it would boost Iraq as a cooperative and diplomatic force in the eyes of Washington. Secondly, it would ease the concerns and historical animosity between Baghdad and Tehran in countless ways. It may even have the potential of bringing Iraq into the global spotlight at just the right time, thereby enhancing their trade and security alliances.
This recommendation is obviously easier said than done. Iran may not acquiesce. The United States will probably look the other way, given its refusal to talk to Iran over its nuclear program. But if the Obama administration intends to follow through on its “mutual interest and mutual respect” platform, then using Iraq as a mediator may be the best way to do this, absent direct talks with the Islamic Republic.
It is time for Iraq to think outside the box.
**Comments courtesy of Marc Lynch at ForeignPolicy.com**
-Daniel R. DePetris