Have We Forgotten About Iraq?

July 16, 2013

American public and government attention to Iraq has fallen precipitously. Does it matter?

More than three dozen people were killed in Iraq on Sunday as a wave of bombings struck the Shi’ite-majority cities of Basra, Kut, and Karbala in the country’s south.  Two days earlier, about the same number of people died in a bomb blast at a café in the northern city of Kirkuk.

Western media outlets reported on both episodes, but reporting on such events in Iraq have adopted a disappointing formula.  They reference some nebulous spiral of violence or make vague comparisons to the difficult years of 2006 and 2007, when the country teetered on the precipice of full-blown civil war.  Platitudes seem somehow sufficient in lieu of deeper analysis of the dynamics underlying renewed levels of fighting and death tolls that have not been seen in five years.

This was not always the case.  From the outset of the US-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein and subsequently saw military forces thrust into the middle of a complex network of violence, the media was fixated on the troubled experiences of Iraq.  Embedded journalists pioneered a new model of wartime reporting.  Soon after the invasion, foreign media bureaus in Baghdad expanded in order to feed the consumer hunger for news from the war zone.

And then, they began to leave.  In 2008, all three of the America’s major broadcast television networks ceased maintaining a full-time presence of correspondents in the country.  Earlier this year, CNN became the last U.S. network to close its bureau in Baghdad, which had been open since 1990 (albeit with periodic closures when Saddam expelled their journalists).  The question, then, is this: have we forgotten about Iraq?

It isn’t only the media whose attention has been diverted away from the country.  The U.S. government, too – particularly the executive branch but with little opposition from Congress – lost its appetite to discuss, much less address, issues of growing insecurity in Iraq.  In President Obama’s highly anticipated speech on foreign policy in May, his references to Iraq centred on the error of commencing the war in the first place and the “achievement” of ending America’s involvement there.  Certainly, there is a long list of challenges and initiatives that enable this turning away from a country that for nearly a decade dominated American foreign and defense policy – from the so-called Asia pivot to the ongoing and bloody civil war in Syria.  But the little attention paid to Iraq today is more than a function of circumstances; it is willful, and it is one of the few strategic decisions that has not been met with significant opposition in an era when partisanship is said to guarantee bitter opposition in Washington on virtually any topic.

To be sure, as long as American troops were in Iraq, the country would retain a considerable degree of U.S. government and public attention.  And after the withdrawal of forces was completed eighteen months ago, that attention was guaranteed to wane.  But the extent to which this has been the case is shocking.  It extends beyond the intangible psychological drift away from Iraq, and is captured by more practical metrics, as well.  Foreign assistance funds requested for Iraq for Fiscal Year 2014 total $573 million, down from more than two billion in Fiscal Year 2013.  The 2014 figure is one-fourth that requested for Afghanistan, and a third of the totals for Pakistan and Egypt.  More strikingly, it is less than the amount requested for Nigeria – which, like Iraq, is rich in oil – and is not much more than the amounts planned for Kenya, Tanzania, and even South Africa.

While the effectiveness of foreign aid spending is open to debate, the figures provide at least some sense of the relative decline of Iraq’s importance among American foreign policy priorities.

All of this leads to two important questions: first, how much do we really know about the dynamics on which growing instability in Iraq is built; and second, is Iraq’s deprioritization really all that consequential?

With respect to the first question, the answer is that we don’t know very much.  Statistical comparisons to the violence that previously plagued the country and vague notions of similarities in the sectarian nature of the current period with that of 2006-2007 might make for adequate news copy, but there is little public discussion about what is really happening.  Back then, the cycle of sectarian violence was largely driven by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and by an array of Shi’ite militias – most notably Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.  Today, AQI has transformed into a more regionally active organisation, many of whose fighters now form a cohort of the jihadist network battling Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.  Al-Sadr is now an influential power broker, the head of one of Iraq’s most prominent political blocs.  The principal actors involved in the current sectarian bloodshed are different than those that were central to earlier violence.  Consequently, today’s patterns of sectarianism are not necessarily those that defined the violent period several years ago.  Simplistic comparisons obscure this critical fact.

The answer to the second question, depends on the long-term ramifications of the growing instability.  It takes little effort to discern that the potential impacts on U.S. interests are real.  First, the Iraqi government’s inability to extend its authority to large swathes of the country enables militant groups considerable operating space.  This, combined with the transformation of AQI from a mostly Iraq-focused organization to one seeking to engage in other battlefields across the region, could exacerbate conflicts throughout the region, as is already evident in Syria.

Second, Iraq contains the fifth largest proven oil reserves in the world, making it critical to the stability of global energy markets.  Energy infrastructure has been directly targeted by fighters in the country, but the more significant risk is that violence and instability, if it rises to some as-yet-unknowable threshold, will deter foreign investment into Iraq’s oil sector that is absolutely critical to the industry’s development.  Such an outcome would have significant economic consequences, the reverberations of which could be felt across a global economy still struggling to recover from the worldwide financial downturn.

Finally, the Middle East has proven a difficult region in which to contain troubles within the borders of a particular country.  Seeking to create a wall around a troubled state in order to keep instability and insecurity from spilling over into its neighbors is an impossible task.  The international community’s efforts to do so in Syria as a result of its collective hesitance to take concerted action to end that country’s civil war are a case in point.  Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have all felt the effects of that conflict to varying and sometimes violent degrees.  Ignoring Iraq’s challenges could very easily lay the groundwork for it to replace Syria as the region’s largest challenge, if and when the Syrian civil war is ultimately seen to some sort of conclusion.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Iraq has fallen quickly down the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities.  America has historically been eager to put difficult and divisive wars behind it.  But the degree to and rapidity with which this has happened might well have significant consequences in the not-too-distant future.   Prudence alone, then, should encourage greater attention be paid to a strategically important country that remains far from long-term, sustainable stability.

In practice, this greater attention should be manifested in a multi-faceted strategic approach to influencing events in Iraq with the aim of establishing greater stability there.  Foreign assistance funds need not needlessly be inflated, but any aid package should certainly be comprehensively targeted to promote objectives in line with U.S. interests.  Personal relationships with key figures should be fostered beyond those with Iraq’s president and key cabinet officials, including with members of parliament and senior military officers, in order to develop an informal influence capacity in a country where informal influence is often most effective.  And the U.S. should actively engage the Iraqi government on a range of regionally important issues so as to create areas of overlap in the country’s interests with those of its neighbors, thereby encouraging cooperative stabilization efforts.

These represent just a few practical steps that the U.S. government might undertake.  Many others could be similarly impactful.  But they should all be considered seriously, for allowing Iraq to settle into a conveniently forgotten relic of a difficult time in America’s recent past will almost certainly have unforeseen consequences in years to come.

John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.