And Today’s Crisis is Iraq…The Need to Bargain and Lie in the Cause of Strategic Realism
October 31, 2013
The visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is scarcely something to celebrate. There will be the usual vacuous speeches and empty, dishonest rhetoric. Words like “democracy” and “partnership” will be misused with the usual lack of concern. The fact is however that Maliki’s visit is even more an exercise in realpolitik than the usual visit from the Middle East.
Maliki will be looking for U.S. arms and assistance in dealing with growing Sunni popular and extremist threats that are as much a product of his own acts of repression and efforts to seek power as any kind of terrorist threat. He will also be seeking to advance his own—and the Shi’ite cause—by balancing U.S. arms and influence off his growing dependence on Iran and isolation from much of the Sunni Arab world.
The United States will be seeking to use arms and influence to help Maliki keep some distance from Iran, and to moderate his treatment of Sunnis and his ties to Shi’ite militias and hardliners, and to ease the tensions between his government and the Kurdish security zone.
The United States will also be trying to reduce his tacit and active support of Iranian and Iraqi Shi’ite support of Assad, and to prevent the kind of repression of Sunnis in Western Iraq that will push them even further towards Al Qa’ida and Sunni extremist movements. The US will – at some level – seek a move towards a more national government and real elections, and to reassure its Arab allies that it is not tilting towards Maliki and Iran at their expense.
The visit will probably round up the usual cast of suspects: A pointless public address by Maliki, an equally empty media appearance by both Maliki and Obama, and a State Department press conference at which every serious question will have to be met with a non-answer. The fact is that for all of its inherent public dishonesty, the US needs to do its best to capitalize on this visit.
The issue is not a war where Iran so far has been far more the victor than the US. It is a future where any degree of growing Iraqi strength and independence from Iran is a vital strategic interest of the United States. Iraq’s position is critical to the security of the Gulf and the Arab Gulf states, to the outcome in Syria, to easing the growing struggle between Sunni and Shi’ite, and Sunni moderates and Sunni extremists.
Iraq is not yet Syria. If Maliki can be persuaded or “influenced” to move towards a more national and Sunni-Shi’ite government—and to ease his use of state terrorism and extremism in dealing with both legitimate and Sunni extremist opposition—this will affect the stability of the entire region and the security of allies like Turkey and Israel.
It will ease the tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia and it could potentially create a window for a more realistic Arab Gulf effort to influence Maliki and distance him from Iran. We do not need another Syria, and we really don’t need a divided mix of Syria and Iraq linked to dependence on Iran. We do need Iraqi oil—and the Iraqi unity, stability, and security needed to increase and sustain their exports—to help keep up pressure and sanctions on Iran.
Yes, we not only have dual standards, but multiple standards in dealing with Iraq and virtually every state in the region. We focus on terrorism and extremism in hostile non-state actors, but choose to downplay or ignore state terrorism and extremism in dealing with that threat – not to mention the massive failures in governance that breed such opposition.
Yes, there is an inherent dishonesty in the public US approach to extremist and counterterrorism in both Iraq and throughout the region, but there is a need to deal with real world alternatives and a better bargain with Maliki, and he is currently the best real world bargain in town.
It is not clear we can get this bargain. Today’s mix of dishonest rhetoric on both sides does not mean a serious bargain is possible. In fairness to Maliki, there is only so much he can give if he is to survive, and if Shi’ite Arabs are to counterbalance Sunnis and Kurds. We can’t offer enough to make him turn away from Iran, and we need to accept the fact that Iraq may play us off against Iran for years to come. We have to be careful to set clear lines, and not arm Maliki against the growing mass of legitimate Sunni opposition to his growing authoritarianism rather than the much smaller mix of violent Sunni Islamist extremists.
But, we need to try. One definition of a diplomat is someone who is paid to lie for his country. Today is a time to lie. It is scarcely the first, and it will hardly be the last. No one can predict the future of change, violence, and instability in the Middle East, but one can predict that we face years of similar exercises in realpolitik and the need to lie – or at least obfuscate to equally extraordinary lengths.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). © 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.