The New Strategic Dialogue: Shaping the Iraqi-U.S. Relationship

The Burke Chair at CSIS is issuing a new “e-book” version of its previous analysis of the challenges that Iraq and the U.S. face in creating a lasting strategic relationship. It provides a detailed comparative and quantitative analysis of the political/governance, economic, and security problems that now affect Iraq, and the how Iraq and the United States can work together to help Iraq emerge as a strong, stable, secure, and sovereign state.

This revision takes account of recent developments in Iraq and of the strategic dialogue that took place on June 11, 2020. The meeting was held via video teleconferencing between Iraqi officials – led by Senior Under Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abdul Karim Hashem Mostafa – and U.S. officials – led by U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale.

The principal focus of this report, however, is the longer-term structural problems and trends that shape Iraq's underlying problems. These are challenges that Iraq and the U.S. must begin to address in their upcoming July strategic dialogue and the years to come.

A successful strategic dialogue must address the cumulative impact of three critical sets of structural problems in Iraq’s current position. The principal focus of this report, however, is the longer-term structural problems and trends that shape Iraq's underlying problems. These are challenges that Iraq and the U.S. must begin to address in their upcoming July strategic dialogue and the years to come. These are problems that have taken decades to evolve and made the country fundamentally unstable, but they have generally received little high-level policy attention and even less successful action – rendering them close to being treated as Iraq’s “ghosts.”

  • The first such set of “ghosts” shapes the underlying structure of Iraqi politics and governance. Serious as the immediate tensions and divisions within Iraqi politics have become, the Iraqi government does not provide a clear path to effective leadership, and it is dysfunctional and corrupt at every level. Iraqi politics are deeply divided, and these divisions reflect deep and growing failures. This must change if Iraq is to emerge as a stable and secure state.

  • The second set of “ghosts” shapes the Iraqi economy. Iraq now faces massive structural problems in economics that its current economy is in near collapse because of the global drop in demand for petroleum caused by both the Coronavirus and the surplus of supply from the “oil war” between Russia and Saudi Arabia. It was weak and unstable even before these crises began, had weak agricultural and industrial sectors, and was affected by Iraq’s divided elite that took a far larger share instead of providing the kind of income distribution that would bring Iraq stability. Divided as Iraq was on a sectarian and ethnic level, it faced further growing divisions because its economy did not serve its people.

  • Finally, the third set of "ghosts" shapes Iraq’s level of “security.” One part of this problem: sectarian conflict and extremism – has been the center of U.S. strategic attention since the invasion of Kuwait and the ISIS invasion of Iraq in 2013, which have led to almost continuous fighting from 2005 to 2010 and from 2013 to today. For all the effort the U.S. and Iraqi governments have devoted to this issue, however, Iraqi security forces still lack the capability to stand alone in order to deter and defend against potential threats like Iran. Iraq’s divided security forces are still haunted by the past rather than moving towards a clear future.

This “e-book” addresses these issues by comparing a wide range of key official and outside sources on each issue. These sources include the latest security and threat reporting by the Department of Defense, SIGAR, the LIG, UN, NATO, and RS Command.

They also include reporting on politics, governance, Afghan security force development, and economic by the IMF, UN, World Bank, CIA, Afghan government, and other sources. These and various NGO and media reports are compared in depth, and the differences between them are analyzed in detail.

The results show that the amount of rhetoric and “spin” that has emerged in some coverage of these issues has become a serious threat to creating an effective strategic relationship. Iraq and the U.S. must be realistic in forging a new strategic relationship.

Iraq must find its own answers to dealing with many of the challenges, and the United States cannot help an Iraq that cannot unite to the point where it can help itself. This is particularly true in a world being reshaped by the Coronavirus crisis, so many other failures in government and development, and so many other humanitarian crises. It is a world where limited aid resources must go to the nations that can use them effectively and not be wasted on simply buying limited help for a limited time in nations that cannot.

An effective dialogue will also, however, require the United States to commit itself to a sustained effort to help Iraq emerge as a nation that can meet the needs and expectations of its people, and one that is unified and strong enough to prevent further civil conflict and act independently of Iranian pressure and threats.

There are no quick answers or solutions to creating a stable security relationship for either Iraq or the United States. Real progress will take consistent effort over at least half a decade; and the plans, pledges, and political spin will be no substitute for real progress.

The report’s Table of Contents include:


This report entitled, Strategic Dialogue: Shaping the Iraqi-U.S. Relationship, is available for download at

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Grace Hwang