Editor’s Note: On October 3, 2017, Kenneth Pollack testified before members of the House Affairs Committee on American policy in Iraq. The following is adapted from his testimony with permission.
Every year since 2003, knowledgeable Americans have been warning that the current year is absolutely critical in Iraq. They have been right every time and 2018 will be no exception. The next year is likely to see the final defeat of ISIS and national elections that will be crucial as both bellwether and determinant of Iraq’s future course. As we look to the next phase of American policy toward Iraq in light of these impending events, we must remember that the United States has made too many mistakes in Iraq in the past, and both Americans and Iraqis have paid too high a price for those mistakes, for us to make yet another.
Iraq remains a complicated country. It’s military, bureaucracy, politics, economics, and civil society are all weak, contested, and in desperate need of reform. Its constitution is flawed, in part because of the enforced inclusion of the Kurds in a country where they are a liability, not an asset. It is beset by stronger neighbors seeking to dominate the Iraqi state and manipulate its multiplicity of constituent groups.
Yet all is not lost in Iraq. Indeed, there are many useful building blocks from which to erect a strong new state and society. When I was last in Baghdad this spring, I was struck by how many Iraqis are unhappy about their present, but optimistic about their future. Many are proud of their military forces in defeating ISIS, confident that their upcoming elections will produce a more functional political system, and committed to avoiding another civil war. None of that is a guarantee against future problems, but taken together, it can be a starting point for future progress.
Consequently, U.S. policy toward Iraq after the defeat of ISIS demands close attention and careful planning. It cannot be made up on the fly. It should not be made by tweet. It will not work if done slapdash. However, if it is handled properly, and in close coordination with America’s allies in Iraq, elsewhere in the region, and among the wider international community, there is every reason to believe that Iraq can eventually be brought to a stable and peaceful new equilibrium that will allow it to become a force for positive change in the region and a benefit to America’s interests. If not, we are likely to find ourselves sucked back into yet another Iraq war.
As always at seminal moments like this, it is important to remind ourselves of what our interests are in Iraq. The first is that we need an Iraq that is stable and at peace — with itself and its neighbors. Because of its location and oil wealth, Iraq remains a critical nation in the Middle East and a critical element of the international economy. Before 2003, a reckless and aggressive Iraq under Saddam Hussein created one set of external threats to American interests. After 2003, an endless parade of American mistakes produced reinforcing civil wars that created a different, but equally dangerous set of internal threats to U.S. interests.
So peace and stability in Iraq are our paramount interests there. But we need to be careful about what that means. For decades in the Middle East, there has been an addiction to the intertwined notions that “stability” is best achieved by dictatorship, and that dictatorship is therefore the easiest solution to instability. The Arab revolts of 2011 and the instability and civil wars they spawned ought to be sufficient evidence of the fallacy of this idea. Nevertheless, in the specific case of Iraq, it should be understood that autocracy will not create the peace and stability we seek.
For the past century, Iraq has suffered through a staggering list of coups, internal revolts, domestic massacres, and civil wars. Even the totalitarianism and genocidal levels of violence employed by Saddam were not enough to prevent constant internal conflicts—from his many wars with the Kurds (including the 1989 Anfal campaign), to the 1991 Shia Intifada, to his violent suppression of Sunni tribes in the 1990s. Since then, we have seen how Nuri al-Maliki’s efforts to consolidate autocratic power triggered the ISIS invasion of 2014 and the latest Iraqi civil war.
Only a democratic system of some kind will reassure Iraq’s fractious and fearful communities.
Instead, ensuring peace and stability in Iraq requires pluralism. Only a democratic system of some kind, one governed by the rule of law and incorporating formidable protections for groups not in power, will reassure Iraq’s fractious and fearful communities. Likewise, only a system with a high degree of representation and transparency will ensure that Iraq’s economic wealth is equitably distributed, eliminating that as another source of conflict and corruption. In short, when we think about peace and stability in Iraq, it is critical to recognize that both require a pluralist system and while dictatorship might seem like the easier path, it will not get us to where we and the Iraqis need to go. It is a blind alley leading nowhere but back to civil strife.
For that reason, functional pluralism in Iraq must itself be seen as an American objective there, because it is the only realistic way to secure our interest in a peaceful, stable Iraq.
Finally, the United States should seek an Iraq that is not dominated by Iran or Iranian proxies as Lebanon and now Syria increasingly are. At the most obvious level, it would be a humiliation for over 4,500 Americans to have given their lives to make Iraq safe for Iranian dominion. In a more tangible sense, despite repeated American efforts to begin a rapprochement with Iran—including most recently under the Obama Administration—the Iranians continue to define their foreign policy as one of explicit enmity with the United States.
Although Iranian and American interests overlap in important areas despite this, we need to accept that the Iranian regime regards us as their principal adversary and treats us as such. We may not like it. We may wish to change it. We may think it gratuitous or misguided, but we cannot change it. We have tried repeatedly, but the leadership in Tehran is not interested. And as a result, all across the Middle East, Iran aggressively pursues policies harmful to the United States. The Iranian regime is not our friend, and it works hard to do harm to us in a range of venues. We should be loath to see Iraq fall under Tehran’s sway.
Moreover, abandoning Iraq to the Iranians would terrify and infuriate our regional allies. The Israelis would be alarmed that Tehran’s possession of a contiguous land route from Iran to Lebanon and the Golan Heights would presage new Iranian attacks on Israel—especially once the last embers of resistance to Iran’s Syrian ally have been snuffed out. Indeed, the recent Israeli airstrike against Syrian regime bases appear intended to deter and diminish future Syrian-Iranian attacks on Israel as the regime regains control of Syria.
Likewise, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs would fear that if Iran were allowed to dominate Iraq, it would use Iraqi territory as a base (and Arab Iraqis as agents) to expand its influence, stoke internal unrest, and intimidate them and other Sunni-dominated Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt. In the past, we have consistently seen that when our Gulf Arab allies feel threatened by Iran and fear that the United States is not adequately protecting them, they generally overreact and take aggressive actions themselves. In many cases, like the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervention in Yemen since 2015, they lack the capability to execute the missions they take on, making the situation far worse, rather than better. Especially at this moment, when it is so important to American interests that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states concentrate their resources and energy on domestic reforms, we cannot afford to create potentially ruinous external distractions.
Walking away from Iraq to risk renewed internal conflict and/or Iranian domination could only be a tragic, and utterly unnecessary mistake for the United States, especially when we have just achieved so much and could use this opportunity to do so much more to secure American interests in the Middle East.
I am very fond of Winston Churchill’s famous quip that, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.” In Iraq, haven’t we tried everything else? Isn’t it finally time to do the right thing?
— Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.