On Sept. 1, the U.S. mission in Iraq will shift its focus from security operations to diplomacy and economics. The subsequent period will define a new Strategic Framework Agreement, laying the foundation for a possible long-term strategic partnership.
While the new Iraqi government, which is yet to be formed since the March 7 elections, will have the ultimate say on the terms of its relationship, the United States should not wait for the Iraqi government to articulate a clear foreign policy before it invests in a future partnership. The U.S. should leverage its unique history and position in Iraq to support the nascent government and - more importantly - to build bridges directly with the Iraqi people. However, to do this, the U.S. must confront one major obstacle: miscommunication.
There is a significant gap in how the United States thinks it is engaging Iraq and in how Iraqis understand that engagement. More than 7 years after the U.S. invaded their country, the majority of Iraqis still don’t understand what America wants from them. Widely held Iraqi explanations include exploiting Iraqi oil and controlling Iraq’s geopolitical location to defend U.S. interests.
For example, at a conference in oil-rich Basra last May, U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill was asked how the U.S.-led international community could help Iraq confront its electricity shortage, as summer heat was hitting highs of over 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Mr. Hill responded that electricity was a domestic affair for the Iraqi government to resolve and that the U.S. wouldn’t get involved. Mr. Hill’s response at a conference bringing diplomats and international energy experts to Iraq to help it increase its oil production did not fall on deaf ears. The message: The U.S. is not interested in electricity production for Iraqis, but is interested in Iraq’s oil production.
Mr. Hill probably meant that the United Stats was holding the conference to help Iraq develop its oil capacity so its government can fund the ambitious infrastructure projects needed to improve public services, including electricity - even though Iraqis see government corruption as the main reason for the electricity shortage. It would have been better for the Iraqi people’s perception of the United States if Mr. Hill had mentioned that the U.S. is helping Iraq tackle the pervasive problem of corruption and is encouraging transparent government, accountable to the people. However, what Iraqis understood, as heavily discussed in Iraqi media, was that the U.S. cares about oil and not the people suffering from the electricity shortage.
Iraqis who appreciate the value of a strategic partnership with the United States are often stymied by similar U.S. statements that alienate the Iraqi populace. For example, last April Iraq’s only commercial airplane capable of flying to Europe was nearly repossessed by the Kuwaiti government after its historic first direct flight from Baghdad to London in 20 years. Iraqis were surprised and chagrined not to hear one official U.S. statement in Iraq’s support. Iraqis perceive a disconnect between what U.S. officials say about valuing their partnership with Iraq and silence from the U.S. when its support is welcome and needed.
In Iraq, as throughout the Arab world, the bond of friendship is valued above that of brotherhood. To transition successfully from a combat mission to a diplomatic mission, the United States must communicate in a way that Iraqis understand as the true friendship of a steadfast ally in hardship, especially during this interregnum period when the fate of Iraqi political cohesion is uncertain.
As illustrated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s latest trip to Iraq, the U.S. is trying to send a clear message that it is not abandoning its interest in a stable, democratic and prosperous Iraq, or its desire to have a long-term strategic partnership with Iraqis. However, the diverse Iraqi narratives about U.S. intentions in their country demonstrate that the message sent is not the message received.
For the U.S. to make the transition from a combat mission to a diplomatic mission while building an enduring friendship requires only three steps.
First, the U.S. should aggressively pursue efforts to get Iraq out of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Iraqis cannot feel they are truly sovereign while they endure lingering U.S.-endorsed U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
Second, the U.S. should show a firm commitment to supporting the Iraqi political process and protecting the law. Visits of encouragement by Mr. Biden and high-ranking U.S. officials are helpful. Iraqis want to believe the U.S. will support their democratic process, but political fighting has caused constitutional violations and fostered manipulation of the law. U.S. fear of not wanting to interfere in Iraqi domestic issues is causing many to believe the U.S. is abandoning its goal of a democratic Iraq.
And third, the U.S. should do more to address Iraqi domestic needs. The United States is wise to wait for the new Iraqi government to articulate the nature of a future partnership, but there likely will be political turmoil and ambiguity in Iraq for the next 5 to 10 years. The U.S. should do more to build bridges with the Iraqi people by demonstrating that it is more committed to improving public services such as electricity than it is in protecting its interest in oil.
Words matter, and when actions do not match them, they are destructive.
Najim Jabouri, former mayor of Tel Afar, Iraq, is a fellow for the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.