Sunday, March 25, 2012

It Could be a Two-Fer

Vice President Biden will attempt to put US-Iraqi relations on a firmer footing, getting Iraq to halt their support for Assad of Syria. A little history of Iraq's leadership ambitions would be in order to make some progress.

Wars against Iran (1980-1988) and Kuwait (1990-1991) smashed Iraqi ambitions for leadership roles in the region through territorial conquest. War with America in 2003 smashed that strategy of winning through aggression for good (we hope). A strong American alliance could be the basis for Iraq to finally get what they've wanted, but without aggressive wars.

Iraq is hosting an Arab League summit:

A summit of Arab leaders, held here for the first time in a generation, is a prime opportunity for Iraq to reassert itself as a political player in the Arab world after years of war, isolation and American occupation.

It also puts Iraq's Shiite leadership under pressure to pick a side in the bitter sectarian politics dividing the region. The top item on the agenda — the crisis in Syria — is seen by Iraq's suspicious Arab brethren as a litmus test of whether Baghdad is with them or with their top rival, Shiite-led Iran.

It may be that Iraqi support of Assad at Iran's request is simply a means of getting some concessions from the Sunni Arab world. And then there's the satisfaction of paying the Sunni Arab world back for their years of funneling jihadis into Iraq to kill Iraqis and American troops. Sure, sending their angry young men to Iraq where Americans, Iraqis and others could kill them (sorry about the mayhem they unleashed) seemed clever to Arab rulers at the time, I'm sure. But now the consequences must be faced.

And we are trying to get Iraq to choose wisely:

The first major test of U.S. post-war influence in Iraq is now raging over efforts to stop Iran from funneling arms to Syria through Iraqi airspace, but the Iraqis are either unwilling or unable to assure the United States the shipments will cease.

In the short run, if we get Iraq to turn on Iran over this issue, it may not be our position that sways Iraq's leaders but the prospect of gaining influence with Sunni Arab states. That would establish a path for Iraq that leads to a stronger alliance with America.

Iraq does have to choose a path. Iraqis wanted to be the leader of the Arab world before, and the invasion of Iraq in 1980 was supposed to be a nice trophy prior to hosting an Arab League summit a couple years later. The war stopped that summit and despite Iraqi attempts to portray themselves as the Sword of the Arab world, the Arab world wanted nothing to do with the war. At the time, Egypt was knocked out of the leadership position because the Egyptians made peace with Israel. Iraq wanted the role. By the time the war ended, Egypt had exploited the war and Iraq's single-minded focus on winning it--to regain a leading role in the Arab world.

And now, with Egypt in turmoil and flirting with an Iran whose nuclear ambitions make Sunni Arab states nervous, Iraq has an opportunity again to be a leader in the Arab world.

Face it, Iraq can't be the leader of the Shia world since Iran has the lead there even without Iraq following them. And the Arab world won't follow Iraq if Iraq follows Iran. If Iraq wants a leadership role befitting their stature, as they see it, they need to mend fences with the Sunni Arab world, defy Iran and turn against Syria's Assad (who is responsible for lots of death in Iraq, let's not forget), and seek closer relations with America in order to get the military power needed to back regional leadership ambitions. In the long run, that will be a strong incentive for Iraq to come to their senses in regard to military cooperation with America.

And really, if Iraq manages to parlay their American friendship and stature in the Arab world into a leadership position in the Arab world by standing up to Iran, the ultimate defeat of Iran would catapult Iran into the leadership of the Shia world, too.

If anyone needs truly smart diplomacy right now, it is Iraq. Could they blow this opportunity?