Biden and Iraq: A Chance to Address Past Mistakes

A Biden administration is likely to change a few policies in the Middle East while keeping others essentially the same. Iran, long considered an adversary, is perhaps also key to a new diplomatic approach to the region and an important actor to European allies. Rejoining and reviving the nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) has already been placed as President-elect Joe Biden’s top priority in the Middle East, after expanding it and adding what was missing when it was first signed to achieve a broader understanding on other conflict areas in the region. It would also set in motion the most likely scenario for a fresh start there. European allies would applaud the reenergized approach while regional allies would stand to benefit from the reduced tensions. A prime example of a conflict zone where regional and international interests intersect, Iraq would be the natural place for President-elect Biden to test the feasibility of a broader regional agreement with Iran and the readiness of Gulf Arab states to join in a new reconciliation and collaboration in the region.

Mistakes of the Past

Biden’s comments and positions on Iraq have certainly evolved over time, starting with voting in 2002 for the invasion of Iraq, then working on undoing the damage to the country during the Obama Administration, and then finally admitting that the war was a mistake and that he personally misjudged the question in 2002. US policy is chock-full of mistakes in Iraq and Biden has certainly made a few of them. While his voting for the war may be blamed on the faulty intelligence presented by the Bush Administration, his pursuit of an Iran-appeasement policy during the Obama years was possibly an even more serious case of bad judgment. Yemen was thrown under the proverbial bus and the Arab coalition’s war, which continues to devastate the country, was endorsed and fully supported by the Obama Administration.

Biden’s comments and positions on Iraq have certainly evolved over time, starting with voting in 2002 for the invasion of Iraq, then working on undoing the damage to the country during the Obama Administration, and then finally admitting that the war was a mistake.

President Barack Obama’s obsession with not repeating the Bush Administration’s mistake led him to seek stability inside Iraq by supporting the Iran-endorsed Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister. The 2010 parliamentary elections, which saw a razor-edge victory for Iraqiyya—a coalition of Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish politicians prioritizing national reconciliation—presented an opportunity for the Obama Administration to focus on good governance in Iraq. Iraqiyya’s leader, Iyad Allawi, though himself Shia, was allied with moderate Sunni leaders and well-positioned to achieve his national goals. He was also a longtime friend of the United States and could be trusted to consult and coordinate with Washington.

Obama—largely on Biden’s advice—chose to back Nouri el-Maliki, Iran’s choice for prime minister, partly to appease Iran during the JCPOA talks and partly because he assumed that Maliki would deliver a status of forces agreement that would regulate the presence of American troops in Iraq. Both assumptions proved wrong. Instead of driving a stabilizing policy domestically, Maliki adopted a hostile line toward both Sunni Arabs and Kurds, possibly lending fuel to an already nascent Islamic State (IS). He also proved himself to be much closer to Iran than to the United States and empowered Shia militias funded and trained by the Islamic Republic, thus undermining the very state he was supposed to stabilize and strengthen. Obama’s support for Maliki further undermined US influence in Iraq.

Maliki’s successors, Haider al-Abadi and Adel Abdul-Mahdi, were both saddled with Sunni-Shia tensions, continuing clashes with IS, and an economic crunch that fired off the October 2019 protest and riots that eventually led to the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi in May 2020. The Trump Administration further complicated the picture with direct interventions against the Iran-supported Shia militias inside Iraq, culminating in the assassination of Iran’s al-Quds Force leader, Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020. The killing of Soleimani at Iraq’s international airport while on his way to a meeting with Iraq’s prime minister damaged any opportunities for constructive dialogue to heal the rifts between the government and people of Iraq and halted any negotiations to help the Iraqi government regain control over armed militias. Needless to say, the assassination also complicated US-Iraq relations and ultimately ended Abdul-Mahdi’s tenure as prime minister.

Breaking the Barriers

Biden’s approach to Iraq will do well to address the concerns of many in the country who would like to have good relations with the United States. To that end, reassuring the Sunni communities begins with American support for strong Sunni personalities to join in key roles in any future Iraqi government. This should also be complemented by outreach to both Sunni and Shia communities at the popular levels via public diplomacy programs and events that recognize the importance of civil society organizations working on national reconciliation.

Reassuring the Sunni communities begins with American support for strong Sunni personalities to join in key roles in any future Iraqi government.

A recognition of the diversity of the Shia communities and their moderate politicians and fully engaging with them is also important. Secular Shia leaders work on countering extremist views in their communities and on stressing Iraqi religious traditions over those imported from Iran. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for example, is a major source of religious scholarship in the Arab world and presents a more secular view of political life than that espoused in Iran. In the past he has resisted direct approaches by American diplomats, but such contacts can and should take place through some of his students and adherents to show respect and seek advice on national reconciliation.

Urgent Requirements

A reconciliation with Iran and achieving an agreement on lessening tensions in the region would go a long way toward bringing stability to countries like Iraq and Yemen. Much will depend on supporting good governance. Iran-backed militias in Iraq act outside the realm of the state and therefore diminish its authority. An efficient and transparent state that treats its citizens fairly and equally would greatly allay the fears of the various communities in Iraq––Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Turkmen, Assyrian, Shabak, Yazidi, Mandean, and others. Foreign military assistance, long a tool of US foreign policy, must include a heavy dose of civil-military relations and the importance of making sure Iraq’s armed forces look like the society they defend; additionally, when needed for internal security, it is vital that they treat all areas equally. The recent attacks in Baghdad––which killed a young girl and injured others––are a reminder that security is still a major concern that needs to be addressed. That they took place as the Trump Administration announced a troop withdrawal from the country puts more pressure on Biden to more effectively manage the US involvement there.

Foreign military assistance, long a tool of US foreign policy, must include a heavy dose of civil-military relations and the importance of making sure Iraq’s armed forces look like the society they defend; additionally, when needed for internal security, it is vital that they treat all areas equally. 

The United States, along with international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, can also bring foreign assistance to bear on the problems besetting good governance, such as corruption and lack of transparency. The protests of October 2019, which raised tensions internally and regionally, were as much about the lack of economic services as about a state that has failed overall in providing for the basic needs of its citizens. A Biden administration must not side with narrow security interests over outreach to civil society leaders who called for democracy, human rights, and an end to corruption.

Opportunities Ahead

Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s current prime minister, has to navigate carefully after the troubles that brought down his predecessor Adel Abdul-Mahdi, by working to reduce US-Iran tensions on Iraqi soil while tackling the serious economic challenges that inflamed the streets of Iraq this past summer. Once in the White House, President-elect Biden must work with Kadhimi on the most effective steps—including those that could be agreed on with Iran—to stabilize Iraq via economic development and to steer a delicate balance between American and Iranian interests. Rather than again sacrificing Iraq, rejoining and expanding the JCPOA could be used to facilitate the country’s long-term stability and progress.

Biden is not without credentials and helpful allies inside Iraq. Barham Salih, the Kurdish president of Iraq, was among the first to congratulate the president-elect, expressing optimism that a Biden presidency will bring new policies to help stabilize Iraq. Kurdish leaders were generally happy with President Obama’s support for Kurdish rights within the country; indeed, Biden’s Kurdish sympathies were evident as early as President George H.W. Bush’s war for Kuwait’s liberation in 1990. Biden opposed the decision to end the war without lending support to Shia and Kurdish rebellions against Saddam Hussein at the time and expressed fear that the dictator’s lashing out at Kurdish opposition, in particular, would revert to brutal tactics—a prediction borne out by events shortly after Saddam accepted the US terms to end the war.

Kurds, Sunni moderates, and Shia leaders in government are all predisposed to work with a new American administration to help prevent turmoil.

Biden has visited Iraq 24 times overall and, in 2002, he crossed into Iraqi Kurdish areas from Turkey—a message from him that Turkish suppression of Iraqi Kurds must be opposed. Kurds, Sunni moderates, and Shia leaders in government are all predisposed to work with a new American administration to help prevent turmoil. On that score, restoring good-neighbor relations with the Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, will be key to economic recovery in Iraq. The recent reopening of the Arar crossing between Iraq and the kingdom––closed since 1990––is a good and promising step and the Saudis will need to be nudged to make more overtures to warmer relations.

Iraq’s Sunni communities, though initially frightened by the loss of their status as a ruling minority during the Saddam years, are by now reconciled to having lost their prominent position in the new Iraq. Sunni Arab tribes met frequently with the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 to forge a normal relationship with the occupation forces and to seek American help in fending off any vengeful Shia leaders; the late Ahmad Chalabi, for example, established a de-Baathification committee after the war in order to ferret out Saddam loyalists and either punish them or at least make sure they were removed from any sensitive positions in government. The excesses of that committee required US intervention on behalf of Sunnis who felt victimized by its decisions and measures.

As early as 2006, the James Baker/Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group recommended the United States drastically reduce its forces and focus instead on helping with national reconciliation in Iraq—largely signaling the use of diplomacy to restrain the country’s new rulers from overreacting to years of oppression under Saddam by taking it out on Sunni communities. This advice is still relevant today, with Iran-supported Shia militias taking internal security measures in their own hands and acting with extreme prejudice against Sunni Iraqis. Also relevant is the need to get Iraq’s Arab neighbors to engage its government and population; this way, they will not feel pushed to Iran’s corner but rather will be motivated through economic incentives to keep a balanced relationship between the Arab and Persian sides of the Gulf.

Turning the Page

After decades of war, and despite being an oil-producing country, Iraq still suffers from poverty and a lack of development. Having played a large part in the destruction of Iraq in the past, the United States should take a leading role in the revival of its economy. As part and parcel of a broader Biden approach to the region, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries must be brought in for a full normalization of relations with Iraq and for investing in its economic revival. A new understanding with Saudi Arabia on this subject will be key. Bringing pressure to bear on the kingdom must include, if necessary, the conditioning of US support and arms sales on a more transparent policy regarding human rights domestically, assisting in the reduction of tensions in the region, ending the war in Yemen, and investing in the redevelopment of Yemen and Iraq.

Nabeel A. Khoury, is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council