Muddling Through is Not Enough: Why U.S. Needs a New Iraq Policy

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Muddling Through is Not Enough: Why U.S. Needs a New Iraq Policy

A decade after the invasion, America’s “one-Iraq” policy is pulling the country apart. Supporting the Kurds is the key to saving it.

March 19th marks the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Iraq has largely fallen off the United States foreign policy agenda since U.S. troops left the country at the end of 2011.  Meanwhile, Washington has embraced a passive “one-Iraq” policy that derives its name from its emphasis on the importance of keeping Iraq unified – as a single country – and managing its ethno-sectarian fault lines through its Constitution.

U.S. policymakers resigned themselves to watching from the sidelines as Prime Minister al-Maliki consolidated power, silenced his rivals, and undermined Iraq’s nascent democracy. After sacrificing 4,500 American lives and an estimated $800 billion in Iraq, it is disappointing that U.S. policy is driven by the belief that the country will continue muddling through—and that muddling through is good enough.

The time has come for the Obama Administration to recalibrate its approach. The U.S. must actively help its friend and ally navigate a consuming governance crisis. It must focus on rolling back the Prime Minister’s monopolization of power in Baghdad, which is rapidly pulling the country apart. As it stands today, al-Maliki is using his government’s leverage over the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to back the Kurds into a corner. This will only lead to one outcome: conflict and the fragmentation of Iraq.

Instead of deploying its limited political capital to criticize the burgeoning KRG-Turkey energy partnership, the U.S. should instead support it and actively promote a strong, economically confident Kurdistan. Backing the KRG’s quest to export oil and gas to Turkey will enable it to stand up to al-Maliki, diminish his leverage, and thereby force him to negotiate a resolution to Iraq’s political crisis. Turkey has already embraced the need for an economically-strong KRG that can check al-Maliki. The U.S. would be wise to join its NATO ally in supporting the Kurds’ opportunity for prosperity.

The days when the U.S. could drive outcomes in Iraq are long gone, but the U.S. retains enough influence that, if deployed wisely, can help give power sharing among Iraq’s key political blocs a fighting chance. As partners, Turkey and the U.S. can implement a reinvigorated—and balanced—“one-Iraq” policy 2.0 that strengthens the country, instead of unintentionally promoting is fragmentation.

Political Dysfunction

At the root of Iraq’s political crisis lies its increasingly powerful Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. After securing a second term in the 2010 parliamentary elections, al-Maliki began to monopolize power and erode safeguards enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution (that balances power among branches of government and the central government and provinces). He abrogated the power sharing agreements with opposition political blocs that secured his second term, targeted opposition politicians with arrest, assumed personal control over Iraq’s security apparatus, and brought the independent Central Bank and Media Commission within the Premier’s office. These actions, coupled with his aggressive use of anti-terrorism laws and De-Baathification (the process to screen and remove senior officials complicit in the worst abuses of the Saddam Hussein regime from government) to sack sitting officials, disqualify candidates from running for office, and imprison large numbers of Sunnis without charge, prompted widespread protests in Sunni-majority provinces that – as of writing — continue.

The Kurds have become convinced that al-Maliki is a dictator-in-the-making who seeks to oppress them, just as previous governments did. They fear that Baghdad will cripple the KRG by cutting it off from the federal budget and possibly even deploy the Iraqi Army against the KRG. The 2013 Iraqi federal budget was approved by Parliament on March 7, 2013 and did not reduce the KRG’s share (17%). But it did give al-Maliki power to attempt to withhold payments to the KRG, prompting the KRG to recall its Parliamentary delegation for consultations in protest.

To overcome its dependence on Baghdad for its economic livelihood, the KRG began constructing an oil and gas pipeline to Turkey in 2012 to allow the KRG to unilaterally export hydrocarbons without Baghdad’s approval. This is a priority for the KRG in part because of the suffering Kurds endured at the hands of Iraq’s previous Ba’athist regimes – including a genocidal campaign that killed an estimated 182,000 Kurds over three decades – is still fresh in their minds. Indeed, March 14, 2013 marked the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks against Kurdish civilians in Halabja.

Relations between the central government and largely autonomous KRG in Northern Iraq rapidly deteriorated, too. Baghdad (the seat of Maliki’s government) and Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) disagree over who controls hydrocarbon exploration, development, and export under the Iraqi Constitution and certain disputed territories where oil and gas may reside. Baghdad vehemently opposes the Kurdistan Region’s ambition to develop local oil and gas resources.  Meanwhile, the KRG is unilaterally entering into contracts with oil and gas companies, including Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Total, and Gazprom Neft. Repeated efforts to pass a federal Oil and Gas Law – that would resolve this dispute – have failed. The KRG and Baghdad have instead negotiated (and then abrogated) several interim agreements. These short-term fixes allowed for exports of oil from the Kurdish Region through central-government controlled pipelines in exchange for payments by Baghdad to oil companies operating in the North and a budget allocation to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

While al-Maliki deserves much of the blame, the Kurds are not faultless either, as they have provoked the central government through their deeds and public statements. The KRG supported al-Maliki for a second term, but repeatedly failed to unite with other political blocs to check his extra-constitutional power grab. They failed to convince President Jalal Talabani — a Kurd — to call a vote of no confidence in mid-2012 against the Prime Minister (the U.S was opposed to the vote) and identify a compelling replacement for him.

However, the Kurds have made some progress. Along with Iraqiya and the Sadrists—two other main political factions, one Sunni and one Shi’a—the Kurds did secure enough support to oppose al-Maliki’s efforts to disband the Independent Election Committee in late 2011. And in January 2013 they contributed votes to passing the term-limit bill that aims to prevent al-Maliki from being re-elected to a third term in 2014, when his current term expires. The Prime Minister is understandably opposed to the bill, and has pledged to fight its implementation using all means at his disposal, almost certainly assuring its failure.

U.S. Policy Towards Iraq

During the Obama administration, U.S. policy towards Iraq has been typically run out of the Vice President Joe Biden’s office, and overseen by his former national security advisor, Tony Blinken (now replaced by former State Department Policy Planning Chief Jake Sullivan). In an article in Foreign Affairs last year, Blinken succinctly articulated the prevalent view of U.S. policymakers. He argued that Iraq will suffer political dysfunction and security challenges – and may even reach the brink of civil war – but will survive and carry on. Iraq’s nascent democracy has seesawed back and forth between gridlock and conflict over the past nine years, and every time the country appeared poised to pass the point of no return, it took a step back from the brink. The administration believes that this pattern will continue.

Against Iraq’s volatile political backdrop, the U.S. has followed the “one Iraq” policy. The administration continues to treat Iraq like any other sovereign and friendly state. After all, U.S.-Iraqi relations normalized in late 2011, following the withdrawal of U.S military forces. And the U.S. maintains an embassy in Baghdad – and consulates in Erbil and Basra – just like it does in most other countries in the Middle East.

The U.S. opposes the KRG’s unilateral oil export efforts, however, and has cautioned “supermajors” – including Exxon Mobil and Chevron – against participating in them.  The U.S. believes Kurdish actions undermine Iraq’s stability and could trigger open conflict – if, for instance, the KRG authorizes an oil company to start drilling in the disputed territories. After all, al-Maliki deployed the Iraqi Army to the line of control that separates KRG and Iraqi territory and created the new Dijla Operations Command in late 2012, to check the KRG’s actions.  U.S. policymakers argue that Turkish support has emboldened the KRG, which in turn has caused unnecessary friction with the Prime Minister. Nonetheless, the U.S. has a special – albeit increasingly frayed – relationship with the Kurds that stems from U.S. physical protection of the Kurdish territory since the creation of no fly zone in 1991.

The “one” Iraq Policy version 2.0

U.S. policy can longer be passive and simply hope for Iraq to continue to muddle through. Every time Iraq repeats this pattern, it starts over at a more combustible level of tension, exacerbated by each successive political dispute, sectarian bombing, and/or election.

U.S. passivity emboldened al-Maliki in the past. Today, the U.S. must work to roll back his power grab. America used to be respected for its influence and diplomatic facilitation in Iraq, but many Iraqis now view it as part of the problem. There are several reasons why the U.S. should recalibrate its Iraq policy, and specifically, why U.S. support of the Turkish-KRG oil and gas deal is the key to that new policy.

First and most important, Turkey believes that a strong Kurdish region – one that is not wholly dependent on Baghdad for its economic livelihood — is a prerequisite for a unified Iraq. By developing independent oil and gas resources, the KRG can create leverage to help solve its underlying political disputes with Baghdad. A KRG-owned pipeline will force al-Maliki to get serious and make the KRG a fair offer instead of just stalling for time while further consolidating his power.

Turkey admittedly does not have a good relationship with al-Maliki – because of the latter’s close ties to Iran, poor treatment of Iraq’s Sunnis, and the personal animosity between him and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Further, Turkey believes a strong Kurdistan is an important check on Baghdad and Iranian influence in Iraq. And, while it is true that Turkey seeks a stable supply of oil and gas (at a discounted price) to spur its own economic growth, it has an even more vital interest in the success of its “one Iraq” policy – as Iraqi Kurds being integrated into the political fabric of the state would dampen the nationalistic ambitions of Turkey’s own sizeable Kurdish population. Above all, Turkey wants to ensure that Iraq’s Kurds remain inside the Iraqi state so that Turkish Kurds do not start clamoring for their own independent state following a declaration of independence by Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey believes that a desperate KRG – one facing a budget cutoff and military force from Baghdad – could seek to separate from Iraq, thereby triggering a wider regional conflagration that threatens Turkey’s own stability. The KRG needs to feel secure and have something to lose — e.g. a strong economy based on oil and gas exports to Turkey – to incentivize it to remain within Iraq and not declare independence. The U.S. should not erroneously conflate increased Kurdish economic autonomy with territorial independence. After all, Turkey controls the former and will not hesitate to cut off Iraqi Kurdistan and cripple its economy if the KRG moves towards formal independence.

Second, Kurdish energy efforts and U.S. support thereof are not inconsistent with Iraq’s constitution (in contrast to Prime Minister al-Maliki’s accumulation of power, which clearly is). The constitutional provisions related to the exploration, management, and export of oil and gas resources are vague. Both the central government and KRG have strong arguments in favor of their positions, because the constitution sought to divide hydrocarbons responsibilities between Baghdad and the provinces—but did not clearly delineate them. Resolving this ambiguity is particular difficult because the Federal Court (the Iraqi analogue of the U.S. Supreme Court) is pliant to the Prime Minister, and  therefore not viewed as an independent arbiter of the meaning of the constitution by al-Maliki’s opponents.

What’s more, there is not – as mentioned above – a Federal Oil and Gas Law that clarifies and implements the relevant Constitutional provisions. Washington should avoid taking a legal position on an Iraqi issue where there isn’t a clear and controlling interpretation.. On the other hand, if Washington respects Iraq’s constitution, it should focus on holding al-Maliki accountable for his violations of its articles relating to the balance of powers between branches of government, protection of individual liberties, etc., because those are less ambiguous.

Third, by joining with Turkey, the U.S. will be in a stronger position to find creative solutions to Iraq’s hydrocarbons challenges that are palatable to all stakeholders in Iraq. U.S. diplomacy would have a better platform from which to help temper the KRG’s sometimes-brash actions that alienate al-Maliki and further inflames tensions. Together, the U.S. and Turkey can more effectively pursue a balanced policy—one that allays Erbil’s legitimate concerns, while encouraging the KRG and Baghdad to find negotiated solutions to Iraq’s myriad political disputes. 

Fourth, the KRG is likely to face new challenges—both internally and in Baghdad—if President Talabani is no longer able to carry out his responsibilities as president due to his declining health. Talabani plays a unique role in the Iraqi political scene that will be nearly impossible to replace.  Talabani serves a unique and arguably irreplaceable role in Iraqi politics as a broker of high-level political accords, which serve as a safety valve that helps vent political pressure before it reaches critical levels. His departure from the political scene will only make Iraq’s already messy internal political crisis even more acute and further strengthen al-Maliki. The U.S. would thus be wise to move quickly to bolster the Kurds and other opposition blocs in the short run before Talabani is replaced as president.

Fifth and finally, the Kurdish-Turkish pipeline is going to be built with or without U.S. support. Criticizing the deal only serves to alienate Turkey, create unnecessary friction with the KRG, and will make the U.S. look impotent once the deal is finalized over its public objections. It is unwise to deploy the U.S.’s limited political capital if the U.S. is not ready to back up its criticism with actions, which to date, it has not been.


With the ten-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq this week, Washington would be wise to take stock of its Iraq policy and adjust it to reflect troubling developments on the ground. Standing by and hoping that Iraq muddles through – in the face of ever-increasing sectarian and political strife – is no longer sustainable.

With al-Maliki still in power tensions will continue to build until the 2014 Parliamentary elections. The best way to avoid conflict and maintain Iraq’s increasingly fragile cohesion is to roll back the prime minister’s power grab and give opposition blocs a greater voice in government.

An economically strong and confident Kurdish region is a particularly important piece of this puzzle. The U.S. should join with Turkey to support the Kurds’ energy export plan and thereby contribute to resolving Iraq’s political crisis, instead of standing by as it spirals out of control.

Eli Sugarman is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a former State Department officer.