How America Can Shore Up Asian Order
A Strategy for Restoring Balance and Legitimacy
One of the most dramatic consequences of killing Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani is unfolding at a rapid pace: the severing of ties between the United States and Iraq. There is still time to salvage this most critical relationship, but doing so will depend on the willingness and ability of the Trump administration to change the tone of the conversation in very short order. The current U.S. approach—calling for sanctions against Iraq if it demands the exit of American forces—risks unnecessarily creating an enemy out of a friend.
On January 5, the Iraqi parliament voted to expel all foreign forces from Iraqi territory, including the 5,200 U.S. forces currently in the country at the invitation of its government. Iraqi parliamentarians had threatened such moves on other occasions, such as last February, when U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that he wanted to keep American troops in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran.
This time is different. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi worked to defuse the political firestorm that arose out of Trump’s tweet last year. But on Sunday, he stood in support of the resolution to evict U.S. troops. Similarly, Iraq’s most influential religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has been a voice of moderation and indirectly supportive of the United States’ presence in Iraq, vigorously criticized the strike on Soleimani through his representative at Friday prayers. Suffice it to say that U.S.-Iraqi relations have not been worse since Saddam Hussein sat comfortably in a Baghdad palace adorned with multiple giant replicas of his head.
Abdul-Mahdi, in his capacity as caretaker prime minister, is now obliged to discuss the departure of U.S. forces with Washington. Those U.S. forces are in Iraq under an agreement formalized by an exchange of letters between foreign ministers, so the prime minister—not the parliament—holds the cards. Rather than taking the resolution for a done deal, the U.S. administration should approach this conversation with the objective of easing tensions, buying time, and ultimately finding a way to enable some U.S. troops to stay in Iraq.
Why should this be the U.S. objective? Some Americans will no doubt be surprised to learn that there are still U.S. forces in Iraq (even if the number is much lower than the original peak of approximately 170,000). And many will likely think it a good idea to get them home. But as the United States learned the hard way in 2011, when President Barack Obama made the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, having a military—as well as diplomatic—presence in Iraq is essential to the stability of the Middle East and the protection of U.S. interests, at least for the foreseeable future.
The U.S. presence in Iraq is necessary to prevent the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, from reconstituting itself and posing the sort of threat that it did in earlier years. While Iraqi troops deserve credit for evicting ISIS from Iraqi cities, the U.S.-led coalition provided essential support. ISIS still has capabilities and followers in parts of Iraq and Syria, and even before Soleimani’s killing, it had begun to take advantage of instability and uncertainty in both countries to reestablish itself. The recent announcement that the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS is suspending its operations to focus on preparing for Iranian retaliation is sobering.
And ISIS is not the only challenge the United States helps Iraq resist. Every Iraqi government has had the unenviable task of balancing Iraqi interests against those of outsiders, including Iran. Without a U.S. presence, Baghdad will be much weaker, with strength accruing to Tehran. As long as the United States sees containing Iran as a fundamental interest, its support for Iraq remains crucial. Some glibly say that Iran is already in control of Iraq, but this portrayal is simplistic. Without an American presence in Iraq, Iran would find it easier to further politicize Iraq’s parliament and armed forces, to gain control over oil resources, and to use Iraqi territory to freely ferry supplies to Iranian-supported groups in Syria and Lebanon.
Without a U.S. presence, Baghdad will be much weaker, with strength accruing to Tehran.
Moreover, Iraq is a lynchpin of regional stability—or instability—that affects the worldwide economy by influencing global oil markets. If terrorists are once again free to proliferate in Iraq, instability will spread throughout the region, which in turn will undermine Iraq’s steady efforts to increase oil production: the country is now OPEC’s second-largest producer and has supplied many of Iran’s markets as Iranian oil has come offline. Americans will be surprised to find that despite new U.S. oil prowess, the price they pay at the pump could rise significantly if political and security concerns interfere with any Middle Eastern producer, including Iraq.
For all these reasons, Trump needs to prioritize mending relations with Iraq instead of threatening sanctions against its government. The administration should demonstrate that it understands the difficult circumstances in which Iraq finds itself and reiterate that the United States does not desire to fight its battles with Iran on Iraqi soil.
Rather than suggesting that the United States will keep its troops stationed in Iraq against the will of the Baghdad government, Washington could signal that it is open to discussing the nature and modalities of the relationship. It could recommend undertaking a sober, thorough, and bilateral evaluation of the new security situation, which would assess Iraqi needs and capabilities—pledging to recalibrate the U.S. presence in accordance with the findings of the review.
The Trump administration could underscore such commitments with an important initial action: sharing with the Iraqi executive the intelligence that suggested an imminent threat to American lives and warranted the killing of Soleimani on Iraqi soil. Not only might seeing such intelligence help mollify those who are outraged by the violation of Iraqi sovereignty, but sharing it can also help restore the trust that has crumbled between the two sides in just the past few days. The Iraqi government wants to be treated not as an arm of the Iranian regime but as the sovereign entity that the United States has helped nurture and support for the better part of the last 16 years. The Trump administration should bear this in mind.
The Iraqi government wants to be treated not as an arm of the Iranian regime but as the sovereign entity.
The United States faces a new, more precarious reality in Iraq. But the relationship between the two countries is not completely beyond rescue. Important constituencies still do not want to see relations severed. Even though Abdul-Mahdi stood in support of the resolution to expel U.S. troops on Sunday, he has defended—even to skeptical Iranians—the importance of the U.S.-Iraqi partnership throughout the entire post-Saddam era. Iraqi President Barham Salih made statements in recent days underscoring that the United States and Iraq are close partners. Just short of half of Iraq’s parliamentarians did not show up for the vote on Sunday, as they opposed the call to evict the United States. And many of the thousands of Iraqis who have spent the last three months protesting Iran’s influence in the country likely know that a U.S. withdrawal would tighten Iran’s grip, not loosen it. These forces can be harnessed to slow a rush to dismantle the relationship on the Iraqi side.
Such is the first major diplomatic trial resulting from the United States’ use of military force to remove Soleimani from the battlefield. The Trump administration can navigate this trial successfully, but only if it approaches the coming conversations around troop withdrawal as a joint problem-solving exercise with a country that still has significant interests in preserving its relationship with the United States and not as a contentious negotiation with an ally of Iran.