Motivating Iraq’s Neighbors to the Table

To manage the national security threats associated with Iraq, the U.S. must engage in diplomacy with regional powers in the Middle East, says Brian Katulis.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post on July 6, 2007.

Last week, Sens. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and George Voinovich (R-OH) broke with the Bush administration and called for the United States to begin redeploying troops from Iraq.

Though most observers focused on the senators’ call to start bringing U.S. troops home, less attention was paid to the second part of what Lugar and Voinovich said—that the United States needs to intensify its diplomatic efforts with Iraq’s neighbors to get them to play a more constructive role in the region.

This second component—stepped-up diplomacy to stabilize Iraq—is easier said than done. In a complicated region fraught with intense conflicts and tensions, Iraq’s internal conflicts have in some ways already become proxy wars for regional forces, pitting country versus country, Shi’a Muslims versus Sunni Muslims, and Arabs against Persians against Kurds.

Unraveling these tensions will not be a simple task. In fact, achieving bipartisan consensus among America’s warring political factions may actually be easier than getting all of Iraq’s leaders and neighboring countries on the same page about the next steps in Iraq. But the United States should not shy away from these diplomatic challenges; international and regional diplomacy are a key to managing the national security threats associated with Iraq.

After much delay, the Bush administration finally began the process of reaching out to Iraq’s neighbors by participating in regional security conferences in Baghdad and Egypt earlier this spring. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, held limited bilateral discussions with Iran in late May. These moves represent steps in the right direction, but they are not nearly enough to address the complex set of issues related to Iraq. Two key ingredients are missing from these efforts: providing the right structure for support, and giving the right motivation for all of the countries involved.

How should the United States structure its efforts to forge a new international consensus on what to do about Iraq? President Bush should announce that he is willing to work with other global powers and all of Iraq’s neighbors to develop a new U.N. Security Council Resolution to replace the current one, which expires at the end of 2007. The current U.N. mandate legitimized the current U.S. military presence in Iraq, despite Saudi King Abdullah’s claims to the contrary when he called the U.S. troops an "illegitimate occupation" at an Arab summit conference this past March.

This new U.N. resolution should ensure that other countries do their share to help stabilize Iraq and the Middle East. It should include transparent, verifiable commitments by Iraq’s neighbors not to undermine Iraq’s security and territorial integrity, and it could aim to develop collaborative regional security initiatives to contain Iraq’s conflicts. A new resolution should also incorporate the International Compact for Iraq, a five-year plan launched earlier this spring with benchmarks for Iraq’s national reconciliation and economic reconstruction in return for formal commitments of support from the international community for Iraq.

What’s the best way to motivate other countries to act more constructively on Iraq? The United States should tell the world that it plans to redeploy its troops from Iraq within a specified time frame. This announcement will motivate countries to share the burden on Iraq. Leaders around the world and in the Middle East fear that the forthcoming U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq will lead to terrible consequences for their own countries’ interests. This fear is one of the few remaining sources of leverage and power that the United States has over these other countries.

It is time for the United States to capitalize on these fears and get others to do their share to advance their own countries’ self-interests in containing and managing Iraq’s conflicts. As Voinovich said last week, once Iraq’s neighbors "know we are genuinely leaving, I think all of a sudden the fear of God will descend upon them and say ‘We’ve got to get involved in this thing.’"

The main goal of this diplomatic shift is to ensure that the costs of intervening to exploit Iraq’s internal divisions are much higher than the benefits that could be gained from working collectively to contain, manage, and ultimately resolve Iraq’s conflicts.

More than four years of going it nearly alone in Iraq has undermined U.S. national security. With U.S. military readiness declining as U.S. ground troops feel the strain of extended deployments and the so-called "coalition of the willing" in tatters—only about 12,000 of the 25,000 troops from countries other than the United States remain in Iraq—the time has come for a strategic shift, rather than minor adjustments in military tactics.

The United States needs to forge a new international consensus on Iraq—one that recognizes the threats posed by Iraq, structures international action in a new U.N. resolution, and motivates other countries by sending a clear signal that the United States is leaving Iraq and leaving soon.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the Center’s new strategy for Iraq and the Middle East, "Strategic Reset."


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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow