Learning to Listen in Iraq

President Barack Obama meets today with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who arrives in Washington representing a country that has seen some progress but remains troubled by power-sharing disputes. Maliki’s visit presents quite a contrast to his trip to the United States in the summer of 2006, when Iraq was slipping deeper into a civil war and senior officials in the Bush administration were wondering whether Maliki had the ability to hold the country together.

Three years later, Iraq has pulled back from the brink of total collapse, but the country still suffers from enduring divisions that the 2007 surge of U.S. troops was supposed to help bridge. The Center for American Progress described these divisions in this paper. Obama and Maliki should discuss the role of the United States in facilitating a solution to these lingering tensions in today’s talks.

Too often such diplomatic meetings and photo-opportunities like today’s take place without any real mechanisms through which to act on the shared interests and challenges discussed. But in this case, mechanisms do exist to follow up on the key issues of common interests, including the strategic framework agreement signed by the two countries last year, which outlines a set of goals for the political, economic, and security relationship with Iraq, and a security agreement that regulates the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq over the next few years. In addition to these bilateral agreements, there are international efforts to provide Iraq with support, such as the International Compact with Iraq.

The president has also made sure today’s conversation with Iraq will result in action by appointing Vice President Joe Biden as a special envoy to oversee Iraq policy. This appointment demonstrates that the president is seriously committed to facilitating a sustainable political compromise as the key to stability in Iraq. Biden’s job is extremely difficult, and one that the 2007 surge was designed to accomplish but has not yet succeeded in doing.

Biden’s job is further complicated by the controversy that surrounds him in Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki told Biden earlier this month that “the reconciliation issue is purely an Iraqi issue.” Many Iraqis do not trust Biden’s motivations because of his past support for a federalism plan that they perceive as a plan to “partition” Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. While Biden and others have defended the proposal as simply implementing the federalism that Iraq had designed in its own constitution—Iraq appears to be moving in the direction of more regional and local control anyway—many Iraqis did not react well to what they saw as an effort to meddle in Iraq’s internal affairs.

This Iraqi reaction to Biden’s visit necessitates a more nuanced approach to the U.S. role in Iraq’s political reconciliation. Anything that Iraqi leaders and factions might view as forcing a solution upon them is not going to work. The United States can take four steps that could help Iraqis achieve progress on their national reconciliation and political transition.

First, the United States should quietly support existing efforts to help Iraqis settle internal disputes over power sharing. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, for example, has been examining the roots of the problems in disputed territories of northern Iraq. The U.N. effort has avoided direct intervention and instead offered analysis and mediation. The U.N. effort has also pursued a strategy of starting with smaller territories to build momentum before addressing the more controversial issues of Kirkuk and jurisdiction over oil contracts. The United States could look closely at what the U.N. mission has found and examine whether there are diplomatic ways that it can support the United Nations’ work.

The U.N. mission is just one of the more high-profile examples of efforts by outside actors to facilitate common understandings. There are a number of countries and nongovernmental groups working on various diplomatic tracks to advance compromise among Iraqis. Biden and his team should survey those efforts to work with Iraqis by other countries and nongovernmental groups. They might find some valuable lessons learned in how to talk about the issue of reconciliation and how to engage with Iraqis effectively.

Second, the United States should look for ways to strengthen Iraq’s nascent institutions at all levels of government and society, not just the Iraq security forces. The efforts to provide Iraqis with the technical expertise and support to build governmental ministries and provincial governments have never been strong. One case in point: the Iraq Transition Assistance Office at the State Department, which is supposed to provide Iraqi ministries with experts as consultants, remains understaffed, as Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) highlighted in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month.

Having stronger governing institutions operating in Iraqi communities can help advance the country’s political transition. If these institutions are seen delivering services for all Iraqis, there is a better chance for progress on the political front in Iraq.

Third, the United States needs to build a stronger regional diplomatic support network for Iraq among Iraq’s neighbors. For all of his talk of the importance of diplomacy, President Obama has done very little to diplomatically engage Iraq’s neighbors to secure stronger support from them for Iraq’s political and military transition. The Bush administration actually engaged in a series of meetings with Iraq’s neighbors toward the end of the second term. The Obama administration has not done much on the diplomatic front regarding Iraq.

Fourth and most importantly, the United States needs to understand the limits of its power. Though our nation can play an important role in facilitating a compromise and advancing Iraq’s reconciliation and political transition, we are not in a strong position to control events in Iraq. We never have been, and never will be. A key part of understanding our power is knowing the limits of our power—knowing when to intervene directly and when to take a quieter, behind-the scenes approach.

Prime Minister Maliki is meeting President Obama this week as a strong, popular leader of an increasingly independent nation, but his government is a long way from making the political compromises that will resolve Iraq’s internal divisions. The United States has a role to play in reconciliation through its diplomatic mission, but the success of that mission depends on America’s ability to listen and offer concrete assistance without dictating a political solution.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Emily Hogin is an intern with the National Security team at the Center.

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