Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Public Diplomacy Progress for Obama and Maliki

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 23 July 2009 23:59

During yesterday’s brief press conference in Washington, Barack Obama found back to some of the good ideas from his first Iraq speech in February. He reiterated his respect for the way Iraqis had shown resilience against the forces of division, and he talked about national reconciliation in a relaxed fashion that did not impose particular parameters for the process. At one point he mentioned “all of Iraq’s ethnic and religious” groups, but in another instance he referred to the “people of all parts of Iraq” and there was no reference to the specific tripartite formula of “Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds” which was prominent only weeks ago during Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit. All in all, his remarks are likely to be seen as unobjectionable by a majority of Iraqis, quite regardless of what they may think of the current Iraqi government.

We do not know what was said behind the scenes, but it is quite entertaining how the Western mainstream media, by contrast, remain stuck in their own clichés. Here, reconciliation “between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds” is the only ticket in town, even if this means having to struggle with quotation marks and sometimes even cheat. For example, in a story published yesterday morning, prior to the conference, AP reported, “U.S. officials, while praising improvement in Iraqi security forces, remain deeply concerned that al-Maliki’s Shiite Muslim-dominated government has been unable or unwilling to reconcile with the country’s minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds.” (Not a single quote was provided.) Then, after the press conference, another paragraph was added to the story – this is after all the normal way this cut-and-paste industry works. It read, “President Barack Obama said he pressed Iraq’s prime minister on Wednesday to make room in his government and security forces for all ethnic and religious groups to prevent a resurgence of the violence and turmoil that took the country to the verge of civil war.” Of course, at no point had Obama referred to anything to do with cabinet or indeed security forces composition (only that the latter would have to behave in a non-sectarian fashion in order to continue to receive US backing).

The BBC was even worse. The 1900 GMT evening bulletin of world news started just before the press conference in DC and featured an interview with the Washington correspondent of the BBC, Jon Donnison. He maintained that Obama would work very hard to secure tripartite reconciliation, and he was particularly adamant that “dividing up the energy resources” between the three was key. Immediately following the live coverage of the press conference, Donnison was given another chance to offer his exegesis; this time he focused on Obama’s reference to “all of Iraq’s ethnic and religious” and then added, “I take that to mean that he wanted assurances for the Kurds and the Sunnis”! In the 2000 GMT bulletin, Donnison had grown even bolder. He now claimed that “Obama said” he was looking for changes that “better integrate Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds”. Nothing of the sort had of course been said during the press conference. But the BBC persevered with its peculiar and highly tendentious mix of fact and fiction. In its website version of the story today, it erroneously attributed the tripartite theme to Maliki: “…‘The sons of Iraq and the daughters of Iraq will be equal’, Mr Maliki said, vowing that the country’s national unity government would work to end often bitter divisions between Iraq’s Shias, Sunnis and Kurds.” Except that the “vow” was the BBC’s own invention. The subtle shift in public discourse may or may not reflect a conscious change on the part of the Obama administration about how to handle reconciliation in bilateral talks with Iraq, but in any case none of what was said publicly in the Rose Garden yesterday corroborates the “interpretations” offered by AP and the BBC.

Meanwhile, based on Maliki’s remarks at the press conference, we are coming closer to an identification of where US leverage in the bilateral relationship with Iraq actually exists: in the Iraqi quest to bring to an end the “Chapter Seven”-imposed war reparations which Baghdad still has to pay Kuwait to compensate for the 1990 invasion. A change to this would require a UN Security Council decision, and the US could probably do more to lobby other states. Why not use this constructively? Why can not the US say publicly that it wants to help Iraq get rid of the Chapter Seven burden, but that it wants reassurances that Iraqi reconciliation is indeed taking place, and that it would be far easier to help Iraq once a process towards meaningful constitutional revision (again, in general terms, not imposing any particular vision) gets going, perhaps in the context of the upcoming parliamentary elections? To establish this link in general terms would be a lot more helpful than the more specific ideas of “tripartite concord” offered by Biden earlier this month, and would also be more faithful to the spirit of Obama’s remarks yesterday and indeed his whole project of not imposing particular agendas on other countries.

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