Iraq and Gulf Analysis

The Second Biden Mission to Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 17 September 2009 19:18

Writing about the Iraq policy of the Obama administration is difficult these days. There is a dearth of policy statements, and what little exists in the public domain is either rather bland or involves a continuation of the policy of the late Bush administration as defined by the SOFA framework of 2008: To withdraw all US forces by the end of 2011, and then to resume normal bilateral relations.

Perhaps the most logical interpretation would be to take this at face value: Obama will stay faithful to the SOFA arrangements, period. However, the hectic travel activity of Vice President Joe Biden over the past three months, with two visits to Iraq in the middle of the hot summer season, suggests that there is also an attempt to influence the Iraqi political process in a more detailed way. Biden’s second visit started two days ago and roused Iraqi politicians from their end-of-Ramadan modus.

Identifying the more detailed US agenda in this is however quite difficult. There is of course the red thread of promised but unspecified “reconciliation assistance” that can be traced back to Obama’s speech at Camp Lejeune last February. That theme was repeated during Biden’s previous visit to Baghdad in July, when Biden stated his intention to “re-establish contact with each of the leaders among the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites”. This time, however, beyond the rather lame cut-and-paste descriptions of the trip in newswire reports which say more about the previous Biden visit than the current one (Biden came to help Iraqis “fractious sectarian groups” sort out their “rows” over “oil revenue distribution” etc.), statements of specific goals have been hard to come by.

Someone who certainly has not got his analysis right is Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who days ago described Biden’s previous visit as follows: “He read them the riot act, and he had the most credibility of anybody in the administration to do that”. If anything, what these visits have demonstrated twice is that US leverage is quickly disappearing from Iraq. Biden today informed the press that no further “benchmark legislation” would be passed this side of Iraq’s parliamentary elections scheduled for 16 January 2010 (hopefully that statement was offered as a prognosis, since this issue supposedly is for the majority of the Iraqi parliament to decide!), whereas Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki used the opportunity of his joint press conference with Biden to coolly steer clear of any reference to national reconciliation issues. (The rather meek nature of Biden’s own reference to “efforts of [Maliki’s] government to strengthen national unity” suggests that Maliki during their meeting stuck to his previously-expressed policy that with the possible exception of the Arab-Kurdish track, no American assistance is called for.)

Biden’s frank assertion that he expects no major national reconciliation initiatives prior to the elections is useful in two ways. Firstly, it is good news in itself. It is often not realised that to leave these issues in suspense during the elections could actually have a positive impact on Iraqi politics in that voters may get the opportunity to discuss basic constitutional issues in Iraq in a less sectarian and confused atmosphere than that which prevailed during the two 2005 elections and ahead of the constitutional referendum that year. There have been certain rumours to the effect that the current parliament will make an attempt to push through a limited package of constitutional reforms, without addressing the deeper issues but instead seeking to perpetuate some of the ethno-sectarian power-sharing features that originally had been limited to the first parliamentary cycle (such as the tripartite presidency). Hopefully Biden’s comment means that no US support for this kind of sham constitutional revision will be forthcoming. A repeat of the Bush administration’s meddling in August 2005 – which led to a premature constitution and a flawed process – would be a disaster.

Biden’s comments are also useful in that they highlight the limited window that remains for the Obama administration to exercise diplomatic influences in Iraq’s internal political process. If Biden is correct, not much more will be attempted this side of the 16 January 2010 elections. On that day, it is possible that the Iraqi people will reject the SOFA in the referendum that will coincide with the parliamentary elections, in which case the Maliki government will notify Washington that they have one year to leave the country and the logistics of getting out will likely become the preoccupation of the Obama administration. But even if the SOFA is accepted by the Iraqi people, the time that remains for the US between January and the end of 2011 is in practice highly restricted. Combat forces must be out by August 2010, and Washington has already factored in a couple of months in the post-election period to secure a stable transition – meaning that by the time a new government has been formed and serious discussion of national-reconciliation issues can recommence, probably no earlier than April 2010 if past experience is anything to go by, the mechanisms of withdrawal will probably occupy most of the Obama administration’s attention. On top of this, the first batch of constitutional revisions will be passed by a straightforward majority decision in the Iraqi parliament; any crisis over Kurdish objections will erupt only after a subsequent referendum, probably in late 2010 at the earliest.

So, if this was not a desperate and totally unrealistic attempt at triggering some major national-reconciliation initiative prior to the elections (which Iraqi politician would want to give too much to Arbil before the elections?), what was the objective of the latest visit by Biden? Two issues stand out. The first is an apparent attempt by the Obama administration to underline its support for multiple centres of power in Iraq (as opposed to the Bush administration’s more unconditional backing of Maliki), with an itinerary that featured as many people as possible in addition to Maliki – including the president, the vice presidents, the deputy premier and the president of the Kurdistan federal region. This seems to reflect a Washington phenomenon which tends to materialise almost automatically as soon as there is a degree of stability in Iraq: the fear of power becoming too concentrated. The neo-conservative iteration of this has been laid out bluntly by Ken Pollack in a recent policy paper that called for changes to the SOFA; equally important, however, is the liberal variant that was articulated by Senator John Kerry during the recent Senate hearing on Iraq, where he, too, found it necessary to bring up the issue of the danger of “concentration of power” in Iraq. (Biden himself has signalled this kind of stance earlier, for example last year when he told reporters that although Maliki did not like the “Biden plan” of a federal Iraq, “the rest of the government liked it.”) But whereas it seems prudent to try to counteract semi-authoritarian tendencies in the new Iraq, it is depressing that in doing so most senior US policy-makers seem to fall back on Washington’s old friends as the only alternative, as if there had been no maturation of Iraqi politics since 2005 (for example, during the Senate hearings, both Kerry and Ambassador Chris Hill still seemed to concentrate on  the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq as a key player).

The second plausible issue where there may have been an attempt at exercising influence is the elections law, due to be debated as the Iraqi parliament reconvenes after the Eid al-Fitr holiday which ends next Wednesday. For the elections to go ahead on schedule, the new law (or modifications to the existing one from 2005) must be adopted by 15 October. Agreement  has apparently been reached on most contentious issues (including the principle of open lists), but everything will hinge on the Kirkuk issue. For practical reasons, any failure to pass new or amended legislation by the deadline will mean that the 2005 law will be used, with closed lists and no special arrangements for Kirkuk. It is however unclear how the US could inject any new ideas into this debate. So far, the fronts have been quite hard between a group of Iraqi nationalists headed by Arabs and Turkmens from Kirkuk who have insisted on four, ethnically defined electoral constituencies in Kirkuk, and the Kurds who want no changes (or an extension of the quota principle to Diyala and Nineveh). Neither suggestion seems particularly promising: Separate constituencies would only reify divisions in Kirkuk, whereas keeping the status quo would extend legitimacy to the Kurdish position in a one-sided way. So far, perhaps the most constructive compromise alternative involves a critical examination of the existing register of voters.

Finally, it is interesting to see how far Biden has travelled from his erstwhile ideas about national reconciliation in Iraq. Whereas he previously believed Sunnis and Shiites needed “separate federal spaces in which to breathe”, he now considers that the prospect of a sectarian conflict has diminished (even if the state has become more centralised). Similarly, a year back ago, he stressed over and again the need for “a political settlement” as the key to a US withdrawal, without which “we’re going to be back there in another year or two or three or five”. He now seems to accept that national reconciliation will likely be carried out in the dying days of the US military presence in Iraq.

15 Responses to “The Second Biden Mission to Iraq”

  1. Alexno said

    I think the factor not to forget in relation to Biden’s visit is the Kurdish question. Biden has shown a lot of signs over the years of sympathy for the Kurds; he was one of the last to abandon the idea of breaking up an Iraq which was never real, which is of course code for supporting the cause of the KRG.

    At the same time, as you have also noted, there is strong Kurdish lobbying in Washington.

    The KRG is terrified of a strong government in Baghdad. They fear the return of a Saddam-style attack upon them, as well as the prospective loss of their aggrandising territorial claims. All very good reason to be lobbying in Washington, and getting their good friend Joseph Biden to go to Baghdad and settle things in their favour.

    I doubt that Maliki is playing, though. He knows perfectly well that agree to what the Kurds want, and you don’t have an Iraq. That is probably why the results of Biden’s visit are unclear.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    I agree, Washington is super-leveraging the Kurds for no good reason. It is one of those recurrent paradoxes of US policy in Iraq. People in DC say the Kurds are the most pro-American force in Iraq and yet they turn a blind eye to the fact that the Kurds keep derailing the constitutional process in Iraq with their demands, many of which are so retrograde that it is a shame they are being taken seriously by the rest of the world. For example, many of the claims under the “disputed territories” heading could have been be suitable for the atmosphere at Versailles anno 1919 but hasn’t the international community progressed a little since then? Much of this expansionist nationalism is related to a Milosevic way of thinking (except that some of Milosevic’s claims had a slightly less fictitious relationship to history) and yet it keeps receiving highbrow consideration at Capitol Hill. For example, the “Kirkuk issue”, frequently described in the international media as relating to a vision of a “Kurdish Jerusalem”, is in reality a demand that was abruptly concocted by Mustafa Barzani around 1970 during the time of the autonomy negotiations and has since been inherited by his son. The only way I can make sense of this contradiction in US policy is that someone must be dreaming that the Kurds can deliver bases to the US in the north, but they should know that the Kurdistan region is likely to get expelled from Iraq in the moment any such bases materialise. As long as they keep sticking to their maximalist demands, what usefulness to the United States is there really in the pro-American sentiments of the Kurds?

    In relation to these American policy contradictions, one particularly worrying scenario has to do with the emerging links between the new Shiite-led coalition and the Kurds, which lately have been complemented by talks with Iraqiyya. It is hard to imagine a more unholy alliance: Iraqiyya disagrees with the Kurds and ISCI on every single issue of significance in Iraqi politics. But let’s follow this parody just a little further, and imagine the following scenario. Ayad Allawi, just back from a visit to the US, enters into alliance with Hakim and a tacit understanding with the Kurds. Washington leaders, who know well that the Hakim list was conceived and prepared on Iranian territory, will close their eyes and think of Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Some kind of “Arab cover” will be provided, perhaps by the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar (and maybe even the king of Jordan and the sultan of Oman?) Everyone will be impressed that the new alliance comprises Sunnis and Shiites and secularists…and will forget the fact and the only thing that might actually bring these groups together would be their thirst for power.

    Thankfully, though, Iraqi voters will still have a say on these issues…

  3. bb said

    Appropos of the oft repeated refrain about the Bush admin’s so-called “backing” of Maliki as though this were something uncalled for, should it not be kept in mind that Prime Minister Maliki was leading, and today leads, the lawful government of Iraq elected according to its democratic constitution via the most transparent and fair electoral system yet devised by man? That is, -proportional representation, unsullied by gerrymanders or winner take all scenarios.

    This being the case, who should the US be “backing”? If not the lawfully elected government, then who?

    And also – I’m not sure what or who Iraqiyya refers to? Could you inform?

  4. Biden’s plans are so superficial they are getting boring. With such visits no wonder the influence of the US is eroding in Iraq.

  5. Alexno said

    Excellent analysis on the Kurds, Reidar.

    The point I want to add is that I am convinced that the Kurdish question is the dominant issue in Iraqi politics today. Evidently, as a non-political specialist, I am not following all the developments. I have asked myself, as someone who knows better Sunni Iraq, if I am not being obsessive about the Kurds, but I think not. I still believe that the Kurdish question dominates politics in Baghdad, and this dominance explains much of what has happened recently.

    Your remark, one particularly worrying scenario has to do with the emerging links between the new Shiite-led coalition and the Kurds, which lately have been complemented by talks with Iraqiyya.

    It is obvious that the Kurds are going to want to ally with the INA (Iraq National Alliance), in order to dethrone Maliki. The Kurds want a weak regime in Baghdad; Ammar al-Hakim wants to replace Maliki. Would Ammar al-Hakim, in power, have a different policy from Maliki? I doubt it, not with the Sadrists in tow. As you say, it’s a parody of an alliance. The Kurds are happy to have Ammar al-Hakim, as long as he is only just in power. Iyad al-Allawi, that’s OK, he has no Iraqi power-base.

    As for the US, I find their policy unclear. I prefer the term ‘incoherent’ over ‘contradictory’. Obama’s White House states one policy, following Bush’s agreement to the SOFA/Withdrawal Agreement, which implies strenghtening the Baghdad government. Odierno, as US commander in Iraq, follows a different policy, apparently intended to retain US forces in Iraq, and he proposes an intervention force to separate Iraqis and Kurds, but only placed on non-Kurdish territory. Evidently he is convinced by the Kurdish argument. What Biden was up to, well we have discussed that.

    The main danger is that the Baghdad government be reduced to in-fighting. That is what the Kurds want. But not the INA. I could imagine many changes of alliance, before, and after, the January elections.

  6. Salah said

    who knows better Sunni Iraq

    Alexno, with all due respect can you tell us why you keep saying saw?

    As I understand you been in Iraq before war 2003, Iraq was one nation its hardly you feel there are differences or some ethnic tensions as you like to speaks, yes you may been in area that majority from that sec. but believe me there are mix any where in Iraq.

    BTW, Iraqi feel insulted/ ashamed at that time talking between them even if you asked them they may look to you differently?

  7. Salah said

    Very informative article about Kirkuk history and other Iraqi northern cities after Ottoman empire broken
    This series 5 of series of articles regarding this matter

    أزمة كركوك: السياسة الإثنية في النزاع والحلول التوافقية “

    أجدى منطلق في رسم صورة دقيقة لكركوك في أوائل القرن العشرين هو مكتشفات عدد من فرق المسح التي عملت بتكليف من قوى ما بعد الحكم العثماني عقب الحرب العالمية الأولى، وخلال لحظات تكوين الدولة العراقية. وبعد سقوط الإمبراطورية العثمانية وتقسيم ممتلكاتها لاحقاً إلى كياناًت بدأت تتبلور دول جديدة في ما بعد، قُدمت عدة مجموعات من البيانات الإحصائية إلى لجنة الموصل التابعة لعصبة الأمم، التي أُنيطت بها مهمة النظر في وضع ولاية الموصل (التي كانت تضم كركوك) وتقرير مستقبلها. ويبين الجدول أدناه جملة الأرقام التي طلعت بها مصادر تركية وبريطانية وعراقية في وقت واحد تقريباً.
    تبين الأرقام تفاوتاً هائلاً يعكس الحقيقة الماثلة في أن منهجيات التعداد التي استعملتها جهات متعددة كانت منهجيات مختلفة اختلافاً واسعاً وحاسماً. وما له أهمية بالغة انه لم يكن هناك اتفاق ذات يوم على ما يعنيه في الواقع كون المرء كردياً أو تركمانياً أو عربياً أو مسيحياً. إذ كانت اللغة هي الطريقة الأكثر شيوعاً في تحديد الهوية الإثنية. ولكن هذه كانت طريقة ذات إشكالية بالغة في سياق ولاية الموصل، وكركوك تحديداً. ففي إربيل، وهي مدينة اكتسبت هويتها الكردية أساساً بحلول نهاية القرن التاسع عشر، كان كثير من ذوي الأصول التركمانية يتكلمون الكردية من حيث الأساس في حين أن كثيراً من كرد المدن ـ الذين اندمجوا منذ زمن مضى في مؤسسات المدينة السياسية ـ كانوا على الأرجح من الناطقين بالتركية في المقام الأول.
    كما يتعين أن تؤخذ الأجندات السياسية في اعتبار أي تحليل للإحصاءات التي قُدمت خلال مفاوضات المؤتمر. ومن وجهة النظر البريطانية بُذلت جهود قصوى لتبيان أن الوجود التركماني ربما لم يكن ملحوظاً كما حاولت الحكومة التركية أن توحي به. وبالتالي سُجلت أعداد أكبر من الكرد والعرب على حساب التركمان. ولكن عندما انحسر الضغط الناجم عن المداولات بشأن الموصل وترسخ وجود الولاية داخل حدود المملكة العراقية كان واضحاً أن نظرة البريطانيين إلى كركوك على الأخص بدأت تتغير نوعاً ما.

    Reidar, read this article, very interesting story of an Iraqi who saved Norway from oil. Farouk al-Kasim is from Basra!

  8. Alexno said

    Sorry, Salah. I think I misspoke. I should have said “Central and Northern Iraq”

  9. RM said

    If you accept that the U.S. is firmly focussed on drawing down in Iraq and ramping up in Afghanistan, then the withdrawal timetable must be sacroscant. That view is reinforced by Obama’s pre and post-election stance on Iraq – and I can’t see him u-turning unless Iraq is absolutely collapsing.

    So, its all about reducing, nullifying or deferring anything that could adversely impact on the withdrawal. The Kurds are probably the biggest threat to a smooth U.S. departure – and as rightly noted, Joe Biden is pro-Kurd. So who better than to deliver a calm down message.

    As for any other tangible achievement from his second visit – apart from encouraging a spate of rocket fire into the IZ – I agree that he demonstrated how little the U.S. is being listened to now. Its all about political posturing and back-room deals – Iraq is in election mode and this is truly an Iraqi-dominated moment….although perhaps with a little help from the sidelines.

  10. Salah said

    The Kurds are probably the biggest threat to a smooth U.S. departure

    PM, due think Turkey & Iran keen silent without action for the Kurd’s dreams?

  11. Reidar Visser said

    RM, the explanation you offer seems plausible, except that I am not sure Biden is the right person to explain to the Kurds that they need to accept the fact that the future system of government south of Kurdistan is likely going to be a strong and centralised one – for the simple reason that Biden himself seems to believe that such a centralised regime in Baghdad is neither possible nor desirable.

    There could be some interesting parallels in the bigger scheme of things here. If we assume that Obama’s general approach to foreign policy is one of disengagement, greater roles for regional hegemonic powers and less appetite for coming to the rescue of brave little Belgiums, there is of course the Russia–Georgia analogy, where Obama met the Russians and sent Biden on a consolation mission to Tbilisi. Except that in the case of Iraq, Biden pays a disproportionate degree of attention to Arbil in a way that strengthens Tehran while Baghdad gets weaker.

  12. bb said

    The Kurds major interest is Tamin province where they have a clear and decisive majority of the vote if one goes by the 2005 elections and the 2005 constitution vote.

    For obvious reasons the Turkmen and Sunni arabs who comprise a significant – but nevertheless – clear minority, are resisting the prospect of Tamin and Kirkuk becoming part of Kurdistan. As will happen the moment a referendum is held there.

    I suspect the Kurds are pushing the other “disputed” territories in Ninewah and Diyala as bargaining cards for the their main prize, al Tamin. Issue’s not going to be resolved in a hurry, and the best bet is that all parties will end up preserving the current status quo for the foreseeable future. The Kurds retaining their absolute majority on Tamin council, which is the least they would settle for.

  13. Elizabeth Miller said

    Hi everyone! Salam!

    I have some questions about what Vice President Biden, in another lifetime – was advocating for US policy toward Iraq.

    It is my understanding that he was pushing for the US and UN to support national political reconciliation in Iraq based on principles of federalism as outlined in Iraq’s constitution. I really don’t know how his thinking has evolved on this during the last couple of years.

    But, it seems to me that the political landscape in Iraq is remarkably fragmented and that some sort of power-sharing arrangement that ALL Iraqis can agree upon, through a process of negotiations and constitutional reform, needs to occur before Iraq can move forward. This was Senator Biden’s “Iraq strategy”, in a nutshell.

    So, I guess what I’d like to understand is how Iraqis see their political future. Is a strong central government in Iraq the way to go or is the answer some devolution of power from the central government to the provinces and/or regions?

    I think that Senator Biden’s thinking on all of this has been so misrepresented and inaccurately reported – both inside and outside of Iraq – that his name has almost become a bad word among many Iraqis. Is this actually the case or does Vice President Biden have credibility with most Iraqis?

    I would really appreciate your comments!


  14. Reidar Visser said

    Elizabeth, you are right to mention that Biden’s plan is generally misunderstood in Iraq (i.e. Iraqis see it as outright partition, which it isn’t, technically speaking at least), but I need to point out that your own interpretation of it isn’t quite correct either. I have written extensively about this elsewhere and you may be interested in having a look at some of the articles listed in this short bibliography:
    Basically, Biden’s approach, which can be described as pro-active US support for federalisation in Iraq is (or was) NOT consistent with the bottom-up mechanisms for the formation of federal regions as set out in the Iraqi constitution of 2005 and the law for forming regions of 2006. It violates the constitution in several ways, as outlined in those articles, particularly by implying a degree of US agency in the process.

  15. Elizabeth Miller said


    Thanks very much for your response and you can be sure that I will take a very close look at all of the articles you provided. I will be particularly interested in understanding why you feel that Biden’s approach is NOT consistent with the Iraqi constitution and how it implies “a degree of US agency in the process”.

    I have followed Biden’s thinking on Iraq extremely closely for the last many years and know that few, if any, analysts or news reports have ever accurately described it. Biden himself, in fact, has been lazy on occasion in leaving the wrong impression when interviewed on the subject – I chalk it up to being tired of explaining the same basic principles over and over and over again and people still not understanding it!

    And, I think it is important to consider that, when this approach was first announced, Iraq was embroiled in a vicious cycle of sectarian violence. But, the essentials of Biden’s approach apply to the conditions that exist in Iraq today…as I understand it, at least!

    In any event, what I have been referring to aa ‘The Biden strategy’ is the ONLY political solution that I know of that would seek to keep Iraq stable and UNITED…AND up to the Iraqis to determine their own political future, in the final analysis.

    I will read these articles very carefully and I hope that we can have some further discussion on what needs to happen in Iraq to put it on a solid footing toward a process of national political reconciliation that involves all Iraqis, inside and outside of the current political structures.

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