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.
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