Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for December 2nd, 2011

VP Biden and the Great American Reposture in the Middle East

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 2 December 2011 19:35

So, it’s over, or mostly so. The visit to Iraq by US vice-president Joe Biden this week marked the symbolic end of the US-led Iraq War and the beginning of a new era in which a so-called Strategic Framework Agreement will govern US-Iraq relations.

First, don’t get fooled by that impressive framework term (yes, it’s called the SFA in US government parlance). This may sound fancy, but to Iraq it means simply a normal bilateral relationship between two independent countries. Other countries may have their own SFAs with Iraq as well, formal or informal, and in the long run it’s the realities on the ground – not how US government media advisors choose to spin it – that will count.

But the vice-presidential visit this week was of course mostly about spin. Basically, it was the usual Biden menu of gaffe, humour and pomposity delivered with unmistakable self-confidence and no particular regard for the facts on the ground. Biden even referred to US hospital-building in the great Iraqi city of Baku!  (The Transparent White House© was courageous enough to publish the little hiccup as delivered, with a tiny sic inserted not so gently within the flowery prose of the VP).

More substantially, the remarkable feature of Biden’s speeches was that he is finally beginning to talk about Iraq as a nation, instead of the compulsive references to Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that characterised the public Iraq diplomacy of the Obama administration in 2009–2010. Instead of references to the sub-categories of Iraqis, Biden now talked about “this great nation”. Those who talk about civil war and fragmentation, according to Biden, “not only misunderstand the Iraqi politics, but they underestimate the Iraqi people”! Apparently, this time around Biden even forgot to visit his old favourite, Ammar al-Hakim of ISCI, a Shiite sectarian party that for a long time enjoyed access to most areas in Washington.

Too bad it’s too late to talk like that now. Biden’s remarks come at a time when Iraq as a nation appears to be in far greater danger than back in 2006 when Biden himself prophesised disintegration and advocated controlled devolution. Biden would have realised this had he focused on qualitative instead of quantitative indicators in his speech: The number of violent incidents may be down, but Sunni-majority areas of Iraq are showing an unprecedented interest in self-rule and even separatism from what they see as a Shiite Islamist monopoly in Baghdad. When Biden says, “we were able to turn lemons into lemonade”, refers to “a political culture based on free elections and the rule of law” and even highlights “Iraq’s emerging, inclusive political culture… (as) the ultimate guarantor of stability”, he is simply making things up.

It is perhaps symptomatic that Biden’s exit from Iraq – probably the last top Washington official to leave the country prior to the full withdrawal – should take place via Arbil, the Kurdish regional capital. Even though rhetorically, the Obama administration has moved away from Biden’s erstwhile predilection for sects and ethnicities, it has never backed this up consistently in its own policies. Nothing symbolises the contradiction in US policy better than the tension between a rhetorical focus on the national whole and the constant pandering to centrifugal forces: US state visits to Spain do not always include Catalonia and the Basque Country as separate ports of call, so why should Iraq – another federal country – be any different?

Biden closed by saying that “oil’s the glue that’s going to hold this country together”. That’s an optimistic forecast at a time when Biden’s own Kurdish hosts are considering using oil as a weapon to dismantle Iraq as a country, and increasingly enlist US oil companies as part of their efforts.

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Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 12 Comments »