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High-Level Attention Needed on Iraq

Yesterday, I noted the resurrection of al-Qaeda in Iraq in no small part because of the U.S. troop pullout after the Obama administration failed to get Iraqi agreement on a status of forces agreement. Today, the question I want to consider is: What, if anything, can the U.S. still do to prevent Iraq from going totally off the rails?

Sadly, with the loss of our troop presence and with it much of our intelligence-gathering capacity, our options are vastly diminished. If we don’t have a good handle on what’s going on in the country–and we don’t, having lost much of our situational awareness at the end of last year–it is hard to figure out how to shape developments. Heck, we can’t even be sure of the number of Iraqis killed in terrorist attacks; the U.S. military no longer compiles independent figures, and it’s hard to fully trust the numbers produced in Baghdad.

But there are still things we can do to try to prevent Prime Minister Maliki from alienating Sunnis even more than he already has. The fact that the Iraqis are counting on major weapons sales from the U.S. (the Pentagon has just placed an initial order for 16 F-16s) gives us a certain amount of leverage, albeit limited leverage–the Iraqis are rich enough to buy weapons elsewhere if we refuse to sell them. But we can at least try to condition our weapons deliveries on continued Iraqi progress on governance and human rights.

To do that effectively, however, we need high-level attention focused on Iraq. That has been totally lacking in the Obama White House, which has handed off the Iraq portfolio to Vice President Biden–only he has a multitude of other responsibilities and doesn’t seem to be particularly focused on Iraq. The president, meanwhile, appears to be totally disengaged, treating Iraq as if it were his predecessor’s problem, not his. This helps to explain why we couldn’t get the status of forces agreement and why we are not able to exert much leverage at the moment to counteract strong Iranian and sectarian influence in Baghdad.

Shockingly, we don’t even have an ambassador in Baghdad at the moment. Jim Jeffrey has left and his designated successor–Brett McGurk–had to withdraw his nomination under fire. The White House has recently announced new ambassadors to Kabul and Islamabad but not to Baghdad. Even with an influential and knowledgeable ambassador in place (there are several top-drawer Arabists at the State Department who would be excellent choices for the job), we would have a tough time changing Iraq’s trajectory. Without an ambassador–and without high-level attention in Washington–it’s hopeless. So we will be left sitting on the sidelines as al-Qaeda in Iraq continues to gain strength and potentially undo the gains of the 2007-2008 surge.


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