If nothing else, Ryan Crocker is an optimist. Speaking to a conference sponsored last week by the National Council on US-Arab Relations (NCUSAR), Crocker laid out what can only be called a rosy, if not Pollyanna-like, view of Iraq's future as a friend and ally of the United States.
Crocker, of course, was ambassador to Iraq from 2007–09 (the "surge years") and, before that, ambassador to Pakistan (2004–07). He's a longtime Arabist, having also served as America's ambassador in Syria, Kuwait,and Lebanon, as well as posts in Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Currently, he's the dean of the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M, which, it should be pointed out, is named after Bush 41, not the bungling, neoconservative-bewitched Bush 43 ("W."). The audience that Crocker addressed was very establishment, since NCUSAR is sponsored by the US military-industrial complex (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman) along with Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and their allies in the oil-rich Gulf Arab states.
In his remarks, Crocker downplayed Iran's role in Iraq, and he suggested that when the dust clears in the formation of a new government in Iraq that Baghdad would come to the United States to ask for an extension of the US military presence beyond the end of 2011. By that date, according to the accord signed in 2008 by the Bush administration, all US troops are to leave Iraq. But Crocker said that it is "quite likely that the Iraqi government is going to ask for an extension of our deployed presence."
He added, perhaps for the benefit of the many defense contractors in the audience, that the United States will probably be called on to supply heavy military equipment to Iraq, including battle tanks and combat aircraft, both of which the Iraqi armed forces currently lack. Such a resupply effort by the American military-industrial complex will start in earnest in the 2013-2015 time period, Crocker suggested.
He also predicted that Prime Minister Maliki would return to that office, atop a broad-based government that would include Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. He outlined innumerable problems that Iraq faces—a refugee crisis, Arab-Kurd tensions, countless disputed internal boundaries, the leftover forces of the Sons of Iraq (the old sahwa or Awakening movement)—but he expressed optimism that Iraq will deal with each of these. And he called the United States the "indispensable outside power" that can "help to broker compromises."
The notion that Maliki, who has recently established an alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr, can form a government that might include Sadr but exclude former Prime Minister Allawi and his Iraqiya bloc recently set off alarm bells in Washington. Allawi's bloc represents secular Shiites, anti-Iran nationalists and most Sunnis, and it is generally anti-Iran and pro-American. Sadr, who lives in Iran and whose support for Maliki was reportedly engineered by Tehran, isn't likely to want to come to the United States to ask for an extension of the US military presence beyond 2011, as Crocker predicts. But it's likely that the Kurds, who hold the balance of power, will refuse to back Maliki unless the prime minister cuts a deal with Allawi, too, undermining Sadr's clout. The Kurds, though mostly pro-American, are heavily influenced by Iran, too, and are caught in the middle.
After the spoke, I interviewed Crocker. When I asked about the Maliki-Sadr pact, he said: "The Sadr-Maliki relationship is fundamentally difficult and unstable. It fell apart once before. We'll see how long it lasts this time. I'm not overly concerned about the Sadr-Maliki alliance."
I asked Crocker about Iran's role. "Iran is going to try to control or dominate affairs in Iraq," he said. "But Iranian influence is self-limiting. The harder they push, the more resistance they get." He said that Iran still supports various armed militia in Iraq, but that Iraqi nationalism will assert itself against Iran.
So far, unlike during the Bush administration, the Obama administration has chosen not to engage Iran over Iraq diplomatically. When he was ambassador, Crocker held a series of meetings with Iran's then-ambassador in Baghdad, a senior official of the Revolutionary Guard, to discuss US-Iran cooperation. When I asked Crocker about whether the resumption of such a dialogue might be useful now, he expressed some reservations. "The Obama administration has rightly said that it would agree to discuss a range of issues with Iran," said Crocker. But he said that Washington must be very careful about any effort that might make it look like Washington and Tehran were talking about Iraq's future without Baghdad's consent. "The Iraqis are very sensitive to that," he said.
True enough. (Also, the Gulf Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, are paranoid about better relations between the United States and Iran, since they think it might come at their expense.) But Iran has been pushing hard for influence in the next Iraqi government, and behind the scenes it has a lot of clout with Maliki, his secretive Dawa party and many of his security officials. So far, Allawi is resisting a deal with Maliki, claiming that since he won the most votes (gaining ninety-one seats in parliament to Maliki's eighty-nine) he ought to have the prime minister's job or at least kingmaker's role. In recent weeks, it's been reported that Allawi has made a deal with another Shiite bloc, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Fadhila party, to let one of their top officials, ISCI's Adel Abdel Mahdi, become prime minister. But there's no way that Maliki will step down in favor of Allawi and Abdel Mahdi. Thus, Crocker—and the United States more generally—seem to have accepted Maliki's re-election, provided he can swing a deal with Allawi as a junior partner.
It's encouraging that Iran has recently joined talks with the United States and other world powers over the future of Afghanistan. It's encouraging that talks between Iran and the United States, along with the rest of the P5+1, are likely going to restart next month over Iran's nuclear program. It would be even more encouraging if the Obama administration would start talking actively to Iran about Iraq, too.