Could Iraq fall apart, the Washington Post asked General Odierno, the departing US commander in Iraq, this week. "It could," Odierno replied.
That’s why Tony Blinken’s answer to my question at a US Institute of Peace event on Tuesday is especially troubling. Blinken is Vice President Biden’s top aide for national security, and since Biden has the Iraq portfolio for the White House, his views are particularly important.
Since Iraq might, indeed, fall apart, I asked Blinken, are there any conceivable circumstances in which President Obama might renege on the plan to withdraw the remaining 49,000 US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011? What if Iraq falls back into violence and civil war? In response, Blinken called it a "hypothetical" question and he refused to comment. He added that the remaining US forces in Iraq—two of whom were killed yesterday by a rogue Kurdish soldier—are "fully prepared to deal with any contingencies that develop." Though both President Obama’s own commitment and the terms of the US-Iraq treaty negotiated in 2008 by President Bush call for the removal of all US forces by the end of 2011, Blinken would not say definitively that the troops would leave no matter what. I don’t know what Blinken’s definition of hypothetical is, but it isn’t hypothetical to say that there are no circumstances that could lead Obama to halt the withdrawal or, even worse, to reverse it and add more troops.
Part of the reason that Iraq might fall apart is that Iran, which has enormous influence in Iraq, is positioned to stir up trouble against the United States and its role in Iraq, especially if US-Iran relations deteriorate sharply over other issues, such as Iran’s nuclear program. I asked Blinken if the Obama administration has any sort of dialogue with Iran over Iraq, something like the direct talks between the United States and Iran that took place sporadically in Baghdad during the Bush administration. Blinked said no. "We do not have a dialogue with Iran about Iraq," he said.
Despite Obama’s pledge to end the war in Iraq, Blinken made it clear that the United States believes that it can retain an important and lasting role in Iraq going forward, including a robust military relationship. The United States is setting up an Office of Security Cooperation at the US embassy in Baghdad, whose purpose will be to work with the Iraqi defense ministry and Iraq’s armed forces on bolstering its military capacity and selling US weapons systems to Iraq. Indeed, said Blinken, those weapons systems will serve as the "connective tissue" tying Iraq and the United States together. (That’s because each system requires a steady supply of replacement parts and upgrades, along with hundreds or thousands of US personnel, including contractors, to train, maintain, and enhance the systems.)
Needless to say, Iran will not view a burgeoning US-Iraq military relationship with equanimity, nor will they see US efforts to push Iraqi politicians into creating a US-leaning government that shuts out Iran’s friends. Blinken, for instance, made it clear that the United States does not favor the including of the anti-American Sadrist movement in the Iraqi government, if and when a government is ever formed. Rather, the United States is exerting its influence to push Prime Minister Maliki and former Prime Minister Allawi into a grand alliance, according to various reports, while minimizing the role of the Shiite bloc, which includes the Sadrists. Such a deal may or may not be possible, and there’s no forward movement yet. But clearly both Iran and the United States and playing a zero-sum game at present to influence the creation of a government in Iraq that leans one way or the other.
Blinken said that Iran has so far failed to exert influence. He cited the "development of a new nationalism" in Iraq which wants to reduce Iran’s role—though, pointedly, he did not say that that same nationalism is bitterly opposed to America’s influence, too. But Blinken did acknowledge that by virtue of geography, history, and religious affinity (i.e., Shiism), Iran will always have influence in Iraq. And he noted that 75 to 80 percent of Iraqis want the United States to leave Iraq. Still, it’s clear that the Obama administration isn’t giving up on the idea that the United States can turn Iraq into an eastern version of Egypt, that is, a conservative, pro-US Arab country that relies on Washington for military support. Given Iran’s proximity, however, and the fact that Iraq, unlike Egypt, has vast oil resources to fuel its independence, that seems unlikely at best.