(7400 words; approximate reading time 57 mins)
The Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against the Iranian regime has bifurcated into two contradictory objectives: ‘regime collapse’ on the one hand and “Let’s make Iran great again” on the other—the latter closer to President Donald Trump’s heart, one to be achieved through negotiation, and a tagline actually uttered by him. The Iraqi negotiators due to sit across from their State Department counterparts next month, as part of a hastily scheduled round of ‘strategic dialogue,’ won’t know which of these two streams they are to wade through. But they certainly won’t be engaging in a conversation about why Iraq matters to the United States, simply because it doesn’t. In the eyes of this administration Iraq matters solely in the context of pushback against Iran.
The challenge to make Iraq autonomously relevant to America’s strategic calculations thus lies before Iraq’s leaders. Yet that journey begins with America washing its’ hands of Iraq. And it just happens to be the best time to do so.
But how many countries are really ‘autonomously relevant’? Isn’t that a too high standard by which to hold Iraq? There are degrees of relevance here. Right now Iraq is on dangerous ground. If Trump reaches a new deal with the Iranians then there is a high likelihood that he would toss up Iraq as part of the bargain. Baghdad should work on itself becoming a more valuable prize in America’s eyes but that is going to take time and some tough decisions. And that won’t happen if the U.S. keeps coddling Iraq away from Iran’s covetous hands, a situation that encourages Iraqi leaders to tread the path of least resistance while waiting for outsiders to sort out their country’s problems.
Then what about the Kurds? What about the Islamic State’s jihadists? Wouldn’t leaving signal defeat and weakness? Wouldn’t such a move embolden Iran to further expand into Iraq and throughout the Middle East? Iraq is not autonomous but neither are its problems, many of which are transregional in origin and substance. Leaving Iraq means surrendering a big portion of the field, one that cannot be neatly contained within the borders of one particular country. And more importantly, why the hurry? Why not let the status prevail for a few months more, or a few years, until better conditions arise, may be with another U.S. administration?
These are valid and compelling concerns, and it just happens that the best possible outcome for all them involves America quitting Iraq—now.
The dwindling ranks of Iraq-watchers in Washington are excitedly anticipating the talks. They were heartened by the ‘120 day waiver’ on sanctioning Iraqi purchases of Iranian electricity that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued as an early reward for the commencement of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s tenure. To have a once ‘(strictly protect)’ informant for the Americans taking center stage suggests that the trajectory of Washington’s influence on Baghdad is on the upswing again.
The current goal post by which to demonstrate influence is to maintain U.S. military presence in the country, with the watchers reassuring themselves that wherever America has troops America remains engaged. Ergo they hope to stay or reverse this administration’s instinct for a general retrenchment away from the hotspots of the Middle East.
Leaving American soldiers as place holders in the sand, as in Syria, is a poor substitute for containing or countering Iran. This is pantomime, a Kabuki-like pretense at strategy, resulting in a ridiculous mannequinization of U.S. power. It is not enough to impress the Iranians, and should Tehran choose to challenge it then it won’t be enough to impress the Iraqis or anyone else keeping tabs on regional supremacy.
The American public wants out. Trump partially ran on this sentiment. Of all of America’s foreign entanglements Iraq is particularly embittering; the voting public has moved on from ‘Iraq fatigue’ to Iraq revulsion. Trump’s recurring grievances against allies taking Americans for suckers rings doubly true for Baghdad in his constituency’s ears: Iraqis are ungrateful and they cannot get their act together. When their leaders are not stoking bloodshed (against Americans and against each other) they are robbing their own coffers.
This Trump constituency (which spills over into the Bernie Sanders-supporting demographic too) deeply mistrusts the arguments made by the expert class in Washington—whether they come at the issue as international engagement enthusiasts or as Iran hawks—on why it is important to stay. Scare scenarios (Iran taking over; Kurds left to go it alone; jihadist comeback) will not ‘take’ with the majority of the public anymore. The public increasingly hears about the conflation of livelihoods with engagement among the ‘globalists’, Davos-men, DC lobbyists and Gulf-funded think tankers—the new bogeymen of the right and the left—which further casts a shadow on the proponents for staying. The audience also listens to opposing arguments from others in this elite to the effect that Iraq is hopeless and unfixable. There is almost no public diplomacy to speak of undertaken by Baghdad’s envoys.
Consequently, Iraq is going to be very tough sell with Trump. And if there is one thing everyone should have figured out by now it is that any policy lacking presidential engagement is doomed to death by tweet. Trump was only impressed by Ain al-Asad Airbase and the money that has been spent there. That is the full extent of Iraq that he has seen, and even that at dark. Iran’s rocket launch against the base in retaliation for General Qassim Soleimani’s killing may seem like a feeble slap in a larger strategic sense, but it showed Trump that even this little patch of Iraq—the only one that he has any sort of personal attachment to—can be messed with.
A toe-hold in Iraq risks an occasional and painful stomp. Otherwise it may facilitate an Iranian counter policy of “catch a tiger by the toe.” It presents a poorly defended target to a determined enemy while simultaneously restricting the maneuverability of a superpower. The re-entry price for serious American contention of Iraqi turf is too steep, certainly one that Trump, and the public behind him, would baulk at. To give a sense of what Iraqi expectations of what a revitalized American role would look like, consider the periodic rumors of Central Intelligence Agency coups in the making and U.S. Marines fanning out across the Green Zone arresting Iraqi political leaders.
A friend forwarded a WhatsApp voice message to me a couple of weeks ago. The speaker, unidentified but speaking with an Iraqi accent, forcefully asserts that the Middle East is about to be changed dramatically as a result of al-Kadhimi’s tenure. Britain has willed it so, and is actively planning all this. The British have secretly sent a team to demarcate the Iraq-Kuwait border anew and that to Iraq’s advantage, thus affording al-Kadhimi a quick and easy win. Kuwait is also going to give up its demands on what remains of wartime indemnities owed to it. Iraq will return as a strong regional country as part of British-American-Gulf backing, and Baghdad will be tasked with confronting Tehran and Ankara whose regimes have outlived their usefulness to the British. Secular governing will reign triumphant, and Iran must pull out all of its acolytes from Iraq quickly or a war will erupt on June 29th. So claims the speaker. This message was widely distributed among the Iraqi elite. My friend, a successful businessman with extensive Western and regional contacts and who should know better, was excitedly asking “Is this for real?” This is where expectations are; these are what foolproof judgements about geopolitics sound like for a large swath of Middle Easterners.
That is just not going to happen. What America could do though is to execute a martial-arts-like policy of stepping back while pulling Iran down under its own weight, Kuzuchi-style.
It is a drastically different situation across the Middle East after Trump’s fire bolt zapped Soleimani’s chariot on the inner ring road of Baghdad International Airport. Soleimani was the Qods Force personified, its ambitions and reach a reflection of him. It can’t stand without him. But that is the least of the void he left behind. Soleimani’s mandate was to evict America from ‘West Asia.’ He was also integral to Khamenei’s succession plans. Thus he was not only taken off the battlefield in Iraq, he was taken out of Iran’s future.
Soleimani’s killing widened the scope of geopolitical opportunity in the region for actors willing to challenge Tehran in its moment of bewilderment at his loss. Immediately before the strike on January 3rd, America’s policies were experiencing strategic collapse along the entire northern tier of the Middle East (Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), much of that being of Soleimani’s doing in tandem with Washington’s missteps. A new horizon opened on January 4th, but it may prove fleeting.
Now is time for the Iraqis to step into that void as far as their country is concerned. With the pro-Iran camp momentarily incapacitated, Iraqis must brawl for their sovereignty. Staring down the Iranians is a matter of survival for the current leadership of the country. The political coalition that may do so is the strongest it will ever be. The presidency, the speakership and the premiership are headed by individuals with a proven record of fidelity to America. They are bolstered by the majority of the heads of military and security outfits in the country many of whom have demonstrated fealty in the past. Then there are Muqtada al-Sadr and the demonstrators adding heft to the anti-Iran sentiment. But most importantly there is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He serves as the lodestar guiding this coalition. He is also the reason, given his advanced age, why they must act quickly before they lose him. He too is irreplaceable and likely to leave a decade-long void in his wake.
The status quo cannot stand for much longer. Matters, especially of the financial variety, are coming to the fore. The public payroll salaries are the glue that holds the state from collapse, coopting and ameliorating a significant part of the population. Millions of government employees and pensioners subdue their wrath against the general state of mismanagement along month-long deferments as they await a paycheck. This system is under stress and in serious threat of unraveling as the state’s revenues dwindle. The ruling class needs a stunt of nationalist defiance, even if mere bravado, to distract from a poor record at governing. Whilst in the past such bravado was directed by a variety of actors against the American ‘occupation’ now is the opportune time to turn it Iran-wards.
Standing up this coalition at its strongest and at a time when Iranian influence, sans Soleimani, is at its lowest may just be enough of a distraction.
If Iraqi politicos attempt and fail, or if they dither and cede ground to the Iranians, then it shall be their defeat, not America’s. Iran may claim the prize of Iraq but a ‘failed state’ would become an anchor around its neck. How’s that for ‘maximum pressure’?
Leaving is the only way to discourage Iraq’s leaders from exercising the only skill at statecraft that they have mastered: maintaining tactical relevance within a taut stand-off between the U.S. and Iran. Stand-offs keep the middlemen in business—they prosper at times of strategic muddling. Yet a balance between Iran and America has no logic given the disparity in strength. Such irresolute situations benefit the weaker party and diminish the stronger. This particular stand-off lets Iraq’s leader off easy: there is nothing compelling to make a stand, to take a risk. It is time to take off their training wheels.
Gravitating between greater powers can also induce dangerous pretensions and delusions. For example, many in this class believe that the October demonstrations were choreographed by America in retaliation for Iraq’s long-term oil and financing deal with China.
Al-Kadhimi drew his relevance in the former cabinets of Haidar al-Abadi and Adel Abdul Mahdi by serving as a shadow Foreign Minister. He is likely to reprise that role by managing foreign relations centrally from his office while leaving other duties such as finances and economic planning for others in his own cabinet. There is understandable alacrity in Washington for doing what it can to firm up his standing. Yet U.S. policy cannot be tailored to play to his strengths as a transregional broker.
There was a similar eagerness to help Abdul Mahdi succeed early on. He too had many Western boosters. A superpower though should never make too large of a bet on an individual. America has seen many Middle Eastern disappointments in this regard. Superpowers have serially placed large bets on individuals. But now is no time for business as usual in light of the opportunity presented by leaving.
Rather than spending their time flitting around as intermediaries, Iraq’s leaders must mount the steep learning curve of adequate governance through ‘common sense’ politicking and coalition building. Their first order of business is to bring political life back online to bind together the anti-Iran coalition. Then they need to look for allies—both temporary and long-term—around their neighborhood.
Consequently, the magnitude of America’s quitting should not only look like a troop withdrawal, but should further downgrade Iraq to the strategic and economic usefulness of Burkina Faso as far as America is concerned. The measures should demonstrate a significant reduction in diplomatic presence, financial aid and media outreach. Only then will the Iranians and the Iraqi political class realize that the U.S. is serious about leaving them to their own devices.
Such a dramatic break will induce regional powers to increase their engagement with Baghdad and increase their support. For many years now, countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey presumed that the U.S. knows what it is doing while ‘managing’ Iraq. They took their grievances with Baghdad to Washington. When the Saudis sent their then Foreign Minister to Baghdad in February 2017 for the first time since Saddam Hussein was overthrown, they insisted that Adel al-Jubair travel into and around the country within the U.S. Embassy’s security envelope. The U.S. pulled all the stops so that it could gingerly bring the Saudis and Iraqis closer together even though such an embrace was in the best interests of both parties.
This formula should change if America washes its hands of Iraq. Iraq’s new ‘co-prime minister’ for economics Ali Allawi was in Riyadh a couple of days ago, hat in hand, hoping to secure Saudi largesse. He joins representatives from many other regional countries seeking the same from a Saudi Arabia that has its own financial woes to worry about. But in the new alignment, the Saudis must prioritize on their own without American guidance: this is their opportunity to take a regional lead in a post-America Iraq in a way that Iran cannot hope to match. There are initial news that the Saudis promised three billion dollars to help Iraq. The Saudis, however, have a track record of promising and then disappearing.
America has had a long history with Iraq. Some argue that the relationship began during the early days of the Ba’ath with the CIA in 1962; a relationship unproven as of yet, but still not disproven. Certainly since the 1980s the Americans have been deeply embroiled in the country. Those describing the 2003 war as the “worst single mistake ever made in the history of our country” as Trump put it recently should consider a longer timeline in assessing America’s relationship with Baghdad. No other country in the world has so vexed the policy crafters of Washington; every possible fix has been applied to Iraq, every tool of superpower influence leveraged once and sometimes twice. Yet all of it has failed. This was the tally up to 2016:
By sheer coincidence (or is it?) the modern-day state of Iraq posed one of the biggest challenges to the post WWII order of the status quo. The CIA and the State Department have had to apply all sorts of remedies to make their Realist argument work. Iraq entered into one of the bloodiest and longest wars of the post-world war era, against Iran. The Realists found this to be auspicious—Iraq would take care of their Iran problem where Carter couldn’t. Barely two years after the cessation of that war, Iraq lunged at the status quo of the Persian Gulf. The Realists had hoped that Saddam’s regime would liberalize. They were taken back when it ventured into Kuwait and began making noises against Saudi Arabia. The Realists assembled the first international coalition of armies in the post-Cold War era to force Saddam to color within the lines. Then they imposed the most far-reaching system of sanctions to tether Saddam’s ambitions, calling its policy of restraining him together with Iran that of ‘Dual Containment’. They enforced No-Fly Zones so that he wouldn’t massacre Iraq’s Kurds, again. Once in a while, President Clinton would have to authorize bombing runs to keep Saddam at bay. The Realists tried to assuage the detrimental effect of sanctions through the UN’s Oil-for-Food program, only to watch helplessly as Saddam subverted it to his own aims, in some cases by bribing UN officials and their kin from its proceeds. He kept killing people, but the Realists never took that as a casus belli, justifiably so from their distant perspectives. Even after September 11, the Realists deeply hoped that Saddam would ‘liberalize’ and avoid war by cooperating with UN chemical and biological weapons inspectors. Saddam, being Saddam, wouldn’t.
Iraq had been the petri-dish of Realist quick-fixes for two decades. None of them worked.
Since 2003, Iraq has endured one of the ugliest waves of disorder known to the modern era, but Iraq has surprisingly endured. Iraq has witnessed a bungled occupation, an insurgency, corruption unprecedented in its magnitude, sectarian and ethnic strife, the most barbaric and wide-ranging forms of terrorism, and an attempted return to autocracy (that of Maliki’s—with the Obama administration turning a blind eye to it). After the Americans had left, Maliki beat up on Sunnis by invoking his brand of Shi’ite chauvinism, but the Sunnis turned to protest rather than arms. When he denied them the right to protest, Sunni jihadists came back in full force and managed, for the first time in a decade, to retake a major city like Fallouja.
Over the course of multiple national and local elections, the Iraqi people elected an underperforming, sometimes venal, political class that was no match for these manifold challenges. In the last two years alone, Iraq has further endured the loss of a third of its territory to the ‘caliphate’, the proliferation of Iran-backed Shiite militias, and what looks like the de facto secession of the Kurds. The country faces an imminent financial meltdown due to mismanagement of fiscal policy and the drop of oil prices. By any measure, Iraq is supposed to be dead, or near dead. Yet contrary to expectation, there is still a state there: children go to school, bureaucrats show up to work, shopkeepers sell their wares, oil is being sold on the international markets, and in fits and starts, the caliph’s newly-won dominions are being reclaimed. The Kurds now face a reality in which their breakaway entity would have a difficult time staying fiscally afloat without their mandated share of Basra’s oil. For all its venality and mediocrity, the political class managed to deny Maliki a third term, even though he had won a plurality of the vote.
Even more surprising is that the latest spasm of global protests are occurring in Baghdad, and have been for months. Why would anyone protest against a dead corpse? Doesn’t protest entail the slightest of hope that the political class may reform itself? Where is this hope coming from?
There is a parallel history that can be written about all the opportunities missed in Iraq, both by the Americans and by its own politicos. Such an exercise can be undertaken in studying many places around the world and over a variety of eras. But it is difficult to find as consistent record of misjudgment and a failure to rectify mistakes as that of America’s policy crafters for Iraq.
The latest missed opportunity involved the most recent iteration of the protest movement, for which Pompeo was vocally enthusiastic but still failed to make use of in a clever manner. Not that there were too few ideas as how to do that. One of those ideas came in a memorandum delivered to the Trump administration by retired Iraqi politician Mithal al-Alusi on November 6, 2019. Alusi argued that the United States can craft a popular and winning policy for Iraq on the cheap by clobbering the political class over its endemic corruption. Effectively, it would take Trump’s anti-elite message global. He wrote:
President Trump wants to unburden America from being responsible for the Middle East. He wants local actors to bear more responsibilities. What we see in Iraq and in Lebanon is that the people have risen up demanding to be heard, and to be involved. They are angry at bad governance, and specifically at corruption, and their anger is compounded when the political elite does not respond, or performs cosmetic reforms, or hits back with bloody repression. The people in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, know that corruption and repression opened the door for the terrorists of ISIS, and the excuse of ISIS terrorism allowed Iranian-sponsored terrorists to embed within the Iraqi state. The people are demanding that the problem be dealt with at its root—corruption—so that foreign powers such as America will not have to intervene every few years to put out a fire here, a fire there, or as President Trump calls it “endless wars”.
President Trump wants to leave, but he should give us a parting gift. One that can be his foreign policy legacy; a ‘Trump Doctrine.’ When people rise up demanding good governance, then America shall commit to helping them to ‘Drain the Swamp.’ We are asking that President Trump helps us to drain the swamps of Baghdad and Beirut, to hold the corrupt ruling classes accountable for their incompetence and mendacity. President Trump will stand with people around the world against the corruptors, and the proof-of-concept case can begin in Iraq, a country where the size of misappropriated and stolen funds amounts in the hundreds of billions of dollars—probably the largest in the modern history when measured by a global scale.
The added attraction to President Trump is that this policy/doctrine will be all his own: the elite of the National Security and Foreign Policy have long dismissed secular, post-sectarian, civic forces in the Middle East as no match for the hard power of oligarchs, autocrats, and sectarian militias and warlords, especially if sponsored by the Iranians. That notion is being rendered obsolete in Iraq and Lebanon. The young men and women there have surprised the ruling class, the world, even themselves. This is a beautiful moment that should not be wasted, as former President Barack Obama did when he wasted the potential of the first few weeks of the Arab Spring. We only have a three or four week window to give it that push towards success. A big component of that success will be accomplished if those young men and women feel that they have been heard by the leader of the greatest power on earth, and if they hear a pledge from him that America will help in combatting corruption.
Alusi followed up with specific recommendations for what to do. Those measures need not have been enacted; the mere discussion of such topics in Washington would have been a deafening message to Iraqis. Needless to say, none of that, neither action nor message, was considered. A parallel effort in the U.S. Congress to showcase anti-corruption as policy was whittled down to a useless knob by Rep. Tom Malinowski. But hey, Pompeo did tweet a few encouraging words from time to time. Whoop-de-do.
Pompeo’s Pharsalus vs. the Trump method
Pompeo is desperate and hurried. He is running out of time. He had been extending ‘maximum pressure’ along six-month-long increments, every time convincing Trump that the Iranians are just about to cry uncle. There is a real danger that during this present increment the Iranians may counter in such a way as to complicate the American election cycle for Trump. Trump’s detractors will be ready with the refrain: “Well, what did you think was going to happen after taking out Soleimani?” The New York Times came out on May 20 with a ridiculous assertion that the Iranians don’t want to goad Trump into a confrontation in Iraq since that may help him out in the elections and hence they have opted for “incipient detente.” That is a fundamental misunderstanding of U.S. public sentiment on the part of the paper and those pushing this spin. It may also be a serious and consequential misreading of why Iran is acting docile at this time.
Pompeo’s desperation and hurry may prove too costly for the president. He hasn’t played smart. Pompeo had his building issue a press release on January 11 addressing calls in Baghdad to expel U.S. troops which spoke obliquely about not discussing troop withdrawal but rather “our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.” The State Department signaled an intent to “recommit to our strategic partnership” one that extends beyond security to a financial, economic and diplomatic partnership. “We want to be a friend and partner to a sovereign, prosperous and stable Iraq.” The chaser was a story leaked the same day to the Wall Street Journal that an ancillary verbal message was delivered by the State Department to the prime minister’s office to the effect that “the U.S. will block [Iraq’s] account at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.” So much for sovereignty. In announcing the upcoming talks on April 7, Pompeo self-described the United States as “a force for good in the nation and as Iraq’s closest friend.” Ahem.
Such stunts do not signal strength. Rather, by signaling that the U.S. really, really wants to stay in Iraq, they expose a vulnerability to the Iranians because it turns troop presence into the gold standard of ‘staying.’ It thus gives the Iranians a target and allows them to control the timeline. America, however, wins by forfeiting.
Pompeo does not have good answers for how long maximum pressure is supposed to last absent regime collapse (what he desires), or next steps should the Iranians never assent to negotiate with Trump. Where would that leave Iraq as an appendage of an open-ended and unfruitful policy?
Contrast Pompeo’s manic, sweaty insistence on an underperforming plan to Trump’s approach. Trump took out Soleimani because he doesn’t care about Iraq. He must have been amply briefed on the possible ramifications of Iran’s reaction, most of which would have been projected to happen inside Iraq. Trump may even have priced-in the likelihood for a direct military confrontation with Iran. To his mind it would be a two week affair, full of fireworks over major Iranian cities. Then the Iranians would sue for talks.
Trump took out Soleimani because he was negotiating. Much like his embassy move to Jerusalem two years ago, Trump abruptly took the sweetener off the table, a classic brass-knuckle negotiating tactic. In a future negotiation the Iranians would have to agonize over what to do with Soleimani, so that eventually they would reluctantly give him up to show goodwill. That would earn them time and pageantry. It would be a step, one of the final few that would show the world that they could be reasonable and ‘normal.’ Trump simply skipped ahead, at once solving a problem for the other side but also denying them an opportunity to do him a favor.
The timing of the strike is telling too. Six months earlier, Trump stood down from a direct confrontation with Iran. He followed up with the sweetest sweet-talk he could muster: Iranians are “very smart. They’re very ambitious,” he would say about his Iranian friends in New York City. “They have tremendous—they’re high-quality people.” Trump self-described himself as “neither warmonger nor dove”. His is a “common sense” approach, he asserted, and all he wants is “no nuclear weapons.”
“So we’ll start all over. We could have a deal with them very quickly, if they want to do it…it’s up to them,” he added, “When they agree to that they are going to have a wealthy country, they’re going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend.” He even catch-phrased it: “Let’s make Iran great again.”
But six months later—remember these were Pompeo’s artificial timelines on which he sold the president—and there was still no bite on the bait Trump had lobbed out. Corollary: bye, bye Hajji Qasim.
The irony is that Soleimani thought that he was also negotiating—directly with Trump at that. Four months before his demise the Emiratis were fanning out in Baghdad and Beirut to find someone who could make a credible introduction to the Iranian general. Their pitch was that they could act as a direct channel to Trump. I don’t know if they made contact with Soleimani or whether their efforts went anywhere. But Soleimani would have been aware of those efforts and in his world view he would have thought that the Emiratis were acting on instructions coming from the Oval Office. He must have understood the absence of a response to the astounding attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq refinery in September as a signal that Trump would rather talk, and he might as well talk to the Qods Force chief directly.
Soleimani was waiting to seize on a big event to get the Americans out of both Iraq and Syria. This was to be his moment of victory. Less so one over the Americans but more so to exact clarity in those places as to who is in charge—himself. The demonstration at the U.S. Embassy on December 31 wasn’t it. There, while the embassy’s outer gate was smoldering, he thought he was adequately communicating to those inside and their bosses in Washington that “even though we didn’t do Kirkuk (the rocket attack on December 27) and you unfairly retaliated against our guys (in Qaim, on December 29), this exploit is the furthest we are going to go.” When Trump tweeted “The Anti-Benghazi” to describe America’s handling of the event, Soleimani took it that Trump got his message. By associating the optics of the embassy attack to what happened in Libya almost seven years ago and contrasting it to Hillary Clinton’s handling of it then, Trump was revealing that he wasn’t putting a premium on Iraq and was more interested, in this particular moment, to play to his local constituency, one, it should be remembered, wanted out from Iraq as it is.
It is still feels a bit surreal that Trump went ahead with the strike against Soleimani. Surely the briefings were exhaustive, but I doubt that the full implications were well understood in the government’s analytical bodies. It has turned out to be an immensely lucky and auspicious bet—so far. But it is after strategic windfalls like these when the gambler should consider leaving with the winnings.
In death, Soleimani’s stature was revealed to be greater than what was known about him among Iran-watchers. It is now mainstream to talk about his likely role as the caretaker and arbiter of the post-Khamenei transition—one ‘interrupted’ by Trump.
The outpouring of grief on Iran’s streets for the slain general looked genuine. So who were those who showed up to bid him farewell? I maintain those were the regime’s truest believers, the ones who still wanted the ‘Islamic Revolution’ to mean something. Like Soleimani, many had sacrificed greatly for that ideal, and in Soleimani they saw the last lion, a redeemer, of the revolution. He was destined to cleanse out the High Temple, chasing out the corrupt elite who draped themselves in revolutionary attire and spoke fiery words, but who had lost their way. And Soleimani is irreplaceable in this sense. It took forty years to prepare and build him up for this role. There is no other. Those mourners wept for the man, and for the dream.
Khamenei has no Plan B for succession. No Iran-watcher has convincingly discerned one. He is running out of time, and out of resources. Losing Soleimani seems to have deflated him. There is no fire and fight there. Elite factions, many sensing their doom with Soleimani’s elevation, breathed out with relief at his demise. They are now busily managing a distraught and disarmed Khamenei upwards. They chose to de-escalate with the U.S., further enraging ‘Soleimani’s folk’ who already despise them. The latter are left with legitimate questions: “what’s all the revolutionary posturing for if now is not the moment to fight? Why pay the price of being a pariah if Soleimani is not avenged?” If ever there was a force deserving of the description ‘maximum pressure’ it is they—Soleimani’s sullen constituency—that may have turned their backs on a regime that counts them as its bedrock.
Trump’s gamble may yet keep giving.
Khamenei tweeted out once again on May 17 a message saying “The American’s won’t stay in Iraq and Syria; they’ll be expelled.” Sure, it could just be talk. He has said this sort of stuff before. But it is a mistake to allow him to set the stakes. For now, all the Iranians can muster are some wayward projectiles loosely aimed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad while putting up billboards of Khomeini, Khamenei, and Soleimani to mark Quds Day celebrations around major Iraqi cities. This is weak sauce, and it would be a bit over-the-top to misjudge such theatrics as dominance, or even defiance. However, if America lingers in Iraq, and Khamenei rouses himself from the doldrums to cajole his many underlings there into creating the optics of a humiliation, then all the winnings earned from the Soleimani strike so far would be lost.
Meanwhile, Pompeo tweeted out that “[it] is critical that [al-Kadhimi] begin implementing the reforms demanded by the Iraqi people, who deserve a government free of corruption, accountable to their needs, and committed to overcoming the economic crisis the country faces,” after speaking with the new Iraqi prime minister on May 22. Pompeo is setting high expectations for ‘his’ guy, who was formerly his intelligence chief counterpart when Pompeo headed the CIA. What it sounds like to Iraqis is that the Americans are going to prop up al-Kadhimi when facing these challenges.
Al-Kadhimi has had a good run with steady and significant American support. John Brennan, another former CIA Director, even got President Barack Obama to telephone Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a few years back to put in a good word for al-Kadhimi early in the latter’s tenure. The Americans also recommended that Saudi Crown Prince (Deputy CP at the time) Muhammad Bin Salman liaise with al-Kadhimi to improve Saudi relations with Baghdad and Najaf.
But the Americans didn’t have much to do with his latest promotion.
Al-Kadhimi didn’t arrive by a political process. He arrived through ‘spy games,’ namely Iranian-on-Iranian action. Those machinations had also thrust his predecessor Adnan al-Zurfi into the limelight, albeit briefly. Bizarre intrigues unfolded over those turbulent and confused weeks, which witnessed elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps purportedly undermining the Qods Force, an offshoot of theirs that seems to have grown too big for its britches. Iran’s Etela’at spies backstabbed their way with relish along the corridors of power in Baghdad and Tehran, bludgeoning Soleimani’s successor General Ismail Qa’ani. He arrived to hold down the fort in Baghdad but had to retreat in defeat: he saved face by sinking al-Zurfi’s investiture, mitigating a complete route of the Qods Force, but was not strong enough to hobble al-Kadhimi’s rise.
Rather than congratulating itself on al-Kadhimi’s success, Washington should worry about whether the Iranians would regroup after their internal melee is over. It should worry about the Etela’at strongly supporting al-Kadhimi’s candidacy then turning around and leaking damaging stories to The Guardian about his alleged meeting, in late February, with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah by way of auditioning for the premiership. It is still far from clear what their game is. One day soon a new hierarchy will emerge to re-assert Iranian influence and turn Iraq back into an Iranian chip while negotiating with Trump. If the U.S. is seen as being heavily invested in al-Kadhimi then that turns him and his staff into targets too, ones vulnerable to all sorts of poisoned darts.
Trump never bothered to memorize the names of Abadi and Abdul Mahdi. I’d imagine he is inclined to the same with al-Kadhimi, unless Pompeo keeps badgering him. Trump’s instinct on this may well turn out useful.
There is opportunity in turning this case of presidential indifference into strategic indifference. If the U.S. simply doesn’t show up, by pulling back both its troops and its expectations from Iraq, then it denies the Iranians a fight. And a bout denied to a better prepared opponent is victory denied. In effect, it would be another sweetener taken off the table. Khamenei may tweet out ‘Mission Accomplished’ but most of the world would see (and remember) that Trump just wasn’t that into Iraq.
Is it sensible to tailor a policy to Trump’s instincts? Well, that is how the system is supposed to work both constitutionally and by acknowledged precedent. The ‘pressure maximalists’ are not the only ones pushing back, however. Given the national security bureaucracy’s antipathy towards this president, their impulse is to thwart his plans across the Middle East. “Trump wants the troops out? Then we must keep them there at all costs!” Cue a tweet from Brett McGurk. They do not think he has the capacity to understand the region. But it may be helpful for them to reread the biographies of those who are remembered today as some of history’s most masterful statesmen and strategists ever present on the world stage. Even those guys could get it really, really wrong.
Once upon a time, in the mid-1930s, modern Iraq’s foremost statesman Nuri al-Sa’id got it into his head to turn Ibn Saud into the region’s foremost sovereign. Sa’id was spiting King Ghazi of Iraq and the royal retinue that had displaced him. He dropped it soon enough when his fortunes realigned with those of the Hashemites. Yet the idea lingered and Chaim Weizmann picked it up after being seduced as to its strategic merits for the Zionist cause by St. John Philby, the former British officer turned Saudi fixer. Weizmann raised it with Winston Churchill at a time (World War II) when the latter was in search of new, big ideas to completely refit Britain’s outlook for the Middle East. Churchill seized upon the notion of turning Ibn Saud—“the greatest living Arab”—into “the boss of bosses.” Churchill even endorsed the idea of abolishing the Hashemite monarchies of Iraq and Transjordan to pave the way for it. He asked Weizmann to raise it with President Franklin D. Roosevelt while in America for “[t]here is nothing he and I cannot do if we set our minds to it.”
Ibn Saud, uncharacteristically, didn’t seize upon the plan and didn’t even let it play out to see where it may go. He expressed pique at a component of the deal that would have seemed among his retainers and the wider Arab public like a Zionist bribe lining his pocket. Roosevelt for his part was incensed upon learning that his name was invoked with Ibn Saud as a backer of the deal even before the Americans had been briefed on it. The whole affair downgraded Ibn Saud’s admiration for the British, and upgraded Roosevelt’s respect for Ibn Saud at the expense of the Zionists (Roosevelt had hitherto thought the Arabs a merely transactional race). It could retroactively be studied as the first stirring of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, one that would mold America’s expanding presence in the Middle East to this day. (For more on the affair, read Yehoshua Porath’s excellent book In Search of Arab Unity 1930-45; published in 1986)
Bureaucracies in London and Washington were smarter back then, or at least they boasted better talent. They managed to harpoon this idea for the sake of maintaining the status quo. But of course, they were not smart enough to realize that the region was indeed desperate for new, big, and drastic ideas. Their own narrow-mindedness would do away with much of the interwar order they had cultivated; the regimes in Syria, Egypt and Iraq—the Arabic-speaking countries that counted—would all buckle under within a decade.
So Trump should be cut some slack, especially when a historical review demonstrates that everything has been attempted with Iraq save extreme disengagement. Let’s try it his way since the alternative, keeping things in place with the hope that Joe Biden and his team may show up, is utter folly; who can forget that that bunch was deeply implicated in why matters are so flubbed today?
Jim Mattis resigned over the prospect of Trump withdrawing from Syria. John Bolton resigned as a consequence of Trump not going all in on Iran after it shot down the RQ-4A Global Hawk, as well as the president’s desire to quit Afghanistan. Pompeo may yet join them in resigning in a huff, although that would be a marked departure from his carefully credentialed path to the presidency that he’s plotted out for himself since his youth. But even if he does then the president can withstand that embarrassment and even turn it into a win with his base.
The U.S. must make the break clean and final. This entails no troop retrenchment to Iraqi Kurdistan. Doing so defeats the purpose and spirit of the exit. Leaving all of Iraq will create a moment of truth for the Kurdish leadership, one that puts an end to their current suspended aspect. They can either fight it out with Baghdad in a bid for full independence or accede to what can be. The same goes for Iraq’s Sunnis; all factions must be compelled to negotiate an end-state, one of which may turn out to be the preservation and consolidation of the Iraqi state. American arbitrage only encourages intransigence and high drama from those who believe that Washington is on their side—that week. In October 2017, Masood Barzani thought he had American protection. The whole debacle over the referendum for independence, and custody over Kirkuk, ended up embarrassing America and directing a fatal blow to political life in Iraq after Soleimani proved Barzani wrong. The U.S. should not allow itself to be used as a prop in the petty feuds of second and third-rate players.
As for the threat of jihadist resurgence, the Iraqis have enough training and supplies, and one would think their own existentialist motivations for vigilance, to finish off what remains of the Islamic State or at least keep its menace at bay out in the deserts. There’s no saving them if they can’t even do that. Furthermore, Soleimani insisted that victory was owed to his PMUs, let us see if his heirs can reprise that feat without American air cover.
All throughout my working life I have advocated and worked for an U.S.-Iraqi alliance as a cornerstone for a new and transformative strategic paradigm in the Middle East. I believed that the U.S. can and shall turn Iraq into a regional paladin, zealously preaching for and enacting the return of democratic political life in the Middle East. It was not easy to make my peace with the idea that this partnership is a toxic one, one that can only be remedied by separation. However, these ideas do not come from a place of exhaustion nor cynicism. This is the ‘common sense’ plan going forward.
One would hope that a secure and sovereign Iraq will eventually find its way to the U.S. orbit as the region convulses, and other pretend-superpowers or regional powers fail at maintaining order. After all, what choice does Iraq have?