Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Operation New Dawn: A Serious Policy Initiative
or a Codeword for Leaving Iraq ?

What can we expect from Operation New Dawn? Does this policy have any substance or is it just a cover for the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq? If the latter is the case, this is a great mistake because the stakes in Iraq are extremely high, not just for Iraqis and the US, but for the entire Middle East. If Iraq can continue to develop politically and economically, its current government crisis notwithstanding, its impact on a region where democracy is largely non-existent could be salutary indeed. While the contours of Operation New Dawn are still in formation, the tenor of President Obama’s speech on Iraq last evening certainly did not leave the impression that the US views Iraq as a critical component of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Despite continued violence and the inability of Iraq’s political elite to form a government following the March 2010 national parliament (Council of Representatives) elections, Iraq has nevertheless made considerable progress towards democracy. Free and transparent parliamentary elections were held in January and December 2005 and in March 2010. Arab provincial legislative elections in January 2009 and Kurdish Regional Government parliament elections in July 2009 brought many new legislators into the political process. Voter turnout has reached or exceeded 60% and has been as high as 70% in Iraq's Kurdish region. Voters have shown considerable maturity in voting for services instead of supporting sectarian parties. In the March 2010 national parliamentary elections, all political parties were forced to make cross-ethnic appeals and 62% of the sitting delegates lost their seats due to their perceived incompetence. Over 20% of the new delegates are under the age of 40, indicating that young Iraqis are interested in politics. In a March 2009 poll, 64% of Iraqis said that democracy is the best form of government. In Iraq’s Kurdish region, a new democratic movement, Gorran (Change), is challenging the entrenched, authoritarian political elite controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Clearly, democracy enjoys widespread support in Iraq.

Rather than helping Iraq consolidate these gains, the US is shifting its focus to Afghanistan, threatening the progress it has made to date. The disastrous consequences of Western inaction in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s defeat in late 2001 behoove the US not to make the same mistake again in Iraq. The West and the Afghani people are now paying the price for the international community's failure to deliver on the numerous promises of development aid that never materialized.

Now that Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended, US policy-makers assume that the US’s future role must be limited to military training and urging Iraq’s political elite to adopt a more civic approach to politics. This minimalist approach is deeply flawed. Rather than acting like nervous spectators, the Obama administration should adopt a bold international initiative that addresses the many problems that threaten to send Iraq back to the violent conflict of the pre-2008 period. Without such help, Iraq will find it difficult to continue to democratize.

At this critical juncture, the Obama administration’s international reconstruction initiative should include the European Union, our Arab oil-producing allies, and moderate Islamic states such as Indonesia and Malaysia to address Iraq’s myriad problems. A serious shortage of services has created deep resentment among Iraqis. Electricity levels have improved little since 2003. June riots in Basra and the south over the lack of electricity left at least two people dead. Medical care is sporadic and jobs are hard to find. Unemployment is especially high among Iraqi youth, who constitutes 65% of the population under the age of 25. Demand for education is high, but only the private system meets the needs of more affluent Iraqis.

Due to the Iran-Iraq War, the bloody uprising against Saddam Hussein following the 1991 Gulf War, and post-2003 sectarian violence, Iraq has a disproportionately large number of female headed households. Mothers are often forced to send their children to join criminal and even terrorist organizations because otherwise they face starvation. Former Awakening Movement members, who helped the US defeat al-Qaida in Iraq, may be returning to the insurgency because the jobs they were promised haven’t materialized.

This social and economic environment is tailor made for a revival of insurgent groups such as al-Qaida’s front organization, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq. Even if the US can create an efficient Iraqi army and police force, and cajole Iraq’s political elite to form a new government, none of this will matter if the populace cannot find jobs and obtain basic services. Extensive government corruption (Iraq is 175 of 180 countries on Transparency International’s list of most corrupt countries) pours more oil on the fire. As Iraq signs more contracts with foreign oil companies and oil revenues increase, popular resentment will only rise. The disconnect between the lifestyles of Iraq’s political class and the deprivation suffered by much of the populace at large creates the “perfect storm” for renewed violence and instability.

The US already has an effective model in place for helping Iraq address its social reconstruction needs in the form of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Developed in embryo by US forces in Iraq, the PRTs were later formalized by General David Petreaus and former Ambassador Ryan Crocker to provide Iraqis with critical services. Where implemented, the Iraq PRT model has been enormously successful. Rather than following a top-down approach, the PRTs help Iraqis implement projects that they define. The result has not only been successful projects but the creation of strong ties between Americans and Iraqis who feel that they are being listened to and respected by the US.

Instead of reducing its scope as the Obama administration has proposed, the PRT model should be expanded. As part of an international effort, it could be funded in large part by our wealthy oil-producing allies. Saudi Arabia has every interest in a stable and prosperous Iraq so as to limit Iran’s influence there. (And Iraqis have consistently made clear that, while they seek good relations with Iran, they do not want the Islamic Republic to meddle in their internal affairs.) For the Arab Gulf monarchies that have large restive Shiite populations, good ties with Iraq, a majority Shiite country, can provide political benefits at home. And investing in social reconstruction can bring enormous future economic dividends to those who help Iraq now once its oil and natural gas industries are modernized and develop.

Rather than nervously biting our nails in the hope that Iraq will become politically stable, the US must be more proactive. A dramatic increase in technical support not only provides jobs for Americans but wins the gratitude of Iraqis, especially if they, not the US, continue to set the development agenda. If situated within an international effort, and funded by our allies, providing this technical support will not tax our overstretched budget. Failure is not an option in Iraq, especially with Iran, a would-be nuclear power, on its border. Iraq, like Afghanistan, is a long-term project and one that requires creativity to achieve success. If the US really takes democracy seriously in Iraq, it should heed the Arab proverb, “patience is the key to happiness.”

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