This Commentary is an adaptation of a longer piece published by the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at the College of William and Mary on February 25, 2010.

Iraq’s March 7 parliamentary elections may prove another vital step in the country’s transition to a stable democracy. Progress toward a less-sectarian Iraqi politics has been evident since the 2009 provincial elections. But the wounds of the past remain raw, as demonstrated by the recent controversy over the disqualification of hundreds of candidates, including a number of prominent Sunni Arab politicians, accused of ties to Saddam Hussein’s banned Ba’ath party. This election will test whether Iraq’s democracy will advance, or the violence and suspicions of the past will make a comeback.

The election will test something else, too: Washington’s commitment not just to an orderly withdrawal from Iraq, but to a stable, democratic polity anchored in the Arab world and friendly to US interests. The Obama Administration’s focus on the withdrawal of most combat troops from Iraq by August 2010—more than a year before the date specified in the US-Iraq security agreements signed at the end of the Bush Administration—has become the overriding goal of US policy. The challenge for Washington in the next year, then, will be to develop a more proactive approach for the period beyond withdrawal to consolidate stability and democracy, and enhance security in the Persian Gulf.

The Administration should start by conducting a full review of its policy toward Iraq to establish a solid foundation for a new bilateral partnership. This will require real diplomatic energy to leverage America’s assistance programs, powers of persuasion, and relationships with Iraqi leaders. The outcomes of such a review should include the following:
Build America’s Commitment to Democracy. Support for Iraq’s democratic institutions has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy since Saddam’s overthrow in 2003. But, this has not been evident from the Administration’s recent statements, which have appeared to shy away from democracy as a goal in Iraq. Programmatically, more than 60 percent of the Administration’s budget request for FY 2010 was designated under the “governing justly and democratically” category of foreign assistance. But, the request would also cut funding for the development of civil society organizations by more than half and programs that support political competition and consensus building by a lesser amount. This seems to signal a diminished focus on strengthening the real building blocks of representative democracy. The US should direct more resources to party-building, development of independent NGOs, cross-sectarian alliances, and strengthening judicial capacity. The United States should also elevate the importance of democracy building in its bilateral dealings with the Iraqi government, making clear that this remains a top foreign policy priority.

Focus the Necessary Diplomatic Resources. In many respects Iraq is the forgotten war. The office of the special coordinator for Iraq at the State Department has been eliminated, its responsibilities returned to the day-to-day management of the Near East Bureau. Analytical assets in the intelligence community are migrating to the Afghanistan account. In the White House the top official once charged with Iraq and Afghanistan now focuses exclusively on the latter. The National Security Council directorate for Iraq has been downsized. President Obama no longer routinely teleconferences with Prime Minister Maliki, as did his predecessor.
This diffusion of attention and responsibility poses a significant risk of policy drift. Iraq should once more be placed at the heart of the American agenda in the region, with the attention it deserves.

Help Iraq Solve Key Internal Conflicts. Despite diminishing influence, the United States is positioned to play a major role on certain issues vital to Iraq’s future. Chief among these is the dispute over the city of Kirkuk. Given the strong relationship the United States has built with Kurdish leaders over many years, the US could help settle this complex and divisive issue in a way that will strengthen Iraq’s unity. Other issues too may benefit from the exercise of the United States’ good offices, such as the wrangles over the rights of Sunni Arabs under the constitution and national sharing of petrochemical revenues.

Build on the Strategic Framework with Iraq. The agreements the Bush administration and the Iraqi government signed near the end of 2008 outline a political, economic and military relationship between the United States and Iraq unprecedented in US relations with the Arab world. But, scant attention has been paid to the framework’s potential and full implementation. The United States should embrace the opportunity to expand and deepen relations with Baghdad by, for example, strengthening the defense relationship to position Iraq for a role in the growing US-sponsored Gulf security architecture.
The Administration must also evaluate the role of our residual forces, likely to number 50,000 even after August 2010. Beyond training, counterterrorism and force protection, what other roles might they fill—deterring Iran, guaranteeing Kurdish autonomy, or affording insurance against a coup? Most important, if the elections lead to further domestic strife, can the United States afford to keep to its rigid withdrawal plan? Iraq and the United States may need to negotiate a more robust military presence beyond 2011.

Help Iraq’s Relations with the Arab World. Whatever the flaws of these elections, the United States should work toward Arab reconciliation with Baghdad. This remains essential to binding Iraq into the regional network of political alliances and military relationships the United States has built over decades to maintain stability in the Persian Gulf. By and large, the Arab states have failed to reciprocate Iraqi overtures and US diplomatic efforts, often on the dubious grounds that Iraq has become a Persian vassal. This is not only wrong-headed, it is dangerous, as it helps push Iraq toward an Iranian embrace. The United States can help the Arab states understand this and move toward improved relations with Baghdad.

However much Americans may wish to believe the war is over once US troops depart, the reality is different. Internal conflicts will continue, potentially affecting regional stability. Benign neglect is risky. US engagement, with the diplomatic attention, financial resources and military strategy to back it up, is still needed to solidify Iraq’s democratic consolidation and help it emerge as a constructive regional actor.

Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.