Obama’s balancing act in Iraq
WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday received Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House, as the latter is seeking U.S. arms and assistance to bolster his country’s army and combat the rising violence that has left more than 6,000 people dead in Iraq this year alone.
Underneath a joint statement of cooperation and partnership, experts believe the Obama administration is trying to balance the desire to disentangle from a country it just pulled out of, while keeping it in toe to serve U.S. strategy in the region.
Hardly a U.S. foreign policy priority any more, Iraq, a country invaded by the U.S. only some ten years ago, is facing oblivion in the collective memory of Washington, relegating the dozens of violent deaths in that country to a second-tier position in news broadcasts.
The situation is also true for Obama administration’s position on Iraq. It no longer considers the country as a top priority in its foreign policy, as U.S. troops have pulled out. But the country still could upset U.S. calculation in that region, as the United States tries to contain the influence of Iran and find a political solution to the Syrian civil war, in the mean time keeping allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, both advocate a more muscular policy towards Iran and Syria on the part of U.S., happy.
It is precisely in this position that Maliki is seeking U.S. arms and assistance to bolster his government. Throughout his visit, Maliki has been stressing that terrorism may come back in his country, fueled by the civil war in neighboring Syria.
In a speech delivered Thursday in Washington, Maliki said that the power vacuum created by political turmoil in the Middle East has created a “second chance” for terrorist groups such as al- Qaeda, as they exploited the vacuum and gradually gained ground, warning if the situation in Iraq continue to worsen, it could be ” disastrous” for the whole region or even the whole world.
Before departing for Washington, Maliki said at a brief press conference in Baghdad airport that “the most important thing is to provide Iraq with weapons of an offensive nature to fight terrorism and hunt down the armed groups.”
Although Iraq is not at the center of U.S. calculation in the Middle East, it still is an essential element if such calculation is to come to any fruition.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believed that Iraq’s position is critical to the security of the Gulf and the Arab Gulf states, to the outcome in Syria, to easing the growing struggle between Sunni and Shiite, and Sunni moderates and Sunni extremists, thus affecting the stability of the entire region and the security of U. S. allies like Turkey and Israel.
Cordesman wrote that the United States has something to gain by giving arms and influence to help Maliki. It could distance him from Iran, and possibly moderate his treatment of Sunnis and his ties to Shiite militias and hardliners, and to ease the tensions between his government and the Kurdish security zone. A change of behavior in Baghdad could slow the drift of Sunnis towards al- Qaeda and Sunni extremist movements.
Furthermore, it could also help ease the growing tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which is frustrated by U.S. policy towards Iran and Syria. The kingdom recently declined a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council to show its anger over the failure of the world forum to end the war in Syria and resolve the Palestinian issue.