Written by: Djoudie Etoundi
The US chattering classes have been bent on debating to death whether President Obama’s announced withdrawal of all US troops constitutes a strategic defeat or rescued the US from a quagmire. Unbeknownst or uninteresting to them, is the reality of the New Iraq, which happens to be of much greater relevance to this decision and to the Middle East’s future than US policy choices or debates. To see why, one must analyze the contours of today’s Iraq, the equations of its present and future, which are developing in full swing before wayward eyes. Central to this analysis is the man who against all odds in 2008 decisively wrested the New Republic of Iraq from civil war by rolling back the sectarian militias that had been on a rampage: Prime Minister Nuri Kamal Al Maliki. A feat thanks to which he is now enjoying his second term. (Here again my methodology is plagiarized from French strategist A. Adler and philosopher Michel Serres.)
Prime Minister Al Maliki successfully assumed government by being the point of convergence for the constants which flow from the New Republic’s reorganization around the 60% of Arab Shi’ites who form its majority.
1-Shi’ite means the new Iraq will be a fundamental friend and ally of Iran, the historical center of Shi’ite Islam and the first ever Shi’ite dominated state starting in the 17th Century. Iraqi Shi’ites will thus never again be used as canon-fodder for the Sunni Arab world’s anti-Iran strategies (mostly Gulf petro-monarchies): never again will there be an Iran-Irak War.
2-However, most Iraqi Shi’ites are also Arab and as such want to stay part of the Family of Arab States. Politically, it means fully associating the country’s 20% or so Arab Sunnis to the new power structure, even though many were among Saddam Hussein’s biggest supporters. This ethnic-religious pluralism is condemning Iraq to not only liberal democracy but also to secularism: there will never be an Iraqi Khomeini no matter how much mischief Ahmadinejad and his Iraqi surrogate Muktada Al-Sadr can create.
3- The New Iraq’s future also depends on its economy, more precisely the financing of its estimated $600 Billion reconstruction; eg: the Oil (and Gas). Although US energy giant ExxonMobil recently announced plans to invest $100 Billion over the next 20 years, here as in most Frontier Markets nowadays, the main players are all BRICS: “Chindia” as the top consumer of the country’s oil and Russia emerging as a prime industrial executor with Lukoil. (In case you’re wondering why, Russian companies held those contracts when Saddam was in power.) Here however lies a latent and old conflict between Iraq and OPEC: to finance its reconstruction the New Republic will aim to conquer market share in the global energy trade, aiming for prices roughly between $50/barrel to $75/barrel; while the range favored in OPEC since 2001 led by the rival Saudi/Iranian duo has been $75 to $100. To appreciate the sensitivity of the issue, it must be remembered that Saddam Hussein originally invaded Kuwait in 1990 because he grew infuriated by the lack of “oil solidarity” from his OPEC brothers, who refused to accede to his demands to allow the greater Iraqi oil production he needed to pay down his Iran-Iraq War debts.
4-To prevent similar tensions from exploding again with either one of its neighbors or OPEC brothers, the new Republic of Iraq will need 20,000 to 50,000 US troops, for at least the next 10 years; which brings to the fore the paradoxical US troop withdrawal precipitated by the intransigence of the Al Maliki government over immunity for US soldiers in the country.
Clearly, it was a snub to the current US administration but there is less to it than meets the eye: most of the departing troops will be relocated in neighboring Kuwait or Qatar, while a large number of civilian contractors will remain. But while the New Republic’s security relationship with the US is far from over, there is also something substantive at work here. It’s not the first time Prime Minister Al Maliki has betrayed a sitting US administration: although handpicked and coached by George W Bush himself to power and electoral victory, he publicly backed the Democrats’ plans to withdraw from Iraq during the 2008 campaign.
Today however his motivations go far beyond placating the next occupant of the White House: he has to deal with a fiercely nationalistic electorate and the context of looming military conflict between the US, its allies and Iran over the country’s nuclear program. Eg: a war between the new Iraq’s main military ally and its main political-religious friend. Apparently, the Prime minister’s strategy to navigate this coming storm is to bet on Iraq being strong enough to remain neutral: which means able to militarily defeat on its own all the pro-Iranian militias bound to try to take over or destabilize the country when conflict comes. He succeeded at it in 2007 and 2008 and thus established the military reputation of the New Republic’s troops; in the context of US troops present on the ground. He seems to think he can do so again in their absence; hence his wooing of Iraqi nationalist opinion.
Among this article’s readers, there are bound to be patriotically minded Americans who will quietly think Maliki and the Iraqi people more than a little ungrateful for all the blood and treasure expensed in the cause of their freedom over the last 10 years and even now vis-à-vis Iran. To these, I would suggest a look at the big picture: consider the value for the US economy of a democratic Iraq with enough spare oil capacity to replace Saudi Arabia’s now abandoned role of stabilizing global oil prices; calculate how many trillions not having ever again to invade or contain Iraq saves to your tax bill; evaluate the strategic value of Iraq not collaborating with Iran’s expansionism and extremism, for US troops in particular; weigh the moral value and the goodwill generated by America being identified as the top ally of the only Muslim society (thus far) with a pluralistic representative government.
Sure it doesn’t feel like landing on the beaches of Normandy. The new Iraq is indeed behaving with America like the proverbial guy who won’t let his mistress out of the closet. In geopolitics, that’s about as far as love gets on a regular basis, especially so in the Middle East. Those wanting more meaningful relationships will be better served by rushing to see “New Year’s Eve” next week.