Iraq has faded to the point of near invisibility in the American news media. But even though the U.S. military occupation of that country ended in December 2011, Iraq remains a significant arena in Washington's foreign policy.
The United States still maintains a mammoth embassy—a facility nearly as large as Vatican City housing a diplomatic corps larger than those in such major countries as Japan, Germany and India. There are also some 17,000 private contractors, most of whom are armed security personnel guarding those diplomats and other U.S. government officials. Iraqis might be excused if they see their country as still being under U.S. supervision.
Even more troubling, the problems that the U.S.-led invasion and occupation created or exacerbated have not ceased. Indeed, several of them show signs of growing worse. The Obama administration could face some nasty dilemmas in 2013 regarding Iraq.
Problem One: The Maliki Government's Growing Authoritarianism
When the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, a key stated objective was to bring democracy to that country. That goal seems increasingly naïve. Iraq has democratic forms, but it does not consistently practice democratic norms.
The Maliki regime's political practices grow ever more worrisome. Not only is corruption on the rise, but there is a steady erosion of political freedoms. Journalists who dare to be critical of the prime minister and his allies increasingly complain of harassment and sometimes outright censorship. Maliki's security bureaucracy has detained hundreds of former officials, accusing them of supporting a return to Ba'athist Party dictatorial rule. Although some of those allegations may be true, the government has cast a very wide and indiscriminate net.
An especially ominous development occurred when the Maliki administration charged Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi with treason—specifically with running anti-government death squads. Hashemi, one of Iraq's leading Sunni Arab politicians and a leader of the Iraqiya political bloc, vehemently maintained his innocence and fled the country.
A report by the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War concluded that Maliki seems to be conducting a concerted campaign to stifle dissent and political opposition. "He has made it more difficult for his Shi'ite rivals to dissent," the report stated, "while simultaneously confining his Sunni opponents in a position suitable for exerting pressure and exploiting divisions within their ranks."
Such a strategy is not consistent with the development of a healthy democracy. Rather, it is similar to the methods used by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez to undermine the substance of democracy in his country while retaining elections and other democratic facades. Such a cynical, illiberal "democracy" was not what U.S. officials advertised as an objective of the Iraq mission, but that seems to be the outcome.
Problem Two: Growing Tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdish Region
Despite the bitter divisions between Iraq's Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish communities, Washington has always insisted that Iraq remain intact. But that goal is becoming elusive.
A number of quarrels have been simmering for years. Disputes over oil revenues and the extent of the Kurdish Regional Government's (KRG) authority to conclude economic agreements with foreign corporations have led to repeated political clashes between regional authorities and Maliki's government. Likewise, territorial controversies, especially those involving the status of the oil rich city of Kirkuk and its environs, have resulted in exchanges of angry accusations. Kurdish leaders are especially irritated at Baghdad's continued stalling on holding a referendum to resolve Kirkuk's status.
Tensions escalated from a simmer to a boil during the autumn of 2012. Maliki's creation of a new northern military command in September to cover several of the disputed territories infuriated KRG officials. Baghdad's move had all the earmarks of a power grab, and Kurdish leaders regarded the new military command as a direct threat to the region's hard-won autonomy. They viewed the government's official justification—that security in disputed territories had deteriorated and that the areas could become a sanctuary for terrorists—with open skepticism.
Matters escalated further in mid-November, when a skirmish erupted between KRG and central government military personnel. The KRG then reinforced the region's security forces, the Peshmerga, and commanders warned that their troops were fully prepared to defend the Kurdish region against any assault by Baghdad's troops.
The Obama administration was sufficiently concerned about these ominous developments that it dispatched a U.S. general to act as a mediator. Although the immediate crisis seems to have subsided, none of the underlying disputes have been resolved. The prospect of a new clash, and perhaps an outright secessionist bid by the KRG, remains ever present.
Problem Three: Iraq's Stance Regarding Iran and Syria
A final—and mounting—source of frustration for Washington is the Maliki government's policies toward the Iranian and Syrian crises. In both cases, Baghdad is openly opposing U.S. policy.
Realist scholars pointed out years ago that Iran would inevitably acquire greater influence in Iraq and throughout the Persian Gulf region with the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The mullahs should have been thrilled that Washington obligingly not only removed a hated political adversary, but eliminated Iraq as the principal strategic counterweight to Iranian power. No one should have been surprised that a Shiite-dominated successor government in Baghdad would be far friendlier than Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime toward Shiite Iran. The red-carpet treatment accorded Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his visit to Baghdad in March 2008 confirmed what had been obvious to non-neoconservative observers of the region.
It should not be surprising that Maliki's government has been unenthusiastic about supporting harsh sanctions—much less talk of military action—against Iran. But U.S. leaders seem both miffed and alarmed that the Iraqi government has not enlisted in the crusade against its co-religionists in Tehran.
An equally acute disappointment for U.S. policy makers has been Baghdad's hostility toward coercive measures against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. But that stance should not be surprising either. Not only is the Syrian conflict creating a major refugee problem for Iraq, but the overthrow of Assad would likely lead to a Sunni-dominated regime in Damascus. Leaders in Baghdad have no reason to welcome such a result.
All three of those problems for U.S. foreign policy may well get worse in 2013. Washington's hopes for a united, democratic Iraq that would be a bulwark of support for U.S. objectives seem pathetically naïve in retrospect. Instead, the Obama administration gets to deal with an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian Iraqi regime, a government that balks at backing key U.S. goals in the region, and the specter that Iraq could fracture along ethnic lines, starting with the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. That's not an encouraging beginning for President Obama's second term.