Open Debate is the Way to Tackle Iraqi Troop Question

Should U.S. troops stay in Iraq? Many in the Iraqi and the American governments seem to think yes. But both governments have avoided a public debate about whether to keep some troops beyond December of this year. Silence on both sides is hurting concrete policy formulation. Such discussions are equally unpopular in Washington as they are in Baghdad, but we need a public conversation in both countries to convince the American and Iraqi people of crucial policies. Further, open negotiations with Iraq over keeping U.S. forces in the country can be seen as a test for U.S. commitment to Iraqi democracy and for its ability to deal with new democracies in the Middle East.  

Iraqi officials unofficially admit the need for maintaining some U.S. troops, and not only for training. Muqtada al-Sadr, a key ally to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, is the sole politician who still calls for full troop withdrawal. But none of the parties want to take individual responsibility for advocating U.S. troops to stay. The prime minister and the parliament have been passing the buck, trying to force the other into making the decision. Rather than being responsive to the citizenry and the electorate, Iraqi parties are engaged in a game of chicken with each other. Given Iraq’s nascent and messy democracy, politicians thrive on survival skills more than on leadership skills.

Take for example the feeble Iraqi response to the Iranian bombardment of the Iraq-Iran border towns and villages, which forced many Kurdish families to flee their homes and plantations. This is not the first time that Iran shelled Iraqi border towns. Yet, the Iraqi response remains both weak and late, not going beyond statements by the foreign minister and deputy speaker of parliament, both of whom happen to be Kurds and therefore are directly affected by the shelling. It is politics that counts, not nationalism. As for Washington, the strongest language against Iran so far has come from only two U.S. senators.

There is also concern about whether the United States can deal with Middle Eastern democracies, especially if more of them are coming out of the Arab Spring. For decades, the U.S. had the luxury of calling one strongman who made sure sour demands were swallowed. Not anymore. The U.S. has to re-learn the art of diplomacy, of dangling more carrots, and of reaching out beyond politicians, to citizens. With the economic turmoil at home on the one hand, and the rise of other international players on the other, the Unites States is not at its usual sweet spot.

So far, the U.S. government has voiced an interest in keeping troops in Iraq, but has not pursued it in earnest. If the U.S. is waiting for an invitation from Iraq, it is not going to get it. If it wants to maintain some troops in Iraq, then it should say so convincingly first, and then communicate it to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi public. The U.S. is missing an opportunity to appeal to the Iraqi public by remaining largely timid against Iranian shelling of Kurdish towns. For now, the only country concerned with Iraq’s sovereignty seems to be the U.S. — by choosing silence.

If the U.S. takes Iraq’s democracy seriously, seeking backroom deals with Iraq’s political elite is not the right way. 

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