Rebuilding Iraq: Economic and Diplomatic Challenges
July 28, 2014
Author: Amy Cass, C’15
When I first began my internship at the end of May on the Iraq desk of the US Department of State, I kept forgetting that not everyone in the world had shifted their attention to Iraq. As an intern focused on economic and energy issues there, I was sure that most people were tracking the movements of tankers carrying oil being exported by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to the ire of the central Government of Iraq, who maintained that such sales were illegal. I brought up election issues and internal Iraqi politics casually, only to be reminded when my friends didn’t understand such acronyms as “SOL” (for State of Law coalition, the political party from which Iraq’s Prime Minister hails) that not everyone was focusing their attention on Iraq.
That all changed, of course, on June 9th, when an Islamic extremist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, invaded the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Abandoned police outposts, stripped-off military uniforms, and captured US equipment became the hallmark images as the Iraqi Security Forces, or ISF, fled, leaving ISIL in control. Since this invasion, they have continued their offensive across northern Iraq, capturing other towns and reportedly setting their sights in Baghdad, although experts contest whether they would attempt such an attack. Their goal seems to be to erase the border between Syria and Iraq and form an extremist Sunni caliphate, an Islamic state that existed since the time of the Prophet but was abolished following World War I.
While the true capabilities and intentions of ISIL remain shadowy and unclear, their incursion into Iraq has sparked intense debate in the US over what our proper role is now in Iraq. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq, leading to the overthrow in the same year of Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq as a dictator for almost 25 years. We helped with the drafting and implementation of an Iraqi constitution in 2005 and helped Iraqi forces overcome an increasingly bloody sectarian civil war between 2006 and 2008. With the surge of US troops into the country, we were able to restore relative peace, and by the end of 2011 President Obama had withdrawn the last of US troops from Iraqi soil. Now, however, the recent insurgency threatens to sacrifice the many gains made by thousands of American and Iraqi troops, not to mention the 10+ years of close economic, political, and military cooperation that Baghdad and Washington have enjoyed since Saddam’s downfall.
But the Obama administration and many in Congress are unwilling to involve themselves in another messy military conflict, especially in the case of Iraq, where the sectarian interests of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States with largely Muslim populations create messy alliances that the US is unwilling to deal with. In fact, the President’s briefing on Iraq on June 19th was fairly clear about the Administration’s calculus for Iraq:
“The United States [must] ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action. The most important question we should all be asking, the issue that we have to keep front and center…is what is in the national security interests of the United States of America.”
Some, however, see a certain obligation that the United States has to Iraq following the invasion that gave rise to these sectarian tensions and the long years of military occupation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to agree that it’s up to the U.S. to ensure stability in Iraq, commenting, “The special responsibility of the United States of America is not just there; it is already being taken by President Obama.” While I wouldn’t pretend to know better than Angela Merkel or Barack Obama, I’d like to lend my voice to this debate: does the US have an obligation to help rebuild Iraq?
I do indeed think that the US has an obligation to Iraq. Whether you want to call the US a liberator or an interferer, any country that enters another and removes its government has an obligation to remain in that country until the government has returned to a functional level. This is negated only in the face of strong international consensus calling for intervention or the presence of a well-developed opposition within the country itself, neither of which were present in this case. This idea is undoubtedly problematic, as it dissuades intervention in “complicated” countries: had the US known about the situation they would encounter in Iraq post-Saddam, they might not have invaded, and we’re seeing similar trepidation in Syria today. But by making the invader responsible for the rebuilding, you raise the stakes high enough to prohibit interference that isn’t very well thought-out. This may have been the area where the US failed the most.
That isn’t to say, though, that the US isn’t fulfilling their obligation. My time at the Department of State has showed me the incredible cooperation that exists now between the two countries. One woman in my office, for example, acts as a liaison between the Government of Iraq and American universities to help Iraqi students obtain higher education degrees in technical fields that will give them the expertise needed by the government. Another works with American businesses to promote and facilitate their investment and continued presence in Iraq. Yet another person in my office coordinates with the Department of Energy, Department of Commerce, and Department of the Interior to provide the legal and technical expertise and advice that is needed in the Iraqi energy sector (electricity, oil, and natural gas).
A shrewd observer would recognize that all of the above programs hold some benefit for the United States. For example, it economically benefits the US to have our companies in Iraq and Iraqi students at our universities, and we will undoubtedly benefit from increased Iraqi oil export. Ultimately, this shows that Iraq is a far more positive situation than many people think: there is so much room for cooperation between the US and Iraq that will benefit both countries. The State Department is the facilitator of this cooperation, helping to promote the United States’ interests in Iraq through routes that are mutually beneficial for both countries. This is how I’ve come to view the true role of diplomacy: creating strong and healthy relationships, economic and otherwise, that benefit both countries, making cooperation between them easier and misunderstanding harder.
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