America’s Declining Influence in Iraq?

The Christian Science Monitor fronts a piece by Jill Carroll and Dan Murphy on “America’s waning clout in Iraq |

As the weight of the Shiite Islamist victory in Iraq’s election is still being calculated, US influence in the country – in reconstruction, security, and politics – is steadily receding. While a diminished US role in Iraqi affairs was inevitable, the speed of the retreat raises some risks to the establishing of a stable, US-friendly Iraq. The Shiite parties that dominated the vote in December have closer affinity to Iran than to the US. At the same time, the Bush administration is planning sharp cuts in reconstruction aid, a major point of leverage in Iraqi affairs. “I think it’s pretty clear our influence is waning as far as agenda setting,” says Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University and a former top US adviser on the writing of Iraq’s Constitution.

What then are America’s best hopes for steering Iraq in a direction favorable to US interests? Some analysts say the US may reach out to its erstwhile enemies – the Sunnis. “I wouldn’t be the least surprised if the Americans cut a deal with Sunni [political figures with ties to the insurgency] to cut the Shiites down to size,” says Dan Plesch, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

However, that tack could carry high risks in the form of greater short-term violence. “Certainly the violence in Iraq has been much lower than it might have been, because there’s been a fair deal of restraint among Shiite leaders,” says David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. “And that might end now – they may feel the need to really go after the Sunni Arabs as a diversion.”

Theoretically, the US could reoccupy Iraq, but at a disastrous cost to America’s international standing and popular opposition at home. Since democracy and restoration of sovereignty has been the US position, this seems unlikely.

Almost by definition, U.S. influence was going to decline as we went from occupying force to a strong voice behind the transitional “soveireign” government to a permanent elected government. If democracy means anything, it’s that.

Further, as a piece by Richard Stevenson in today’s NYT reinforced, the pace of the U.S. withdrawal will be contingent on events on the ground.

President Bush said Wednesday that the Iraqi police and armed forces were improving their performance and that if 2006 unfolded as he expected, he should be able to consider reducing the number of American troops in Iraq later this year. Speaking after a briefing with his senior commanders at the Pentagon, Mr. Bush continued his campaign to shore up public opinion about the war, casting it again as part of a broader struggle to protect the United States from Al Qaeda and pointing to the progress Iraqis are making toward democratic self-government.

Painting a picture of progress while acknowledging that violence would continue, he spoke about how the Iraqi Army had taken the lead in protecting polling places during the Dec 15 parliamentary elections and about the halting steps since then toward the creation of a permanent Iraqi government. He discussed a new program under which American forces were working side by side with Iraqi police trainees, much as they have with Iraqi military units.

Concerning troop levels, Mr. Bush stuck to the formula he has used for the several years: American troops will begin coming home in large numbers only when his generals determine Iraq has stabilized and Iraqi forces can keep it that way.

Now, it’s not inconceivable that the Iraqi government will start pressing a faster U.S. pullout. Until they are able to provide a reasonable level of security on their own, though, it’s unlikely. And, so long as a strong U.S. troop presence is on the ground, our “clout” will remain substantial.

The early indications are that Iraqi leaders understand that a pro-Iranian, hard Shiite government is a non-starter.

Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a leading Shiite candidate to become the next prime minister, said yesterday that Iraq may not have a new government until April if political and sectarian groups cannot set aside their differences. A broad-based coalition government including Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs is the only way to defeat the insurgency, Abdul-Mahdi said in an interview at his home along the banks of the slowly flowing Tigris River. “The future government, I think, will be a national unity government,” Abdul-Mahdi said, wearing a tan suit as he sat on an ornate chair in a functional but bare reception area in the heavily guarded single-story stone house. “This is a must. It is not something that only the results of the elections can decide. It is a political necessity, and all parties agree on that.”

His remarks reflect the desire of many Shiites, especially politically moderate Islamists, to make the government more inclusive and representative in an effort to stop the daily bloodshed that ravages Iraq. Abdul-Mahdi, 63, a former exile who served as finance minister in Iraq’s first interim government, said the country’s political parties have to show flexibility if they want to form a government quickly. “If we are flexible with our requests, then we can see a government in a very short period,” he said. “But if we are reluctant, rigid, then this might take a while, maybe two months, three months.”

There were indications that three main parties to emerge from the Dec. 15 parliamentary election — the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, the Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front and the Kurdish coalition — were making significant headway in forming a coalition government ahead of the release of final results. Leaders of the Accordance Front agreed Monday for the first time on the broad outlines for such a government during an unprecedented trip north to the Kurds.

There’s still hope as long as that attitude prevails.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. RA says:

    These people are insane. The US backing bomb throwing Sunnis against Shiites who want to execute the bomb throwers. I don’t think so. The way to stop the insurgents is to kill everyone involved in it. That means the Sunnis will be faced with 1. peaceful coexistence or 2. A bloody purge that will gut the terrorist ranks.

    The sooner the US turns over policy to the Iraqi government and army the sooner the bomb throwers will die.