During President Obama's whirlwind tour of Europe, the president did what he did best - empathize and listen, all the while deliberately and patiently pursuing his interests.
But the tone taken with European leaders did not carry over to his surprise stop over in Iraq. His chidings to Iraqi leaders "to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty" was uncharacteristically tone deaf and ignores the trajectory of Iraqi politics for the past two years.
Iraqis are already committed to regaining their sovereignty... at times at the expense of U.S. interests and goals in the region. Iraq's commitment to sovereignty was amply demonstrated during the negotiations of the Status of Armed Forces Agreement, an agreement that is to govern the presence of U.S. troops during their remaining time in Iraq.
The Bush administration hoped that it could engineer an agreement that would allow the U.S. military to carry on much as it had under the UN mandate and allow military commanders to set their own withdrawal plans contingent upon conditions on the ground.
But Iraqi officials, with sovereignty as their foremost consideration, rebuffed US officials at every turn. They insisted on a timeline for withdrawal and negotiated limitations on the conduct of U.S. troops on their soil and in their skies.
Iran- our rival for Iraq's affections -understood intuitively what we have failed to grasp. The Iranians played upon Iraqi desire to restore sovereignty and employed a sophisticated propaganda campaign to turn opinion away from the agreement until terms more favorable to their regional standing were pushed through. The Iranians used their influence with Iraqi government officials to press the case that a SOFA, even with a timetable, would stifle Iraqi sovereignty further.
While Iran has been able to parlay Iraq's desire for full sovereignty into strategic gains, the United States has been unable to do likewise. Obama could have used a bit more of that magic he displayed in Europe in his meetings with Maliki as he seeks a responsible exit from Iraq.
Maliki's tenure as prime minister is dedicated to the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. His party's recent election victory is a referendum on that effort. But Maliki has used the sovereignty argument to justify the consolidation of power within his office, to delay the integration of former insurgents into the work force and to kick up conflicts with the Kurds over their autonomous status.
All of these measures could negatively impact U.S. interests and to keep pushing the sovereignty button could be misconstrued by Iraqi officials as acquiescence to policies that we may not necessarily agree with and which may go against our interests.
By the time the results of those policies manifest themselves, it will be too late to use whatever influence we have left to walk the Iraqi government back from these measures.
These are the certain realities and limitations that are now placed on the United States' Iraq policy because of Iraq's emerging domestic political realities and our own desire to disengage.
During the SOFA negotiation period, U.S. officials and pundits failed to grasp this emerging dynamic of diminishing U.S. leverage set against the growing independence of Iraqi politics. It is particularly disconcerting that we still don't recognize that the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty is at the heart of much of Iraq's dealings with the outside world, particularly the United States.
Obama should stay true to his intentions and hold Iraq to its status as an independent and sovereign state. But President Obama's new approach should not be reserved for European leaders, but on display in Iraq as well. U.S. policy towards Iraq no longer bolstered by a substantial military presence is best achieved by gaining a deep and detailed knowledge of emerging Iraqi politics and how to influence them, not by lecturing Iraqis on something they know all to well. It's time to change our tone with Iraqi leaders.
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