The Future of the United States in Iraq

The Future of the United States in Iraq

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Emma Sky, director of the Greenberg World Fellows Program at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, discusses the future of U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

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Emma Sky

Director, Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University


Maria Casa

Director for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

CASA: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I am Maria Casa, director for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Thank you all for joining us today. This call is on the record and audio file and transcript will be available on the website within the next few days if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates.


We are delighted to have Emma Sky with us today in a discussion on the future of U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Ms. Sky is director of Yale University’s Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program, and a senior fellow at Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where she teaches Middle East politics. She is the author of The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. Ms. Sky has served as advisor to the commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq from 2007 to 2010, as an advisor to the commander of NATO’s international security assistance force in Afghanistan in 2006, as advisor to the U.S. security coordinator for the Middle East peace process in 2005, and as governorate coordinator of Kirkuk for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004.


Prior to that she worked in the Palestinian territories for a decade, managing projects develop Palestinian institutions and to promote coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. In addition, Ms. Sky has provided technical assistance on poverty elimination, human rights, justice public administration reform, security sector reform, and conflict resolution in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Ms. Sky has published including in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Politico, Atlantic, Slate, Center for a New American Security, and U.S. Institute for Peace. She was educated at the University of Oxford, Alexandria University in Egypt, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Liverpool.


Welcome, Emma. Thank you very much for being with us today.


SKY: Thank you.


CASA: This week marks the 15th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Could you start us off by giving us a little history and context for the Iraq War, and some reflections on what the future of U.S. military involvement in the country might look like?


SKY: Well, thank you very much for that introduction.


It’s been 15 years. Fifteen years. What has been achieved and what has been the cost of those 15 years? In terms of U.S. blood and treasure, 4,500 American forces have been killed in Iraq, over 32,000 wounded. There have been lots of suicides. Two trillion dollars have been spent so far. The Iraqis—we don’t know how many Iraqis are dead. Probably a million Iraqis have died. We’ve seen the mobilization of new generations of jihadis, change of balance of power in the region in Iran’s favor, which is sort of a proxy war, the meltdown of the European Union under the refugee crisis emanating from the Middle East, and possibly the end of Pax Americana that’s upheld global peace for 70 years. So, yes, it’s been 15 years, but the Iraq war is still relevant very much to today.


So, in answer to your question how did we get there, the Iraq War I think has to be understood in the context of 9/11, and the fear that President Bush had that there was going to be another attack on the homeland. And he had people in his administration who were neoconservatives, who since the end of the Cold War have been pushing for a muscular foreign policy. And they had been promoting Iraq as the pilot for this foreign policy, saying that if Saddam Hussein were toppled Iraq would become a democracy that would have a domino effect on the region, and would lead to peace with Israel. So a lot of assumptions in that which were very wrong assumptions.


And you know, the day of the attacks of 9/11, there were people who put on the radar immediately Iraq. And the premise was that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that could be used to attack the U.S. And so the war was fought on the premise of Saddam having weapons of mass destruction—a premise that was found after the invasion to be wrong. The invasion should never have happened in 2003. But nothing that happened in Iraq after 2003 was inevitable. There really were hopes for a world without Saddam Hussein, and the missed opportunities to build that better order.


So the big mistakes that President Bush made, the first was to invade. But after the invasion was to collapse the state by dismissing all the civil servants through de-Baathification and dissolving all the security forces. And I don’t think there’s any country in the world that could survive that being done to them by a foreign power. And without—you know, it’s the state that provides the framework for different groups to compete against each other peacefully. And when the state collapsed, Iraqis were fearful. They formed gangs to protect themselves. Insurgents could come into the country to fight Americans, to fight the infidel, because the borders weren’t protected. And this led to Iraq’s descent into civil war.


Now, from 2007 to 2009, during that period that we call the surge, the U.S., for the only time during the whole war, had the right strategy, the right leadership, and the resources. And the violence came down dramatically. And we all hoped that the civil war was behind. And when President Obama took over as president in 2009, Iraq seemed to be in a good position. It seemed to be heading in the right direction. All the indicators were positive. But President Obama had—really had come to power, or had come to prominence, due to his position of opposition to the Iraq War. And the first thing he said when he became president was to end the Iraq War—to end it responsibly.


And we had hoped that the 2010 elections in Iraq would lead to power sharing between the main groups. And it was a very tightly or closely contested election. Groups or Iraqis who had been insurgents as candidates, people who had boycotted the previous elections, now participated. And in those elections a bloc came together that called for an Iraq for all Iraqis, no to sectarianism. And this bloc actually won the most seats in the election. But for various reasons, the Obama administration didn’t back the right of that winning bloc to have first go at forming the government. Instead it threw its support behind the incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki.


And Nouri al-Maliki got a second term. And in his second term, he went after the Sunni politicians, accusing them of being terrorists, he reneged on his promises to the tribal leaders who had fought against al-Qaida in Iraq, and imprisoned lots of Sunnis. And he set the conditions for the Islamic State to rise up out of the ashes of al-Qaida in Iraq and present itself as the defender of the Sunnis against the Iranian-backed sectarian regime of Nouri al-Maliki. And that explains how ISIS was able to take over a third of the country in 2014.


Now, winding forward to today, we’re in a very similar position today as we were in 2010. So in the last few years ISIS has been pushed back and crushed with a lot of support provided by the U.S. And Iraq is heading into elections in May. So it’s very similar conditions. And the U.S. is hoping that Haider Abadi will win these elections, that he will prove to be a strong prime minister, friendly with the U.S., and a counter to Iran. And the U.S. is also hoping that Saudi Arabia will rebuild Iraq, will invest all is forces in rebuilding—invest—sorry—invest its funds in rebuilding the areas of Iraq that have been destroyed by ISIS.


But you could say this is also a policy based on hope. There’s still competition going into these elections. Abadi is facing Nouri al-Maliki again, Hadi Al-Amiri. And the competition really is still between all the different Shia groups. So it’s not a given that Abadi will be able to form a government with himself as prime minister. In terms of the Saudi investment, the Saudis are really focused on Syria and Yemen. And it’s not clear whether they have the plans, the policies, or even the finances to help rebuild. So the U.S. role is still needed to help push back and counter Iranian influence, to help the U.S.—sorry—to help the Iraqi forces prevent the resurgence, again, of the son of ISIS, and to try to encourage U.S. businesses to invest in Iraq. And all that is important, not just in defeating ISIS, but also to countering Iran’s influence.


Does that answer your question?


CASA: Yes. Thank you very much. Can you speak a little bit—while we’re waiting for questions to come in from our callers—could you say a word about how prepared this administration is moving forward? The U.S. administration moving forward for any eventualities in Iraq coming out of the elections.


SKY: When you look at the state of U.S. foreign policy today, the most important tool in foreign policy is weakening continuously. And by that, I mean, the State Department. Too often the U.S. foreign policy is led by the military rather than being led by the State Department. And Iraq needs engagement—diplomatic engagement, economic engagement from the U.S. more than anything else. And I think there is a danger that the U.S., this administration, will only think in terms of troop presence in Iraq and troop numbers, rather than understanding that stability in Iraq relates to Iraqi politics. And Iraqi politics is heavily influenced by dynamics in the region, in particularly the power struggle—the geopolitical power struggle that goes on between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And the instrumentalize religion in order to push their agendas. So I do not see this administration fully able to play the role that the U.S. could play because the State Department has been considerably weakened over the last year or so.


OPERATOR: At this time, we will open the floor for questions.


(Gives queuing instructions.)


We have a question from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.


Q: I’m sorry. My question is in an article you wrote for Foreign Affairs titled “Mission Accomplished.” You stated that the Iraqi government should bring militias into the force of Iraqi security forces and military. My question is, won’t this make the Iraqi military and security forces more sectarian, and in turn alienate Sunni Iraqis further?


SKY: Thank you for your question. It’s a very good question. And it’s a real challenge for the Iraqi government, because you want the situation to be where the government has a monopoly on the control of violence. And at the moment in Iraq, it is not the government that has that monopoly of control. So the government has a situation where you have the Iraqi security forces and you have these different militias. There are different militias. There are Shia ones. There are Sunni ones. There are Kurdish ones. And the challenge is, what do you do with all these militias. It’s very difficult to just demobilize them, because they’re full of young men who need jobs and they need opportunities. So one way of dealing with this is transitioning these different people from militias into security forces.


Now, if you take those militias on a whole into a security force, then that’s a problem. But if you can spread them out throughout the security forces, and if you recruit them as individuals rather than as members of militias, you have the opportunity to strengthen the state security forces. But it really is a challenge. And it’s a challenge for any prime minister who rules Iraq. It’s not an easy thing to do. The Shia militias have strong links to Iran, and Iran wants to maintain them in order to be a check, in a way, on the state and to push Iranian influence even further into Iraq.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Prairie View A&M University.


Q: Good morning. I wanted to say thank you for taking the time to take our questions today and engaging us in this conference call.


My question was, what impact, if any, did U.S. intervention in Iraq have on the peace process in Palestine and Israel?


SKY: In the old days, people would look at the Middle East and think of, you know, the main problem being Palestine and Israel. And some people used to think that if that problem were solved, then all the other problems would be resolved. When you look today, there are so many crises and problems in the Middle East that the Iran War has—it didn’t create them all, but there has been knock on, unintentional effects of the Iraq War that has certainly created problems in Syria, in Yemen. And so there has been no advance at all on the Israel-Palestine peace process. In fact, it just moved down the list of priorities.


And Israel has become much stronger during this period. With Saudi, the Gulf countries very concerned about Iran, you see an alliance that was inconceivable before, the Saudis and the Israelis becoming closer because they have a shared enemy in Iran. And the Palestinians have become probably weaker. The Palestinian Authority is weaker. The question now being, is there potential for some sort of bigger deal to take place, with the Saudis pushing for resolution for the Palestinian situation? And given that Israel is in a strong position, has growing relations with the Sunni Arab countries, could there be potential for a deal on Palestine?


It’s interesting. It’s hard to see it with the current Israeli government, particularly given the crisis going on over Netanyahu and charges against him for corruption. It certainly will be interesting to see if something might happen—something unexpected might happen because of the alliance against Iran.


OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)


Our next question comes from Spelman College.


Q: Hello. My name is Nia Page from Spelman College.


So my question is, in December 2017, so a few months ago, Iraq’s prime minister declared a defeat against ISIS. Do you think that this new defeat will help Iraq reach stability in the next couple years?


SKY: So this iteration of ISIS has been pretty much destroyed. But ISIS is a symptom of a problem, and the problem is government corruption, poisonous politics. So the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS are still there. And you could argue they got worse. So the challenge really is to change those conditions, for there to be better governance, for there to be better security forces, more justice, in order to prevent the son of ISIS appearing a few days—a few years down the road. You know, back in in 2009 al-Qaida in Iraq was defeated. But because of the politics and because of the policies taken by Nouri al-Maliki, ISIS was able to rise up out of the ashes of al-Qaida in Iraq. And so even though ISIS is now defeated, there is a danger that it could reappear in a different incarnation, unless the conditions that created it are changed.


OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)


We have a follow up from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.


Q: Yes. Hello. My name is Faisal al-Shaid (ph) from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia.


My question is, how was ISIS able to take control over huge parts of Iraq so fast, even though the U.S. spent a lot of money and effort in training the Iraqi army?


SKY: When Nouri al-Maliki got his second term as prime minister, he got that—he got—he stayed in power basically because a deal was brokered by the Iranians. And what he did was pursue a series of sectarian policies that I mentioned before, accusing the Sunni politicians of terrorism, stopping paying the Sahwat, the awakening forces, and arresting Sunnis en masse. Also, he politicized the Iraqi security forces. He replaced those officers that he thought were close to the Americans with people who were close to himself. And these are people who did not have the necessary qualifications and experience. And they took the money that was supposed to be used to buy food and ammunition for their soldiers—they took it and they pocketed it for themselves.


And when ISIS forces came into Mosul, there were not that many of them. The Iraqi security forces outnumbered them probably 100 to one. But the Iraqi officers weren’t there. And they didn’t give commands to their soldiers to fight. And soldiers just took off their uniforms, left all their weapons, and deserted. And so you saw the Iraqi army, that the U.S. had spent millions and millions and millions of dollars in creating, just disband itself and evaporate because of the lack of leadership, the politicization of the officers, and the policies of Nouri al-Maliki. So you had a Sunni population who thought maybe ISIS was the lesser of two evils when compared with Maliki. And you had security forces that were politicized and poorly led. And that explains how ISIS was able to take control so quickly of a third of Iraq.


OPERATOR: We have a question from Spelman College.


Q: Hi. My name is Amber Black.


My question is actually in reference to the Kurdish referendum vote. Do you think the outcome would have changed if the United States initially backed the Kurds?


SKY: The Kurdish referendum vote, which took place in September last year, was a big miscalculation by the president of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani. And his sense was the Kurds are in a strong position because of the fight against ISIS. They received weapons directly from the international community. And during the fight against ISIS, they also extended their territory over the disputed territories and took control of Kirkuk. And Barzani, who is—you know, he’s in his 70s now. He wanted his legacy to be an independent Kurdistan, including Kirkuk. He had political problems in Kurdistan. He had overstayed his term as president. And I think he thought this was a way of rallying people behind him, of increasing his negotiating position with Baghdad. And he miscalculated how the U.S. would respond and how the Iraqi government would respond.


U.S. policy remained one Iraq, a united Iraq. And for the Iraqi prime minister, he needed to show some strength if he was to remain as prime minister. And pushing back on the Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk, sending Iraqi forces to take back Kirkuk, pushing the Kurds back, has proven very popular with the Arab population of Iraq. So this, I think, was a miscalculation on the part of Barzani. And it has shown that there are severe tensions within Kurdistan between the different Kurdish parties. So I don’t think—you know, what could the U.S. have done about this? Well, it could have done more to prevent Barzani from going ahead with the referendum. After the referendum, the Iranians became involved in brokering a deal between Baghdad and one of the Kurdish parties, the PUK, who were the big rivals of Barzani. And in that deal, that Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general, brokered, the PUK peshmerga withdrew from Kirkuk and allowed the Iraqi forces to come in. So there’s a lot of different stuff going on behind the scenes.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Culver-Stockton College.


Q: Hello. My question is if you believe the boundaries created after World War I by Britain and France are one of the key contributors with the conflict in the Middle East, and all of the strife between the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds?


SKY: So what was the second part of your question? You asked were the borders the problem. What was the second part?


Q: And if that also contributes to all of the strife between the Sunnis, Shiites, and the Kurds.


SKY: So the borders were drawn up at the end of World War I. And those borders, despite everything, have proven resilient. And whoever took control over the state always tried to maintain control over the borders. The Middle East has always been—I mean, when you look at Iraq and Syria—it has been multiethnic, multicultural for centuries upon centuries. And people don’t live neatly in separate geographical areas. They live among each other and with each other. And I think when you look at the problems in the Middle East today it’s very easy to blame the colonial borders. But I think more blame needs to go on the leaders of these countries who have failed to create inclusive sense of nationalism, who have extracted the wealth out of the countries for their own good.


So I see this as a failure of leadership and a failure of politics. It’s not a matter of only the border being a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right then there won’t be these problems. When we got to Baghdad in 2003, a third of Baghdad’s population was intermarried, Sunni-Shia. And when there have been opinion polls about dividing Iraq up based on sect and ethnicity, it is only the Kurds that have wanted to separate from Iraq. The rest of the population wanted to remain within Iraq.


So this is—in my mind, it’s more of a problem of governance and politics than it is of borders. Can there be a system of governance in which power is devolved? When the Kurds got their area in the north of Iraq after the first Gulf War, they got their safe haven. One of the first things that happened up there was a civil war between the Kurds as they were fighting over resources.


So I think unless you really address the issues of governance, there are always going to be these same problems, because the fighting, the violence, is much more over greed and power than it is over different interpretations of God.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Prairie View A&M University.


Q: My name is Nathan Alexander. My question is, has the current U.S. administration’s actions in the region hurt ISIS, or has his administration given them more energy?


SKY: I think it has hurt ISIS. The U.S. military has been heavily involved in the fight against ISIS in Syria and in Iraq. And I think this has had a big impact in pushing back ISIS, taking territory away from ISIS. The U.S. has been supportive of local players on the ground in Iraq—the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga; in Syria, the Free Syrian Army, the Kurdish Syrian forces. So I think this has helped very much push back on ISIS.


And I said before that that’s just this iteration of jihadis. And the problems in the Middle East are much more than problems of ISIS. ISIS is a symptom of the problem, the problem really being governance and politics. And unless things change, then in years to come there will be another iteration of jihadis. So unless the grievances are dealt with, unless there’s better governance, and, you know, unless the economic situation improves, there will be more recruits in the future for violent groups again. If people can’t see change coming about through politics, they will revert to violence.


OPERATOR: We have another question from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.


Q: Thank you so much for giving us that time. But we do have more than a hundred students who are very well prepared, and they are very eager to ask. The first person will introduce themselves.


Q: Yes. Hi. My name is Mohammed Azerli (ph). I am a student at KUPM.


My question is regarding the news. Why is the U.S. government and the U.S.-led coalition getting all the praise and all the front pages while, in fact, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi forces of all groups have pushed back ISIS, especially in the Nineveh and the Al Anbar provinces, especially in the last summer, where we saw the wars against Mosul and Al Anbar later on?


SKY: That’s a good question. Definitely most of the fighting has been by forces on the ground. The U.S. role has been in providing intelligence and air power. But the forces that have been fighting, the forces that have been taking losses and casualties, are the local forces.


I don’t know what media coverage is like in Saudi. Do you cover more what the Iraqi forces are doing? In the West, the attention tends to be on Western forces, U.S. forces in particular. Partly that’s because Western journalists can be embedded with them, and it’s much harder to be embedded with local forces. But there has been, you know, a fair amount of coverage of the actions of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces. There were some very brave journalists who went with them to the front lines in Mosul. So there has been a fair amount of coverage.


But when you think of the losses that the Iraqi forces have taken, the funerals, all the—you know, all of that has taken place inside Iraq, and that doesn’t receive as much coverage.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Spelman College.


(Gives queueing instructions.)


Q: Hi. I was—I’m Shadaye (ph) from Spelman College.


And I was wondering. The U.S. supports the unification of Iraq. But do you think that the Kurds having their own state will further dismantle or weaken the Iraqi state, Iraq?


SKY: The Kurds are in Turkey, inside Syria, in Iraq, and Iran. And even though these borders were set up, again, after the First World War, the nation-states of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran have been very cautious about Kurdish moves for separation and independence. And there’s fear that if the Iraqi Kurds get their state, that the Kurds inside Syria, Turkey, and Iran will then push for secession there. So there is fear that changes in border in one place will affect borders in another.


Inside Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds have never agreed with Baghdad where the boundary of the Kurdistan regional government should be. While it was set as the no-fly zone, that was just a line on the map above a certain parallel. And after the overthrow of Saddam, the Kurds have extended their territory down. But when they took Kirkuk, that seemed to be a step too far for the Iraqi government.


The United Nations at one stage tried to mediate between the central government and the Kurds about where that boundary should be between Kurdistan and Baghdad. That mediation has never been completed. So it’s not—you know, the Kurds of Iraq want independence. That is very clear. But Baghdad, other countries in the region and internationally, are not supportive of Kurdish independence because of the fear that it will not bring more stability but, in fact, could create more instability in the region.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.


SKY: So they’re sitting in Saudi in the sun while we’re freezing on the East Coast of America.


Q: Hi. Name is Emil Falata (ph), student from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia.


My question is, what is the role of the U.S.-led international coalition after defeating ISIS?


SKY: I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t know whether it will dissolve or whether it will morph into something else. I know there’s discussions about NATO playing a stronger role for training Iraqi security forces. And I honestly don’t know what the plans are for the coalition against ISIS after the defeat of ISIS.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Spelman College.


Q: Hi. I’m Nayima (ph) from Spelman College.


And I understand that the idea of Kurdish independence in Iraq would be problematic for Kurds in the other surrounding territories. However, my question is, would it be possible for the Iraqi Kurdish territory, or the state that would—if it were to come into fruition, if that could be, like, a refugee of sorts for all Kurds rather than four separate Kurdish nations or having to worry about the issue of Kurds in other places fighting for independence.


SKY: Iraqi Kurdistan has taken in a large number of refugees from Iraq and Syria. So it’s got a large number of Arab refugees inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan at the moment has big political problems of its own. The referendum reveals high levels of dissatisfaction of the Kurdish people with their leaders. They see their political leaders as corrupt and having failed them. And there are big disputes between the Kurdish political parties. So they’re busy competing against each other and competing with Baghdad. And the Kurdish people are getting angrier and angrier.


The economy up there is—you know, is not in a good shape. Their budget comes from a budget transfer from Baghdad. And when relations between Baghdad and the Kurds are tense, Baghdad doesn’t give them their money. Now there are negotiations over what that budget should be. In the past years it’s been 17 percent of the Iraqi budget has gone to Kurdistan. Now the parliament in Baghdad is not prepared to pay 17 percent, so it decreased the amount that they’re discussing.


So there are big problems inside Iraqi Kurdistan, and it has to do with its own problems, really. That has to be the priority.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of New Mexico.


Q: Hello. Can you hear me?


SKY: Yes, I can hear you. Is it warm where you are?


Q: Oh, OK. Yes, a little bit.


First of all, thank you so much for speaking with us, Dr. Sky. It’s been very insightful.


I just wanted to ask your perspective on what you think the primary guiding principle should be for the next U.S. presidential administration, given that, you know, so many foreign-policy mishaps have been made with respect to the Middle East? Thank you.


SKY: There really are no good options. It’s not like there’s a great option that we just keep missing. You know, the problems with the Middle East are problems that are not going to be resolved in the short term. And it’s whether the U.S. can play a role in helping mitigate the issues, in helping set incentives for the problems to be resolved in a peaceful way. And too often in the past what the U.S. has done has made things worse and done a lot of harm.


So the challenge for the next administration is not like, oh, how do we solve this, this, and this, because these problems are not there for the U.S. to solve. They are problems that the people of the region themselves have to solve. But the U.S. has huge amounts of influence.


So can the U.S. be doing more to lessen the power struggle that goes on between Saudi and Iran? The power struggle really dates back to 1979 with the Islamic Revolution in Iran. And it was made much worse by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, because the collapse of Iraq, the weakness of the state of Iraq, has changed the balance of power in Iran’s favor. And this has exacerbated the geopolitical struggle between Saudi and Iran, leading them to support extremists in different countries, which has turned what are local grievances over poor governance into this regional proxy war.


So can the U.S. do more to balance Iran and Saudi? Can it help create a regional security architecture? Can it push forward Israel-Palestine negotiations? Can it do more to help the refugees? These refugees are going to, you know, be very problematic, not only to the region but to the whole world, if they don’t have opportunities for education and jobs, if they have no hope for their future.


So what happens in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East. It comes out of the Middle East. When America shows weakness in the Middle East, it allows a vacuum to appear. And that vacuum is filled by Iran, by Russia. We’ve seen Putin prancing around, exerting power.


So a new or another administration has to think of how these things are all interrelated and what role can the U.S. play in making the problems less bad and pushing them to a resolution, which is going to take a long time—decades, not weeks or months.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.


Q: Hello. This is Mohammed Hazmi (ph) from King Fahd University.


First of all, I would like to thank you for such topic and such seminar, for giving to us. We really appreciate it.


My question is, referring to your point that Saudi Arabia is supporting Yemen and Syria, it was clear and can be observed. However, it’s not for Iraq. I believe almost a year right now the relation between Saudi Arabia and Iraq are being strained. One month from now, Saudi Arabia has supported Iraq with $1.5 billion in international conference for restructuring Iraq.


I need to know your opinion. What do you think about that? Is this really a positive impact for restructuring Iraq in the near future and Saudi and Iraqi relation?


SKY: Yes. You are correct that relations between Saudi and Iraq have—you know, are strengthening. I think after 2003, Saudi just felt that America had given Iraq to Iran on a silver platter and stood back and didn’t do much. Now I think Saudi is looking at how it can help balance Iran by playing a more—a stronger role inside Iraq.


The question is, does Saudi have the capacity, does it have the bandwidth, when it is so busy dealing with what’s going on inside Syria and inside Yemen? So it’s competing against Iran when Iran has a much stronger capacity to project its influence using its military and using its Revolutionary Guards and Quds Force. So Saudi doesn’t have same capacity but is playing or beginning to think of how to play a stronger role in Iraq.


And it will be interesting to see what happens in the Iraqi elections in May, because if the new government is formed, if it is more centralist and tries to balance the U.S. and Iran, then there’s a strong role for Saudi to play. But if the new government’s formed, it’s formed in Tehran, and if it is seen as very close to Tehran, that will make it harder for Saudi to play a role. So it’s interesting to watch what will happen there.


CASA: Thank you, Emma.


I’d like to ask one more question before we close now. I’m afraid we’re running up to the end of our time. Would you be able to say a word on what role you think that U.S. public opinion plays in our government’s actions in Iraq and the region more broadly?


SKY: U.S. public opinion, I think, has a big influence on U.S. foreign policy. And Americans like to win. And when wars go on for so long and there doesn’t seem to be winning, it causes a change in direction. And I think that’s what President Obama picked up on. He picked up on the fact that Americans were tired of being at war, a war they didn’t seem to be winning. And he tried to withdraw or pull the U.S. back from the region.


But when ISIS took over, and when Americans had their heads cut off, there was outrage in the U.S. that pushed Obama to take a more proactive role in the region to push back against ISIS. And public opinion can be very fickle. It can go up and down, just depending on moods and how things are seen to affect Americans.


The Middle East is extremely complex. America’s role in the Middle East is complex and very difficult. So it’s—you know, you really want leadership to get out ahead of public opinion, to have a coherent policy, to have a coherent strategy, and then explain it to the American people. But too often it’s been the other way around, and it’s reactionary to public opinion.


Public opinion is particularly influential on Israel-Palestine, but it has also been influential on the Iraq war.


CASA: Emma, thank you very much for this informative discussion.


And thanks to all of you for your questions and comments.


Our next call will take place on Wednesday, April 11th at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time. Stephen Sestanovich, the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at CFR, and the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, will lead a discussion on Putin and his reelection.


In the meantime, I encourage you to follow CFR Campus on Twitter at @CFR_Campus and visit for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events.


Thank you again for joining us today. We look forward to your continued participation on our calls this spring.



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