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What Obama means for Iraq

Zaid Al-Ali
13 November 2008

Barack Obama's victory in the election for the next president of the United States on 4 November 2008 was an undeniable symbol of progress for the entire world, including for the middle east. For months, as the opinion-polls fluctuated and Obama gradually established a perceptible lead, Arab policy- makers as well as the general public refused to believe that a man of African descent could rise to the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth. Such a sentiment in part reflected outdated attitudes that persist in the region, where one of the most common terms used to describe an African is abed (literally, slave).



Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke, to be published in 2009.

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)


In the end, the Arab world's scepticism proved unjustified: Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the successor to George W Bush on 20 January 2009. But a further aspect of its sentiment during the election period and after its outcome was known has been striking: a depressing lack of enthusiasm. Even Beirut, with its cosmopolitan and world-savvy populace, awoke to a vaguely disinterested haze the morning after Obama delivered his victory speech.

Perhaps it is not so surprising: the past few decades of American policy in the middle east, particularly the 2000-08 era, have made Arabs deeply cynical of American foreign policy. Ralph Nader's famous case that there are no Republicans or Democrats, merely "republicrats", has won many new adherents in the region.

Many middle-eastern observers do acknowledge that the past eight years have represented a major deterioration for the region in comparison with the Bill Clinton years, but this is generally attributed to a global shift that has taken place in US foreign policy, or to the US's total surrender to pro-Israel influences and interests. The result is that little or no effort is made to distinguish Republicans from Democrats. Some go even further and echo Dwight D Eisenhower's farewell warning against the "military-industrial complex" and its influence over government. Many argue and firmly believe that it is beyond the capacity of one person, even the president, to decide whether the US should engage or disengage from a war.

That view is very much the product of a sad realisation that things have never been good in the middle east (particularly in Iraq), regardless of who is US president. Iraqis care little that, for example, Republicans have dominated the White House for the past forty years, or that the US's economic policies and standards have regressed significantly under Republican presidents. They are also indifferent to the fact that it was specifically the Republican Party that was responsible for most of the devastating policy decisions that caused their suffering, including the US's support of Iraq during its war with Iran (1980-88), for the devastating onslaught upon the country in 1991, and for the invasion in 2003. For Iraqis, it is the entire American political class that is responsible - and the more the US has involved itself in their country, the worse their situation, regardless of which party is in power.

The rationale for war

The head of state of any nation will always prioritise his or her nation's interests (typically within the context of a set of legal rules), while the interests of other nations remain secondary at best. The question of how a head of state defines what lies within the country's interest is therefore paramount. It might be too much to expect that heads of state, when deciding whether to engage in a conflict, might consider the interests of humanity as a whole; but they should certainly consider the interests of their own citizens.



Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

A Wess Mitchell, "Memo to Obama: a Europe policy 3.0" (11 November 2008)

Anita Inder Singh, "Obama's Afghan challenge" (12 November 2008)


This point carries special weight in the case of the US, in light of its recent disregard for international rules and its unparalleled ability to impose its will internationally. Although Iraqis tend not to believe it, US presidents do not always agree on what is in the interest of their country, nor do they always manage to satisfy whatever interests they prioritise.

The best illustration of this from an Iraqi perspective is George W Bush's decision to invade and occupy their country. The rationale was supposedly a desire to eliminate a potential security threat (Iraq's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction), to spread freedom in Iraq, and (though less explicitly stated) to reimpose American military might in the region in line with the neo-conservative vision of a "new middle east". Thus, the invasion was intended also to catalyse changes in regimes hostile to the US (principally Iran and Syria); the effect would be to make them as well as Iraq pliant to US interests (and not necessarily democratic and free).

It hardly needs emphasising that the Bush administration committed an enormous miscalculation, and proved itself incapable of achieving any of its objectives. The war is now an unequivocal financial catastrophe for the US (its long-term cost will be of the order of $3 trillion); it has led to significant military losses; it has damaged the US's military and symbolic standing in the world; and it has strengthened the hand of al-Qaida, the Taliban and Iran. It is evident that the interests of the Iraqis, who suffered terribly as a result of the invasion, were violated by the US policy; but (in light of the above point about a leader's priorities) there is no discernible link either between any of the Bush administration's ambitions and the interests of US citizens themselves.

The logic of interests

How will Barack Obama's approach differ from that of the neo-conservative cabal? The question can - drawing on the theme of how a leader calculates a country's interest - be broken down into three separate inquiries:


Also in openDemocracy on conflict and politics in Iraq:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Wendell Steavenson, "Afterwards" (12 June 2003)

Fred Halliday, "America and Arabia after Saddam" (13 May 2004)

Omar A Omar, "Kirkuk: microcosm of Iraq" (21 March 2005)

Tareq Y ismael, "The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment" (8 December 2006)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)

Safa A Hussein, "Iraq's political space" (18 February 2008)

Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (19 March 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq, Iran and the United States: problems and prospects" (30 July 2008)

Reidar Visser, "The United States and Iraq: still getting it wrong" (3 October 2008)

* how does Obama define US interests?

* will he take the interests of other nations into account in formulating his foreign policy?

* will he be capable of achieving the objectives that he sets for himself?

Obama, in his first presidential debate with John McCain, explained his reasons for opposing the war in Iraq: "we [did] not know how much it was going to cost, what our exit strategy might be, how it would affect our relationships around the world, and whether our intelligence was sound, but also because we hadn't finished the job in Afghanistan". This echoed the influential speech he delivered at an anti-war rally in Chicago on 2 October 2002, when he also stated that "the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength".

The earlier, pre-war speech showed Obama to be both prescient and penetrating: able to cut through the propaganda on Iraq at a time when much of the Democratic Party and the media were parroting the Republican Party line. At the same time, both his earlier and later statements also reveal a calculating mind that clearly engaged upon a cost-benefit analysis before settling on a position.

For Obama, the war in Iraq shouldn't have taken place - but for reasons other than that it was morally or legally problematic. Rather, the US was unlikely to benefit from the venture, as the political, financial and human costs would be too high in comparison with whatever gains the US would derive. Obama's reasoning suggests that if he had been confident that the Bush administration had worked out a proper exit-strategy, and if the cost involved had in his view been clearly definable and tolerable, then he would have taken a different position.

Did Obama take the interests of Iraqis into account when deciding whether to support the conflict? The answer to this question is important in addressing another: is he the "transformational" figure that some people hope for, who would impose a compassionate foreign policy?

Some of his recent statements paint a mixed picture. The Obama plan for Iraq, posted on his campaign's website, makes a commitment to alleviating the Iraqi refugee crisis, something of a rarity for a major US politician. The plan states: "America has both a moral obligation and a responsibility for security that demands we confront Iraq's humanitarian crisis - more than five million Iraqis are refugees or are displaced inside their own country. [...] [An Obama administration] will provide at least $2 billion to expand services to Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries, and ensure that Iraqis inside their own country can find sanctuary." This is a welcome departure from the Bush administration's almost total indifference to the refugee crisis that it caused almost singlehandedly.

However, during his second presidential debate against McCain, Obama discussed sanctions on Iran and argued: "I have consistently said that, [...] Iran right now imports gasoline, even though it's an oil-producer, because its oil infrastructure has broken down. [If] we can prevent them from importing the gasoline that they need and the refined petroleum products, that starts changing their cost-benefit analysis. That starts putting the squeeze on them."

This outrageous policy, which is tantamount to recommending that the Iranian people be strangled economically, underlines the prism through US politicians view the middle east, in which there is not an Iranian people, but merely a defiant Iran. Obama's statements are particularly disturbing given how devastating the sanctions regime (1990-2003) against Iraq was to its people, and how inefficient it was in pressuring its regime.

His analysis of the status quo in Iraq is equally questionable, even if in part it reflects the constraints of engaging in a presidential election. He has argued: "I think that there's no doubt that the violence is down. I believe that that is a testimony to the troops that were sent and General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated".

What is referred to as a "success" by Obama is much more likely to be the result of a successful campaign to ethnically cleanse Baghdad of one sectarian group by another in 2006-07. A report by the University of California published in September 2008 revealed (through the study of a series of night-time satellite images) that large swathes of Baghdad are completely dark at night as a result of depopulation (and not power-cuts, as the rest of the city continues to shine brightly). It has become politically unpopular in the US and sometimes even regarded as unpatriotic to question the surge or General David Petraeus, but the reality is much more complicated and far bleaker than Obama's statements suggest.

Withdrawal or bust

But if Barack Obama's familiarity with and judgment about Iraq is clearly imperfect, he does understand that the US gains nothing by extending its stay in the country. He also understands that an immediate and unconditional withdrawal is not in his country's interest, and that he must proceed with caution in order to encourage a propitious environment that will allow for a withdrawal. His plan for Iraq seeks to "encourage Iraqis to take the lead in securing their own country and making political compromises, while the responsible pace of redeployment [sixteen months, i.e. by June 2010] called for by the Obama-Biden plan offers more than enough time for Iraqi leaders to get their own house in order".

The fact that Obama accepts that the Iraq war should never have happened, and that it should end as soon as possible, is a large part of what caused so much celebration in the world on 5 November 2008. Some of his supporters have ignored Obama's reasoning and have mistaken him for a dove: but at this stage, all that matters is that he is intent on withdrawing, for whatever reasons. Many Iraqis doubt that there will ever be a withdrawal, based on the assumption that the US is somehow benefitting financially from the occupation (by secretly stealing Iraqi oil or otherwise). The truth however is that Obama has already operated his cost-benefit analysis and decided long ago that the US would be better off if the occupation ended. His convincing victory on 4 November also provided him with the mandate to implement his plan. The emerging question will be whether he can actually manage to withdraw without causing chaos in the country and in the region.

A large majority of Iraqis agree that the US must set a timetable for withdrawal, and there is no question that maintaining the occupation would merely prolong the torment that Iraqis have been living through since 2003. A withdrawal is a necessary prerequisite to stabilising the country, but Obama's task will not be an easy one, as circumstances have changed significantly since he first set out his plan. The Iraqi government has strengthened its hand and may not be interested in compromising with rival groups (many of whom have been severely weakened of late). More importantly, entering into a compromise of this nature will be hard under any circumstances and could easily fail regardless of everyone's best intentions.

The Barack Obama administration will almost certainly amount to a return to the Bill Clinton years, when chauvinistic military adventures were more infrequent and of a lesser scale than they have been since 2000, but during which United States interests were sometimes prioritised over those of weaker and more vulnerable states. For Iraqis, a calculating US president could still represent an improvement over the George W Bush years, assuming that the person doing the maths knows how to add.

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