Election Day 2012 is drawing closer here in the United States and this month showcases the presidential debates. These debates are meant to display the two distinct views and policies of the candidates. Iraq did not come up during the domestic policy debate, but it did during the VP debate and could be raised again during the “Town Hall” style debate and the foreign policy debate.
Iraq has largely vanished from both the media and the campaign trail outside of the occasional soundbite from President Obama concerning the final withdrawal of forces in December of 2011. Nestled between Syria and Iran, Iraq is still of great importance to US policy and the global community. While much of the American media has turned to focus on the presidential race in the US, what has been happening in Iraq? A story coming out of Iraq is the ongoing political turmoil along ever increasing sectarian lines. This is a macro view of the ongoing fragile nature of Iraq’s democracy. Institutions remain weak and politicians seek to take advantage of both US troop withdrawals and sectarian spill over from Syria and other uprisings into the region. This political maneuvering could be seen as simply local politics leading up to the 2014 parliamentary elections. But, a report from the International Crisis Group in July saw something deeper and more concerning:
Every two years or so, the political class experiences a prolonged stalemate; just as regularly, it is overcome. So, one might think, it will be this time around. But look closer and the picture changes. The tug of war over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s second term suggests something far worse: that a badly conceived, deeply flawed political process has turned into a chronic crisis that could bring down the existing political structure.
The most glaring example is the death sentence for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. A member of the mostly Sunni Al-Iraqiya bloc, Hashemi was sentenced in absentia for directing death squads. This renewed friction comes at a time of rising violence in the streets. There is some debate over the severity of the body count with Reuters citing September as the bloodiest month in two years, while others see it as remaining level using data from non-Iraqi ministry sources. Either way, Baghdad is a dangerous place to be.
America should keep its eyes on Iraq not just because of the legacy of war that remains, threatening the fragile democracy, but for the regional implications. With Iraqi oil output poised to go through a sizable upswing, it is important to pay attention to the players making a move. China will undoubtedly continue to make its way to the table as well as Russia, who is moving to replace Exxon in West Qurna. Russia is also moving in big with a nearly $5bn arms deal, something Russia believed would never happen after the U.S. removed Saddam.
The events surrounding Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, are obvious concerns to general US interests. The main UN Security Council opponents to action on both issues and Iran itself, whose planes believed to be shipping weapons to Syria are starting to be inspected after pressure from Washington, are making ever increasing inroads into Iraq. This makes Iraq a geopolitical focal point.
The candidates will debate next week about what matters most in foreign policy for America. One side may argue that the violence uptick since American troops withdrew shows that the exit was too from Iraq. The other is just glad to be out of the conflict. No matter which side of the issues you come down on, what matters is Iraq itself. It remains a principal player in the region. Our political battle in the US continues, but meanwhile in Iraq a real battle for the future of Iraqi democracy wages on.