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Biden unlikely to turn back in Iraq

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Nov 13, 2020

Biden: “I wasn’t ready to give up on Iraq”

In 2009, soon after taking office, US President Barack Obama said, “Joe will do Iraq.”

Joe, of course, was then Vice President Joe Biden. In his 2017 book “Promise Me, Dad,” Biden, who has traveled to Iraq over 20 times as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and then as vice president, describes Iraq as “arguably the most frustrating issue of my forty-year career in foreign relations,” adding that efforts to promote good governance there have been “time-consuming, draining, and ultimately nearly impossible.”

But Biden never gave up on Iraq then, and he is unlikely to do so as president.

“I wasn’t ready to give up on it,” he continues, describing the US engagement in Iraq as a “noble” cause. “If there was a reasonable chance to get it right in Iraq — for the long term — Beau [Beau Biden, his son, who served in Iraq] believed we should try. We had sacrificed too many good people to give up.”

As we wrote here back in March, Biden’s support for the 2002 Iraq War resolution has been mischaracterized by political opponents as “support” for the war. Biden, along with Republican Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, had weeks earlier offered an alternative resolution to slow down what they saw as a rush to war by the Bush administration. Their legislation failed due to opposition from both Democrats who wanted no part of any resolution on Iraq, and those in the Senate who backed the Bush administration on Iraq.

Biden writes in his 2007 book “Promises to Keep” that he made a mistake in underestimating the disingenuousness and incompetence of President George W. Bush’s war cabinet in planning for postwar Iraq. Unlike those who later pilloried Biden for “backing the Iraq war,” and were content to claim the talking point that they were “right” and then do nothing, Biden got busy. He writes that Bush’s failure in Iraq would be America’s failure, and with men and women in combat, it was time to get to work. He threw himself into trying to make US Iraq policy better through his leadership on the Foreign Relations Committee and then as vice president. 

Hagel: Despite misgivings on war, Biden “took the charge” on Iraq

“Biden’s misgivings about the Iraq war didn’t stop him from trying, in the interests of our country, to reset our Iraq policies after the Bush administration’s disastrous lack of postwar planning,” Hagel, who later served as secretary of defense during the Obama administration, told me. “The US was in Iraq in a big way, our people were dying over there, and a failed Iraq would be a nightmare for US policy in the region. Biden took the charge as Foreign Relations Committee chairman and then as vice president to put us on a better course.”

“I was deeply invested,” Biden wrote in “Promise Me, Dad,” and as vice president oversaw the development of an international coalition and deepening partnership with the Iraqi government to defeat the Islamic State, which overran large swaths of the country in 2014.

At a time when the commentariat in the US and abroad feared an American retrenchment in world affairs, the counter-Islamic State coalition was testimony to America’s continued ability to lead, combining fluid international diplomacy, regional partnerships and seamless coordination between civilian and military leaders. The effort had bipartisan support, across two administrations, and was an unqualified success. The US-Iraq partnership emerged even stronger because of it, and now Biden is ramping up to engage Iraq again, this time as commander in chief.

In “Promises to Keep,” Biden discusses the importance of travel and personal relationships in foreign affairs, and it shows in his approach to Iraq.  As vice president, he made more calls to Iraqi leaders in one year than he did to any other country.

“It’s important to read the reports and listen to the experts; more important is being able to read people in power,” he wrote. “Listening closely to these leaders has been an incredible window into the personal intimacy of diplomacy.”

Biden, who has in the past advocated a decentralized federal approach to Iraqi governance, knows the challenges Iraq faces and, given his investment in the country over his career, seems unlikely to let Iraq policy drift on his watch.

Iraqi President Barham Salih referred to Biden as a “friend and trusted partner in the cause of building a better Iraq,” and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi expressed a desire to work with him “on strengthening the strategic ties that bind Iraq and the United States, building on common values between our nations to overcome challenges together,” as Ali Mamouri reports.

“Biden knows Iraq, and its leaders, as well or better than just about anyone in government,” said Hagel. “I expect he will remain committed to working with Iraqi President Salih and Prime Minister Kadhimi to deepen the US-Iraq partnership.”

US-Iraq ties ready for another new chapter

Iraq is counting on the backing of US and international partners to support its reform initiatives.  

We characterized Kadhimi’s visit to Washington for the US-Iraq strategic dialogue in August as a “new chapter” in US-Iraq relations. France is working with the UN to bolster Iraq’s electoral commission, which is vital to implementing a new electoral law in preparation for elections planned for June 2021, as Omar Sattar reports. Salam Zidane writes that the Iraq Economic Contact Group, established last month — including the Group of Seven countries, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Iraqi Finance Ministry, the Central Bank of Iraq and the Finance Committee — reflects a giant step for assistance to help steady Iraq’s fragile economy. Mustafa Saadoun reports on progress in Iraq-Saudi Arabia relations, a priority for Kahdimi and the United States, despite opposition from some political quarters aligned with Iran.

The Islamic State is still a threat, as are Iran-backed militias who have sought to undercut Kahdimi’s reforms and attack the US Embassy and personnel in the country. According to James Jeffrey, the outgoing US envoy for Syria,  the US threat to abandon the US Embassy in Baghdad is “ongoing,” if Iran-backed Iraqi militias resume their attacks, as we report here. On Nov. 8, 11 people were killed and eight wounded in a shootout between the Iraqi military and suspected Islamic State militants southwest of Baghdad, as we report here, the largest such attack by IS in months. Iraq’s economy remains in crisis, suffering with others in the region from low oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic, which have contributed to increases in drug abuse and smuggling, as Adnan Abu Zeed reports.

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