Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Preventing Renewed Violence in Iraq

by Micah Zenko
August 14, 2012

An Iraqi soldier stands guard near the Syrian border (Saad Shalash/Courtesy Reuters). An Iraqi soldier stands guard near the Syrian border (Saad Shalash/Courtesy Reuters).


As the civil war in Syria intensifies and forecasts of an Israeli strike on Iran mount (yet again), it would be an understatement to say that the Obama administration’s Middle East team is perpetually working overtime. And yet, sandwiched between Syria and Iran brims another potential flashpoint that the United States cannot afford to ignore: Iraq. Conflict in Syria or Iran could “bleed over into Iraq,” warns former National Security Council staffer Douglas Ollivant in a new Center for Preventive Action Contingency Planning Memorandum. Political instability in the Middle East is just one of the drivers that could spark ethno-sectarian violence and a breakdown in constitutional order in Iraq.

There is little the Obama administration can do to affect events on the ground in Iraq, nor is there much enthusiasm in Baghdad for greater U.S. involvement in its internal affairs. American influence in Iraq has hit a nadir since U.S. troops left the country after December 2011. And this year, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad downsized as a result of Iraqi “disinterest.”

Ollivant, however, argues that American hands are not completely tied. First, he contends that the United States should back quiet efforts undertaken by the United Nations to mitigate internal disputes between actors like Baghdad and the Kurdish government in Irbil. At the same time, promoting stronger regional ties with Turkey and the Arab League could also reduce internal ethnic tensions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the United States should respect the Iraqi electoral process and support a new government if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—widely perceived as the “U.S. guy” in Iraq—is unseated.

The United States has invested 4,486 lives and upwards of $800 billion in Iraq, and its assistance eventually helped put the country on a more stable, albeit tenuous, trajectory. As Ollivant notes, violence is at its lowest point since the U.S. invasion in 2003, oil production is on the upswing, and the government is rebuilding critical infrastructure. It is far too soon, however, to consider that investment secure, and the United States should undertake such common-sense steps to promote a more stable Iraq.

Read the full Contingency Planning Memorandum, “Renewed Violence in Iraq.”

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Josh

    “Nouri al-Maliki—widely perceived as the “U.S. guy” in Iraq—is unseated.”

    Please feel free to correct me if I am wrong, but I would assert that Maliki is Anti-American and Pro-Iranian. Not only did he spend many years living in exhile in Iran during the Saddam era, but he has close relationships with shia clerics such as ayatollah sustani and the infamous muqtada al-sadr. I would think this aligns him more closely with Iran than the USA.

    Mr. Zenko I am surprised you would make this claim given the extensive evidence pointing to the contrary. I would ask that you make a correction; either prove me wrong or admit you made an error in this characterization of Maliki as pro-US.

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