Since Barack Obama’s victory, foreign policy analysts on both sides of the Atlantic have been busy writing lists of issues they think the US and European governments need to work on. Topping most of these lists are how to tackle NATO’s Afghan mission, instability in Pakistan, growing authoritarianism in Russia, China’s emergence as well as how best way to deal with international terrorism, and climate change. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in late 2008, dealing with the financial crisis has taken centre-stage. As Admiral Dennis Blair, the Obama administration’s Director of National Intelligence, told Congress, the plunging global economy is an even bigger threat to US national security than the al Qaeda terrorist network or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The issue that is rarely mentioned, though it featured heavily in the US presidential campaign and caused the greatest US-European rupture in decades, is Iraq. With so many other issues needing urgent trans-Atlantic attention, how to deal with Iraq seems to have slipped off the radar. In part, this is the price of success. Iraq is experiencing a prolonged period of calm: violence has plummeted to historically low levels, provincial polls were carried out successfully and the Iraqi government is turning its attention towards issues relating to economic development.
Yet it is precisely now that the US and Europe need to come together over Iraq. For Iraq still faces daunting challenges. The drawdown of US forces will have both positive and negative impacts on developments inside Iraq and the role played by its neighbors. One risk is that a withdrawal will encourage Iraqi factions anticipating a power vacuum to seek local solutions – and external aid – which could intensify sectarian violence and even intra-sectarian competition. Even with violence at a historical low, the humanitarian situation inside and outside Iraq has become appalling.
In a new article, published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Richard Gowan and I argue that though relations between the EU and Iraq have normalized over the last couple of years, this is not enough. First of all, stepping up the EU’s engagement will be in the EU’s interest. For students of EU public policy, the bloc’s reaction during and after the Iraq War represent the same story of impotence that has historically plagued the EU when trying to speak with a single voice. Showing that it is capable of dealing with Iraq will be key to regain the bloc’s foreign policy ambitions.
More practically, instability in Iraq would likely hurt a number of the EU’s strategic interests. It would likely cause Turkey to worry even more about Kurdish separatism than it does already – and less about the domestic reform processes bringing it closer to the EU. Instability in Iraq would also hamper the EU’s drive to secure its energy needs. The summer’s conflict in Georgia and the recent Ukraine-Russian gas feud have exposed the EU’s vulnerability to Russia’s energy production and made the building of strong ties to Iraq – with 10 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves – a key concern. As FRIDE’s Edward Burke notes: “For a Europe short of reliable energy partners, Iraq presents a significant opportunity to ease the strain on supply.” Finally, increased support to Iraq will be needed if the refugee crisis, which has enveloped the broader region, is to be effectively addressed.
A new EU strategy should focus on: entrenching good governance, especially in the security sector; and investing in a framework for regional stability. Specifically, the EU should strengthen the EU Rule of Law Mission in Iraq, with a particular emphasis on police governance and strategic planning for Iraqi police; Europeanize the existing NATO military/gendarmerie mission in Iraq; and combine these two missions into one European ESDP mission, and add a third pillar dealing with border management and security. A senior EU envoy should be appointed to head this mission as well as an expanded Commission office in Baghdad, as in the case of the joined-up EU missions in Skopje, FYROM.
Policies focused on Iraq need to be complimented by regional initiatives. The EU should invite the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) heads of state and Iraqi leaders to a summit, appoint a second European envoy to pursue regional diplomacy with the GCC and offer the Gulf states – as well as Iraq – a regional security process based on the Security Pact model in the Balkans. This process should focus attention on border security and maritime security, aiming to develop regional security concepts on both – potentially as the basis for a new “Gulf Conflict Prevention Center.”
Renewed instability in Iraq would hurt the EU in a number of ways and the risk should stimulate greater EU engagement there. Europe cannot replace the US in the Gulf; but through diplomatic legerdemain, it can help avoid the creation of a dangerous vacuum. With leading French and German politicians visiting Iraq, now is a good time to re-vamp the bloc’s five-year old strategy.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.