On Iraq, it’s time to call Europe

The US presidential candidates should agree to set up an entirely independent team to canvass European views and share ideas for what do next in Iraq

Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

Condoleeza Rice is in Stockholm today for a UN-sponsored gathering of international luminaries to discuss Iraq’s reconstruction. It’s not easy to get excited about one more conference on the topic.

But the Secretary of State should pay close attention to her European counterparts. For the first time since 2003, a consensus is emerging in the EU on the need to do more for Iraq. There is a risk that the United States will not take advantage of this opportunity.

Previous European efforts to help Iraq have been fragmented and flawed. The 27 EU members combined have offered less aid than Japan alone.

While the Administration initially trumpeted European troop commitments to Iraq, these have faded away or become of marginal utility, like the British troops in Basra.

NATO, once tipped to play a significant role, has confined itself to a 160-strong training mission in Baghdad. The European Commission – the EU’s secretariat – has pledged $1 billion in aid, but its actual presence is limited to a handful of officials, borrowing space in the British embassy. Many European nations have no diplomats in the country at all.

US officials nod to the need for better co-operation with the Europeans. But in contrast to the Administration’s strenuous efforts to get more support from its NATO allies in Afghanistan, there has been little sustained effort to chart a common course on Iraq.

For many EU leaders, discounting Iraq as a domestic liability, that has been just fine. But there is growing awareness that it may not be sustainable. As Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister and war critic, has written, Iraq “has helped give rise to a new Middle East, one which threatens to be more volatile than its predecessor.”

European diplomats have privately admitted for some time that they could not ignore Iraq forever. But in recent weeks, private talk has given way to public statements. A visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Brussels in April proved a catalyst: the European Commission trumpeted its desire for “an energy security partnership” with Baghdad.

Even in those countries that most virulently opposed the war, the mood is changing. French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner has repeatedly stated his desire to do more in Iraq (he is one of the few foreign ministers who has been there).

Getting from private to public statements is a step forward. Shifting from rhetoric to real engagement in Iraq will be an even bigger one.

What such engagement will look like is uncertain but parts of it are clear. More, better-targeted aid? Yes. Assisting UN mediation? Yes. Support for what Barack Obama calls a “diplomatic surge” across the Middle East? Absolutely. New troops? Not a chance.

The challenge for the Europeans is how to align with US policy. They will not follow Washington blindly, but their strategy for Iraq has to fit in with US commitments.

But who on earth can say what these will be a year from now?

Not the current Administration, of course. And with the McCain and Obama camps so far apart on Iraq policy, European leaders don’t know what to base their assumptions on. The momentum for new policies could therefore dissipate before next January as a result.

To avoid wasting the current opportunity, the presidential candidates should agree to set up an entirely independent team to canvass European views and share ideas for what do next in Iraq. It should be charged to report this winter, once the elections are done.

Their findings – a sort of transatlantic Iraq Study Group Report – could prove important part not only to Iraq’s future, but to revitalizing the battered US-European relationship.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Authors

Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow