The current crisis in Iraq, like so many other crises before it, has demonstrated European governments’ lack of strategic foresight. As Julien Barnes-Dacey noted earlier this month, the EU’s members ignored the growing power of ISIS in Syria and Iraq for too long, even though “the warning signs were flashing brightly.” They were not alone: the U.S. also downplayed the rising threat. But it is worth asking if European governments could have been better prepared for the Iraqi horror show.
Only a few politicians dared suggest that the EU had any long-term interest in Iraq.
Iraq has been a low priority for most European officials and security analysts for some years. Memories of the EU’s divisions over the 2003 invasion cast a very long shadow (most foreign policy pundits said something more or less foolish about the war that they’d rather forget) and events elsewhere in the Arab world have dominated the headlines. Only a few politicians dared suggest that the EU had any long-term interest in Iraq. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt was one. Leading German Green politician Cem Özdemir and former Bulgarian foreign minister Nickolay Mladenov were also honorable exceptions. Continuing his commitment, Mladenov is now out on the frontline as the head of UN Assistance Mission in Iraq.
Only a minority of foreign policy analysts argued that Europe should not give up on Iraq completely. Richard Youngs and Ed Burke, both formerly of FRIDE in Madrid, were good examples. “The EU continues to lack presence, purpose and vision in Iraq,” Burke lamented in 2010. “Its political influence is practically non-existent.”
What about ECFR? In our early days, we did not have our excellent Middle East and North Africa program to draw upon. But we did occasionally speak up about the need for Europe to help Iraq achieve a stable future. Daniel Korski (who had served in Basra before joining ECFR) and I argued in Europe’s World in 2009 that the EU should establish a long-term presence in Baghdad including up to 200 civilian security specialists and police and military trainers, led by a high-profile EU Special Representative (EUSR). Such a mission could have bolstered the security sector, coordinated European aid efforts and kept a watchful eye out for looming crises.
There is no reason to suppose that the Iraqi government would have taken additional European advisors seriously.
The EU maintained a rule of law mission in Iraq until the end of last year, but it was on a far smaller scale, with just over 50 international staff on the ground at most. To be honest, I am not sure that even the supersized EU mission Daniel and I proposed could really have made a huge difference, given the failure of far more extensive American efforts to build a credible Iraqi military. There is no reason to suppose that the Iraqi government would have taken additional European advisors seriously.
But our broader point – that the EU needed to invest in long-term conflict prevention strategies for Iraq – has been fully justified by recent events. Looking back through ECFR’s early opinion pieces, I find that I wrote this in January 2008:
You can pull out of Iraq, but you can't make the problem go away. Unless the international community can find a medium-term strategy to build on the relative calm brought by the [U.S. military] surge, Iraq will deteriorate back into violence before long, destabilizing the Middle East. The strategic consequences for Europe would be gigantic. Endemic instability in Iraq would reduce the chances of a diplomatic settlement with Iran, and cause Turkey to worry even more about Kurdish separatism than it does already – and concomitantly less about the domestic reform processes bringing it closer to the EU.
Efforts to create an effective EU energy security policy would be severely complicated by questions over the future of Middle Eastern oil supplies. The growing European investment in state-building in Lebanon and Palestine would be at the mercy of regional forces. And while it's hard to predict the implications for terrorism in Europe, it's also rather hard to ignore them.
Pretty much all of these predictions stand up to scrutiny today, even if I failed to foresee events in Syria. This is not a source of great comfort. But if the US and its allies manage to bring the current threat from ISIS under control, European policy-makers will have to start thinking anew about long-term strategies for rebuilding security in Iraq. We must hope that the EU’s leaders do not flunk this test again.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.