Sorry, Folks: A Formal Alliance with Iraq Is Not the Answer

A proposal for a formal, treaty-based commitment between Washington and Baghdad will run into a big roadblock: popular opinion.

Is it time for a formal, no-holds barred, security-oriented treaty alliance between the United States and Iraq? According to Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, one of the most serious defense analysts around in the think-tank community, the answer is simple: yes. The Iraqi government and the Iraqi army are hurting at a time when ISIL controls roughly one-fourth of the country, and if the country has any chance at moving back onto a solid footing, Baghdad needs all the help it can get. One of the more durable ways that this fantasy can become a reality, O’Hanlon argues, is through a permanent alliance that goes far beyond today’s strategic relationship between Washington and Baghdad.

“With this enduring military relationship—backing up diplomatic and economic ties as well—the United States would be in a position to cajole, persuade and sometimes even pressure Iraqis to do the right thing towards each other. The shenanigans that have characterized the country's last half-decade—including arrest warrants against respected political leaders, pogroms against competent officers in the army and extreme nepotism in the higher ranks of government—would be much harder for Iraqis of ill intent to sustain, and much easier for America to oppose, if the entire relationship were undergirded by a strong and formal alliance relationship. Determining Iraq's political future—including the possibility of some new form of confederal but still cooperative arrangement among Sunnis, Shia and Kurds—would become much easier.”

The idea that O’Hanlon puts forth in these pages is indeed an interesting one—and it happens to be based on some very sound historical evidence of Iraq’s contemporary history.

In 2006, the Iraqi government, its army and its national police force were all laced with sectarianism—the very same element that is dividing millions of Iraqis at the present day. Sunni and Shia militias were battling on the streets of Baghdad on a daily basis; government ministries became sectarian fiefdoms controlled by people directly tied to sectarian death squads; and representatives of Iraq’s Sunni community were either totally shut out from the government or marginalized to perfunctory roles. It wasn’t until the United States adopted a totally new way of prosecuting the war—broadly categorized as a mix counterinsurgency, targeted special forces operations against Al Qaeda forces, and the creation of a grassroots, Sunni-dominated, anti–Al Qaeda resistance movement—did this situation turn around. The security situation improved dramatically, but more importantly, the presence of U.S. troops in the field and the dedication that U.S. commanders exhibited towards the new strategy provided Sunni and Shia politicians with the political courage that was required to begin working together.

This is the backbone of O’Hanlon’s argument: cement a U.S.-Iraqi treaty alliance, and Iraqis like Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and the Sunni tribal figures who are so critical to Iraq’s stability, will find it easier to engage with one another.

Unfortunately, just because the proposal is smart and potentially rewarding in theory, doesn’t mean it’s at all practical. And therein lies the problem with O’Hanlon’s alliance strategy: it would not only be difficult to pass in the U.S. Senate, but it would also be incredibly difficult to assemble the kind of broad, domestic support so crucial to getting the buy-in of the American people.

“Forging an alliance with Iraq will strike many Americans not only as undesirable,” writes O’Hanlon, “given the saga of our nation's last decade in Iraq, but perplexing.” While accurate, this statement is not even close to grasping the bipartisan and widespread negativity that the American people feel towards Iraq as a country. For the majority of Americans, the word “Iraq” is nearly identical with the words “chaos,” “bloodshed” and “quagmire,” and it conjures up a dark reminder of a terrible period in recent U.S. history when thousands of U.S. troops were killed in a war that turned out to be launched on faulty information (not to mention a period that was made worse by the bungling of the Bush administration over the first three and a half years of the conflict).

On the face of it, this may sound like a political or partisan observation. But the legacy of Iraq is still very much ingrained in the psyches of the American public—no more so than in the minds of family members and friends who happened to lose loved ones to the conflict.