As a new US leader makes his way to the White House, the question on most minds in Iraq is: How will the next US administration deal with the huge challenges left behind by President Barack Obama in the war- battered country?
This is especially true in light of Iraq’s dire need for American assistance in its military campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), and the president-elect’s vague vision on Iraq during the run-up to the Oval Office.
In that sense, much will depend on whether Donald Trump, whose presidential campaign was pegged on upending decades-old Washington policies, will initiate drastic changes in the US strategy in Iraq, largely shaped by Obama and his predecessor George W Bush.
During the presidential race, Trump struggled to distance himself from the 2003 war in Iraq launched by Bush (though evidence abounds that he had supported the war). He has also questioned the outcome of the invasion while suggesting he could have done better had he been US president.
Trump’s top priority in Iraq should be working to ensure that Iraq will not fall apart after the battle of Mosul, increasingly seen as a turning point.
The only relevant pledge the New York tycoon-turned-politician made during his largely noisy and politically sour campaign was to step up the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, though he failed to articulate a clear strategy if he wins.
Yet, among all other pressing foreign policy issues, which Trumps should confront when he takes office in January, is Iraq where there are already some 6,000 US forces on the ground engaged in a war that many believe its outcome may be a make or break for the country.
Rhetoric and inconsistency of the campaign aside, there is no question that the US’ new commander-in-chief will face the daunting task of tackling Iraq, which is expected to remain a pillar of Washington’s Middle East strategy and one with significant real-world geopolitical importance.
But while Iraq remains a myriad challenge, the question is how the Trump administration will be realistically engaged there in a way that helps fix Iraq’s troubles that are largely the creation of the US invasion and the consequent policies of the two former administrations.
One may fill a book with the catastrophes both the Bush and the Obama administrations brought upon Iraq. If the stupidty of the invasion and regime change by a foreign power is oblivious, the failure to rebuild a post-Saddam Hussein’s inclusive, fair and stable political system, undisputedly, ranks as America’s top sin in Iraq.
How would Trump approach Iraq’s problems and how much his administration will be involved is not clear, but here is what he must do to deal with the challenges inherited from Obama whose strategy in Iraq was like that of his predecessor: Using military power and avoid all attempts at national reconciliation and nation-building.
The biggest question is what is going to happen to Iraq after retaking Mosul and ISIL’s threat is eradicated. While driving ISIL from the city appears to be all but assured, the biggest threat to Iraq remains the ethnosectarian split, which has shaken the country to the core.
Trump’s top priority in Iraq should be working to ensure that Iraq will not fall apart after the battle of Mosul, increasingly seen as a turning point in view of the conflicting agendas and interests of national and regional stakeholders who have been active in reshaping the geopolitical environment there.
Much of that will depend on whether the Trump administration will be able to work out a constructive policy in Syria and forge a coherent strategy to deal with major regional actors who vie for influence in post-Mosul Iraq, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and also check Kurdish aspirations of independence.
Trump’s other main priority in Iraq must be dealing with the key issue of clearing the mess of a visibly failed state, left over from eight years of US occupation and deep communal divisions that have produced a sectarian-based and dysfunctional governing system.
While the Bush and Obama administrations have ignored nation building in Iraq, which is responsible for much of the country’s disasters, the new administration should capitalise on the liberation of Mosul and the ensuing stabilisation and rebuilding efforts to push for a national settlement in Iraq.
In order to launch a successful state-and nation-building process, Iraq’s communities, political groups and civil society should come up with a historic compromise, or a grand bargain. The new deal should create a cross-national bloc that would agree on a new holistic approach not only to sharing power and wealth, but also to the larger objective of living together in a united, free, democratic, inclusive, and prosperous country.
In recent weeks, the Iraqi National Alliance, the ruling Shia bloc, has endorsed the proposal and presented its own draft for a “national settlement” for debate. The document which the alliance said it will present for national discussions after the liberation of Mosul has been cautiously welcomed by Sunni groups pending negotiations of its details.
The United Nation’s mission in Iraq (UNAMI), mandated to help in national reconciliation, has supported the idea of a “historic compromise” to “promote an inclusive reconciliation process that upholds respect for Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and constitutional order.”
But much of the success of the proposal that should initiate a transition of political rebuilding and reconstruction will depend on support from Washington which had conditioned its help in the war against ISIL to Baghdad’s fostering reconciliation as complementary to the military effort to finish off the group.
Iraq’s invasion and its disastrous aftermath had affected the thinking of the Republican President Bush to the extent that he dumped the occupation on his Democratic successor Obama who himself missed all opportunities to correct the terrible mistakes of his predecessor.
With the humiliating defeat of the powerful Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the election, the danger of course is that Obama will be leaving the unfinished war against ISIL and the quagmire in Iraq to Trump to wrestle with.
History has already made its judgment on Bush and Obama, both seasoned politicians elected with two core mandates, who will be remembered for their catastrophic failure in Iraq.
Will the billionaire property developer, whose victory over the Washington establishment has stunned the world, be able to avoid his two predecessor’s missteps in Iraq by nudging things forward towards this blueprint for a political settlement in the war-torn nation? It remains to be seen.