If I was an American voter (and I am not), I would be a single-issue voter. That single issue would be Iraq. Unfortunately for me, and close to 40 million other Iraqis, there are hardly any American voters who would choose Iraq as the single issue that determines how they vote. And while Iraq featured as an issue to consider during the elections in 2004 and 2008, in 2020 it has hardly been referred to on the campaign trail. The one reference made to Iraq by the incumbent President concerns troop withdrawal – linked in with Afghanistan. President Donald Trump promises to reduce American presence in both countries.
Since 1990, Iraq has, in one way or the other, been impacted by which presidential candidate America chooses, the President’s approach to foreign policy and what domestic pressures the commander-in-chief faces that leads to particular foreign policy measures. The re-election of George W Bush in 2004 was, in part, due to his pledge to wage a “war on terror”. In 2008, Barack Obama promised “to end the war”, which effectively meant withdrawing troops from Iraq without really ending the violence there. Both presidents left their marks on Iraq and its trajectory through their foreign policy doctrines. This is less the case during the Trump administration, partly because, 17 years after the war that removed Saddam Hussein, Iraq is less consequential to the United States.
The presidential elections of 2020 will have far-reaching ramifications because of the different approaches of the two candidates. And while American strategic interests will ultimately determine the wide strokes of US foreign policy, whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden wins next month, their approach to Iraq would vary.
Over nearly four years, Mr Trump’s position on Iraq was largely dictated by two strategic interests: defeating ISIS and confronting Iran and its expansionist regional policies. On ISIS, Mr Trump can claim victory with the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and preventing the militant group from holding Iraqi territory anymore. One of the defining factors for Mr Trump’s handling of Iraq, compared to his predecessor, is his administration’s clear understanding of Iran’s role in destabilising the country. While Obama administration officials would often repeat the mantra that Iran has a “natural role in Iraq”, Trump administration officials reject the idea of Iran wielding control over small armies of militias in the country and over-extending its reach in political decision-making in Baghdad.
The decision to target the most high profile Iranian general, Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, in January in Baghdad was part of a wider strategy to curtail Iran’s military activities in the region. Targeted drone strikes have been part of America’s toolkit for some time, but in this case, one was used against a well-known official representing a state. The hit on Suleimani was the clearest signal from the US that it will not continue to appease Iran and its military ambitions in Iraq.
However, that might change if the US ends up with a Biden presidency. Mr Biden and the foreign policy team that worked with him under the Obama administration and on the campaign have had a track record of trying to accommodate Iran. In an op-ed published on CNN.com last month, Mr Biden said “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy”, while promising “if Iran chooses confrontation, I am prepared to defend our vital interests and our troops”. However, Mr Biden does not see Iraq as part of his country’s vital interests.
More importantly, Iraqis are weary of the possibility of a Biden administration due to his historical stance on Iraq. As Senator, Mr Biden advocated for the division of Iraq along crude sectarian and ethnic lines. His proposed “Biden plan”, developed with senior adviser Leslie Gelb, in 2006 proposed a division of Iraq that troubles Iraqis until today. Mr Biden lobbied in Washington and at the UN for the proposal. If he were voted in, Iraqis would be looking for reassurances that he would not try to resuscitate this destructive proposal. Otherwise, militants from a variety of political viewpoints will seek to weaken the Iraqi state and take advantage of the disarray a perception of American support for division could create.
The US elections will impact Iraq one way or the other. Yet, they represent just one of a myriad of factors that will determine the course of 2021, particularly whether the current government can manage the economic crises facing the country. For Iraqis seeking a country that provides prosperity and protection, for those who have not been paid wages in months, for those who have loved ones kidnapped or disappeared and for over a million Iraqis who are internally displaced, US elections hardly make a difference.
The reality is that Iraq will remain in dire straits so long as elections half-way across the world can have such an immediate impact on the country. Foreign interference and influence is a product of a weakened and ineffectual state. What is required is for Iraq’s own political processes and elections to be strengthened and to deliver the change for which so many Iraqis yearn. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi has fulfilled his promise of aiming to hold elections next June. Iraqi ballot boxes, not American ones, must be what determine Iraq’s future. Whoever the American president is by then, he should aim to support the Iraqi state and its institutions as the most effective way forward.
Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief of The National