Washington seems listless these days when it comes to the Middle East. The Obama administration is in power but doesn't have very clear ideas about how to deal with the region's multiplying difficulties. Those who served under George W. Bush have clearer ideas, but that's a luxury that comes from being out of power.
The American capital maneuvers within the confines of what is politically achievable. Whether you're for or against Barack Obama, you engage him through the agenda set by his administration. That's why one idea remains a blip on Washington's radar screen, precisely because it would represent a radical overhaul of American thinking in the Middle East. The idea is simple: The United States must build a strategic partnership with Iraq, the Arab world's Germany.
Why Germany? Because Iraq sits at the heart of the region, its borders touching three major states that, in one way or another, have caused the US grief in recent years: Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia (albeit for different reasons in Riyadh's case). If you want to contain Iran and retain leverage over Syria, you need to control the Iraqi space. The Gulf states are too weak to stand up to Tehran, too vulnerable to its manipulation. It is pointless for the US to place the burden of an alliance to constrain Iran on their shoulders. Iraq is what American influence in the Gulf is about, but few in Washington will agree.
The Iranians certainly grasped that logic. They have spent years building up networks of relations in Iraq, under the very eyes of the Americans. But there are limits. Ultimately, Iraq's Arab anchor will regain the upper hand, and the recent elections showed this. The Sunnis voted en masse, indicating that they sought to reintegrate into the Iraqi state, while Iran's closest allies did relatively poorly. Tehran has reversed the situation thanks to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's desire to stay in office at all costs, pushing him to fall back on Shiite sectarian solidarity. But all that really tells us is that the US missed an opportunity to press ahead with its own agenda in Iraq.
When Obama looks at Iraq, he sees George W. Bush's war, then calculates domestically. That narrow, parochial assessment is astonishingly petty. Had the president stuck to Bush's 2011 deadline for an Iraqi pullout, he would not have lost much support at home, where Iraq is not an issue anymore. And by avoiding an interim departure this year, Obama would have earned the US more flexibility to shape Iraq's post-election environment in its favor.
Instead, US officials took great pride in saying that they had not interfered in the election process. What, precisely, was the thinking here? That America would be rewarded by some cosmic moral supreme court? That Iran and Syria would gasp at American uprightness and refrain from exploiting Iraq for their own purposes? Does the administration imagine that international politics unfolds like a Frank Capra film, so that like Mr. Smith in Washington the world would dissolve into tears of affection for Mr. Obama in Iraq?
Once the Iraqi elections ended, it was plain what the US should have done, or tried to do. A coalition government between Maliki and the front-runner Ayad Allawi was the right way to go. It would have helped return the Sunnis to Iraqi political life, while profiting from the Shiite split, to Iran's disadvantage. The priority should have been to keep Maliki away from the Iranians, whom the prime minister was never very close to anyway. A shotgun wedding between Maliki and Allawi might have failed, their conflicting ambitions making this difficult. Yet both could have eventually seen an interest in following through, since they would have thus marginalized their communal rivals. Here was a moment when Barack Obama's personal involvement was essential. But what did the US do? Nothing.
Then there is Syria. As the US watches Syria destabilize Iraq (with the silent acquiescence of Saudi Arabia), reimpose its writ in Lebanon while arming Hizbullah, and block any progress on the Palestinian front, it is discovering that it has few means to alter Syrian behavior. But would that have been true had the US been more willing to use its Iraqi allies and its own soldiers in Iraq to remind Syria of its limitations? An Iraq granted a strategic partnership with Washington would not hesitate to play hardball with Syria, particularly when Syria allows Al-Qaeda militants through its borders into Iraq and continues to support Baathists undermining normalization in Baghdad.
The US could turn this situation to its advantage. Instead, last year when Maliki blamed Syria and Baathists for a string of bomb attacks in the Iraqi capital, American officials, fearful that Iraqi-Syrian tension might complicate the American military withdrawal, began leaking that Al-Qaeda had been responsible. This discredited Maliki, but it also failed to answer an obvious question: through which countries has Al-Qaeda financed and replenished its militants in Iraq? Syria has played a preeminent role in that effort.
There are those in Washington who argue, laudably, that the US doesn't do empire - in the Middle East or elsewhere. Iraq was conquered and now the Iraqis must be set free. No one is suggesting the contrary. An American strategic partnership with Iraq would not represent hegemony by Washington. The aim would be to tie America's regional interests to a country that is likely to become the Arab world's future - with its pluralism, its vast oil potential that could serve Iraqi development well, and its desire to function as a normal state, not serve as a playing field for its neighbors.
After having lost over 3,000 soldiers in Iraq; after having presided over an infernal period in the country's history leading to the death of countless more Iraqis, mainly at the hands of groups hostile to Iraq's stabilization; after all this, Washington should be more imaginative about defending its stakes in the region, and Iraq's role in that endeavor. Yet all we see is a race to the exits. This makes you wonder whether the US really seeks to retain its power in the Middle East.
Originally published in www.metransparent.net. Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. His "The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle" (Simon & Schuster) has just been published.