Rhetoric in foreign affairs
Iraq’s ability to forge an effective foreign policy is once again in question, writes Salah Nasrawi
For much of the last 12 years, Iraq’s diplomacy in the post-Saddam Hussein era has been busy marketing the idea that a “New Iraq” was at peace with its neighbours and harboured no intentions of interfering in their internal affairs.
It was a message which former Kurdish foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari never got tired of taking around while Iraq was gripped in bloody violence that was fuelled in part by its neighbours’ meddling in its domestic affairs.
With a civil war raging, aided by widespread regional turmoil and its neighbours’ rivalry, a new Iraqi foreign minister is now adjusting this indecisive foreign policy into a narrative that Iraq and its neighbours are linked by geography and good neighbourliness whose amity has no end.
Putting Iraq’s past foreign policy blunders and new diplomatic niceties aside, however, the question now is whether such rhetoric is the right foreign policy approach for a country that faces existential challenges, or if is just a hands-off approach that reflects the inability to lay out a precise vision to respond to such threats.
Ever since he was named foreign minister in the national unity government of Shia Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi in September, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari has been trying to reach out to Iraq’s Sunni neighbours whose relations with Baghdad were strained in the years of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s rule.
To that end, Al-Jaafari has been pushing the idea of geographical proximity as a means of improving relations with Iraq’s immediate neighbourhood.
Many of Iraq’s Sunni neighbours had accused Al-Maliki of entertaining sectarian pressures by excluding Iraqi Sunnis from power, while Al-Maliki fired back by blaming them for fuelling the violence by supporting the Sunni insurgency.
Such accusations soured Iraq’s relations with most of its Sunni neighbours and reflected badly on Iraq’s ability to restore security.
Given that he is a self-proclaimed Shia advocate and a former leader of Al-Maliki’s Daawa Party, debate has intensified over the likely direction of the country’s foreign policy under al-Jaafari.
One of his main tasks is to find ways to persuade Iraq’s Sunni neighbours that Iraq’s foreign policy is not governed by his own beliefs or sectarian fixations, but is oriented to meeting the demands of the country’s needs.
Al-Jaafari’s success in leading the country’s diplomacy will be crucial in underpinning the broad international coalition’s fight against the Islamic State (IS), which has seized large chunks of territory in Iraq and declared an Islamic caliphate after a blitz in June.
But while reaching out through conciliatory gestures may help in fence-mending diplomacy, these can blur real foreign policy perspectives and send the wrong messages to the targeted parties. In Iraq and its neighbours’ case, both sides need more tempered diplomacy, not fruitless rhetoric.
During his first tour of neighbouring countries, Al-Jaafari visited Kuwait and Turkey this month, carrying his soft-style diplomacy to them and seeking their backing for Iraq’s new government.
His message was that Iraq and its neighbours should rely on geographical affinities to overcome their differences and reconcile their sometimes conflicting interests.
In Ankara, Al-Jaafari did not stop preaching his notion of “geographical closeness” to the media after each meeting with Turkish leaders. “We are determined to keep relations with Turkey strategic and sustainable like our geography,” he told reporters after talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.
To underline his idea of geographical solidarity, Al-Jaafari, who is known for his flowery language, said that Turkey should work together with Iraq through “mutual interests and solid strategies” to “make our societies and our interests adapted to the respect for this reality”.
The reality, however, is that Turkey nailed its strategic interests to a larger role in regional politics long ago, and it is not likely to be outmaneuvered now by Al-Jaafari’s diplomatic niceties.
There also seemed to be an insufficient response to the deep rifts between Baghdad and Ankara over a host of domestic and regional issues and the turmoil on their borders.
In Kuwait, Al-Jaafari added a historical dimension to his geography-based approach in foreign policy. Again, his logic was oversimplified because it ignored Kuwait’s growing fears of Iraq’s ruinous war and the latter’s potentially devastating impact on the tiny emirate.
Al-Jaafari has been sending out a similar message to Saudi Arabia. “We can’t change our geography,” he said in one of his recent statements about his plans to visit Riyadh. “We are bound with the kingdom by moral and materialistic ties,” he declared.
If all this is meant to be Iraq’s new vigorous diplomacy, it seems to be a very modest approach, if not poor salesmanship in conducting foreign policy with countries that have long been at loggerheads with Iraq over many bilateral and regional issues.
What Al-Jaafari’s diplomatic signalling seems to be ignoring is that since the fall of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, Iraq’s neighbours’ concerns have stemmed largely from who is in a leadership position in Baghdad rather than from simple geopolitics.
The real cause of the worries of these neighbours, notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey, is the Iraqi Shias and their alliance with Iran.
As Iraq’s crisis is increasingly highlighting, there is a need for a new set of arrangements and structures that can deal with the regional issues that are now threatening the collapse of the post-World War I Middle East map. With this in mind, Al-Jaafari’s vision of geographical closeness seems to be nothing but diplomatic talking.
On the other hand, many Iraqis have expressed dismay at Al-Jaafari’s failure to speak out on more pressing issues with Iraq’s neighbours, like terrorists coming across their border or funds sent to IS and other radical groups. They believe that this negligence risks showing weakness by putting diplomatic niceties ahead of strategic concerns.
Indeed, many Iraqis were stunned to hear Al-Jaafari telling reporters in Kuwait that “we cannot judge a country because of one or two terrorist infiltrators.” In addition, some of Al-Jaafari’s statements about the US-led international coalition that is helping in fighting IS have also raised eyebrows.
Since he assumed office he has repeatedly said that the international coalition against IS was not Iraq’s idea. His other assertion has been that the coalition’s military operations should be limited to the airstrikes requested by the Baghdad government. He has also accepted that “Iran is a key player in Iraq.”
While these could be ideas that reflect the stance of the Shia-led government in Baghdad, they cannot amount to a national strategy. Some of the remarks seem to be in sharp contrast with Kurdish and Sunni demands for a larger role for the international coalition in the war, including by sending in combat troops.
Post-Saddam Iraq was born without a foreign policy, and Washington used its diplomatic and political leverage to urge foreign states to recognise the newly US-installed government in order to give it a sort of legitimacy and to reintegrate Iraq into the regional order.
Under Zebari, the Foreign Ministry had difficulties forging a unified national foreign policy as the country’s sectarian and ethnic communities remained split over state and nation building. Meanwhile, Al-Maliki tried to outmaneuver Zebari and put himself in charge of foreign policy.
The Kurdistan region in the north of Iraq established its own diplomatic representative offices abroad, and Zebari was accused of entertaining a Kurdish agenda. Communal leaders and politicians felt free to express opinions or try to influence the formation and execution of foreign policy, and foreign visits and meetings with foreign government officials by Shia and Sunni leaders were routine.
The divide had political, economic and security implications for Iraq’s neighbours and the broader Middle East. Many of the country’s neighbours poked their noses into Iraq’s affairs, and their interference took different forms, including by influencing the composition of the Iraqi leadership. The interference also raised questions about how Iraq’s diplomacy should respond to violations of sovereignty and independence.
There are no documents that provide first-hand knowledge of the basic principles of Iraq’s foreign relations or national security policies since the US-led invasion in 2003. Zebari, who spent nearly nine years in his post, ironed out a foreign policy approach which was largely intended to appease Iraq’s neighbours.
A statement posted on the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Website outlines the goals of Iraq’s foreign policy as “actively and successfully working to protect Iraq’s security and promote stability and preserve the unity and harmony of society and strengthen the foundations of democracy within the framework of sovereignty, unity and equality among all citizens.”
Yet, the document falls short of laying out a solid foreign policy strategy that meets key challenges such as terrorism and foreign interference in Iraq’s affairs. Part of Iraq’s foreign policy failures were due to mismanagement under Zebari, who critics blame for avoiding inter-agency coordination and turning the ministry into a nest of politically appointed diplomats and cronies.
Realising how dysfunctional the Foreign Ministry he had inherited had become, Al-Jaafari is widely expected to overhaul the diplomatic service and reorient the country’s foreign policy strategy.
Coming from outside the foreign service and lacking international-relations expertise, he needs to do a lot of work in redesigning and managing Iraq’s foreign policy not only to boost its regional and international standing, but also and most importantly to meet the country’s existential threats.
But first and foremost he should realise that diplomacy is not merely sound bites. It is instead the full range of practical measures, and public and private debate, that a state can employ to achieve its ends.