Iraq is a Huge Opportunity for Trump by Bartle Bull

February 22, 2017

The Wall Street Journal
Opionion/Commentary

Iraq Is a Huge Opportunity for Trump
Abandoned in 2011, the country had made a remarkable comeback. The U.S. can help it succeed.

By Bartle Bull

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s visit to Iraq on Monday made headlines largely because he reassured the Iraqi people that the U.S. is “not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil.” Meanwhile, as the battle for Mosul continues, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq acknowledged that, while U.S. forces remain in an advise-and-assist role, “we are operating closer and deeper into the Iraqi formation.”

Perhaps because of Iraq’s inclusion in President Trump’s ill-fated immigration order, many Iraqis tend to see him positively, as a strong leader committed to defeating Islamic State. While the Jan. 29 Yemen raid, in which a Navy SEAL was killed, was costly, it showed Mr. Trump is willing to take risks to defeat ISIS in the region. At the same time, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is stepping forward as a figure of real stature: a popular politician, reformer and successful war leader.

Mr. Trump and his advisers must not underestimate Iraq’s importance. The Sunni-Shiite problem, on whose fault-line Iraq sits, is among the most critical U.S. geopolitical challenges since the Cold War. When President Obama took office in 2009, Iraq was one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It was a dedicated U.S. ally at peace with its neighbors, a land of 32 million people under a popular federalist constitution passed by a legitimate parliament. Election after election, Iraqis defied risks to vote in turnouts of 70% or more. Across religious divides more moderate parties consistently dominated.

Mr. Obama’s abandonment of Iraq in 2011 was both military and diplomatic. The first imperative for the Trump administration is to understand what really happened. Staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—once the largest in the world—was halved. U.S. offices around the country were closed. No senior U.S. person with a profile above the technocratic level has been tasked with Iraq since the estimable Ambassador Ryan Crocker left in 2009. Iraqis value being taken seriously, and downgrading them has been far from diplomatic.

My own business in Iraq has provided a worm’s-eye view. We spent almost two years working closely with the Overseas Private Investment Corp.—Uncle Sam’s international lending operation, established to further U.S. foreign-policy goals—to set up a heavy-equipment rental firm in Iraq’s southern oil fields. The Obama administration killed the project due to the diplomatic deprioritization of Iraq.

A far more important cost of America’s diplomatic retreat was the survival for far too long of the premiership of Nouri al-Maliki. His Shiite chauvinism paved the way for the defeated Baathist-Wahhabi insurgency to reinvent itself as Islamic State. Mr. Maliki’s corruption and despotic tendencies badly weakened the ability of Iraq’s army, state and economy to resist the insurgent threat.

Today the U.S. armed presence in Iraq approaches 10,000. Had we left this many troops in country after 2011, they would still be in their air-conditioned bases, quietly guaranteeing the peace as their colleagues do in Korea and Germany, and nobody would have heard of Islamic State.

Instead ISIS rose to cause terrible harm in Iraq and doom Syria’s secular revolution. Now American soldiers are back in Iraq and are fighting in Syria too. Priceless elements of mankind’s cultural heritage have been erased, millions have been killed and displaced, thousands of children and young women remain in sexual slavery, and Russia has a naval base in the Mediterranean.

Yet now Iraq bounces back again, giving Mr. Trump’s team much to work with. The Baghdad stock market is among the best-performing on earth over the past six months, up 48% in U.S. dollar terms. Business in the southern oil fields is surging toward pre-ISIS levels.

Under the worst imaginable provocations—Saddam Hussein, U.S.-led invasion, Sunni insurgency, Iranian death squads, Mr. Maliki’s sectarian misrule, the rise of Islamic State—Iraqi society never descended into widespread violence. Belatedly cajoling the Iraqi political class to dump Mr. Maliki was a rare success for the Obama administration. Mr. Abadi’s leadership is an expression of Iraq’s fundamental pragmatism and tolerance.

Rolling back Islamic State, firing corrupt officials left over from the Maliki era, keeping at bay predatory neighbors like Iran and Turkey, surviving a halving of oil prices at the worst possible time—the soft-spoken Mr. Abadi is developing into an impressive figure.

So how can the Trump administration help Mr. Abadi succeed? The U.S. is already removing the absurd Obama-era restraints upon our forces fighting Islamic State. This should continue, but we need to do a better job supplying the Iraqi military. An arbitrary cap on “boots on the ground” means there are not enough U.S. forces to back up Iraqis in air transport, logistics, emergency medicine and intelligence—all areas where the Iraqis need help.

Iraqis have long relied on the U.S. for their marquee military systems, including the M1A1 Abrams tank, the F-16 fighter and the C-130 transport. But in 2012, when the Obama administration rejected an Iraqi plan to adopt the Apache helicopter, the Iraqis turned to Russia and eventually sealed a $4.2 billion deal. We want Iraq to buy, train and maintain American.

Washington must also make the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad a priority again and work with Iraqis to keep Iran and Mr. Maliki on the sidelines. Federalism, heavily enshrined in the 2005 constitution, is the only way such a country can work; the Sunni areas need more autonomy. Mr. Abadi’s work to bring sectarian militias (including at least 30,000 Sunnis) under the ministerial chain of command deserve support; some of these are blatant Iranian proxies, but Mr. Abadi is not. Kowtowing to the Persians is not a vote-winner in an Arab country.

Any Trump administration détente with Russia should not lead to tolerance for increased Iranian interference in Baghdad. Mr. Abadi’s Iraq is emerging as a player on the global stage. As Russia increases its presence in the Mideast and sells itself as an alternative to the U.S., Iraq is one ally the Trump administration can’t afford to lose.

Mr. Bull is a founder of Northern Gulf Partners, an Iraq-focused investment firm.