As the New York Times reports, Iraq is preparing to re-enter the world of Arab diplomacy by hosting this week’s Arab League meeting in Baghdad. It is the first major international gathering in Baghdad in many years; Saddam Hussein had been ostracized in the Arab world since his invasion of Kuwait.Iraq has a lot riding on a successful debut in inter-Arab diplomacy. As the Times reports, it has been working overtime to repair its relations with Sunni Arab states — including settling reparations and damage claims with Kuwait dating back to Saddam’s invasion.Iraq is in a weird spot. As an Arab country, its natural tendency is to look westward, to Jordan, Syria, the Gulf and to Egypt and beyond. But those are Sunni majority countries for the most part, and sectarian tension, always a factor in the Middle East is running wild.As a majority Shiite country, Iraq is drawn towards Iran, but there are problems with that as well. Especially with Iraq as weak and as violent as it now is, it is hard to have a relationship of equals with Iran. And getting too close to Iran risks entangling Iraq in Iran’s problems with the rest of the worldThe combination of regional isolation and internal instability is not a happy one. At the moment the Saudis and the Iranians are pretty much openly arming and supplying various militias and other groups inside Iraq; the Kurds in the north continue pushing for more territory and more autonomy.Iraq would like to carve out some independent space. As an Arab state, it doesn’t want to be too closely linked to Iran. As a Shiite majority country, it doesn’t want to embrace the stale old Sunni pan-Arab ideology and identity of the past. It wants to be an independent agent in a diverse and pluralistic Middle East, one oil exporting power among many, secure within its frontiers and using its political and financial resources to promote its own unique vision of what the region should be like.This is exactly what the United States would like to see Iraq doing. We don’t want either the Shiites or the Sunni, the Arabs or the Persians (or for that matter the Turks) to control the whole Middle East. We would like all the region’s peoples and faiths to be secure and to be free — if only because that outcome meshes so well with our own interest in seeing no single power become dominant in this vital world region.The US and Iraq have issues with one another, but an important reality about the new Middle East is that our strategic interests are aligned. We want a strong, independent Iraq that makes its presence felt in regional politics; as it happens, we are the only major power that has this strategic community of interest with Iraq. That shared strategic interest, plus the strong personal and professional links that developed between Iraqi and US officers during the war, will help shape the future of the region.Iraq is not about to become the democratic paradise that some hoped to see after the US invasion, but a free and independent Iraq asserting its own complex identity in Middle East politics remains a major strategic asset for the US. It is good news that the Arabs are meeting in Baghdad.
New Natural US Strategic Partner in Middle East? Iraq