Who really cares about Iraq’s uncertain future?


The recent conference on Iraq, held in Sharm el-Sheikh, and attended by more than 50 countries representing half of the world’s population, seems at first glance to underscore the “great interest so many countries have displayed” over the future of that torn country. But, perhaps we should lay it on the line and ask, “Who really cares about Iraq itself?” I submit that each nation represented at the conference came not only with its own diagnosis and cure for Iraq, but, even more, because it sought to protect its own national interests. Let’s look at the eight most prominent countries, those with the greatest stake in Iraq, but whose “deep concerns” were nothing more than exploitation of Iraq’s vulnerabilities and resources.

First, the United States: Trapped in a quagmire, damned if it leaves and damned if it stays, the Bush Administration is now desperately seeking a way out that allows it to claim a modicum of success while securing the flow of oil that was and continues to be the main factor in America’s strategic calculus. The Democratic Congress and many Americans, who agree with it, have lost patience with this misadventure and wants America out. Never mind that the war has plunged Iraq into a merciless civil war while unleashing the forces of extremist Muslim radicals committed to fight America and the West literally to death. And it is just too bad for the Iraqis that their country has also become the breeding ground of a new generation of terrorists. The United Kingdom is on the receiving end of the other half of a bad deal. The prospect of gaining anything from Britain’s reckless foray into Iraq has diminished along with the fading star of outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair. The British, who evidently learned nothing from their first occupation of Iraq after World War II, want to bring their troops home. Now, after they helped create the horrendous situation, they are quite ready to leave Iraq and the Iraqis to their own fate. To China, the Middle East is the most fertile ground for the expansion of itsglobal influence. China’s unquenchable thirst for oil and gas to meet the demands of an exploding economy make Iraq and Iran critical to its long-term strategic supplies of energy. With deliberation and sophistication, the Chinese are gradually chipping away at America’s influence in the region, using the Iraqis’ plight and the consequences of the war to their advantage.

Russia is for the Russians who are looking for lucrative oil and gas deals with whichever Iraqi government that can deliver these prizes. The Russians want to recover billions of dollars in contracts they signed with Saddam Hussein that were lost to the war. Russia could not care less whether Iraq is run by a democratic or totalitarian regime and will transact with the devil as long as it can secure its profitable deals while enhancing their regional influence.

To France, the Iraqi tragedy is just an unfortunate episode for the poor Iraqis.

The French salivate over the Bush Administration’s dismal failure but, like the Russians, seek to regain billions in contracts lost with the demise of the Hussein regime.

For Iran, Iraq is the greatest windfall. Not in their wildest dreams could the Iranians have imagined that Iraq, their great and proud enemy, would be handed to them on a silver platter and by their staunch adversary, the United States.

For Tehran, the goal is to exert every ounce of its increasing influence over Iraq’s internal affairs to secure its long-term strategic ambitions.

Saudi Arabia, terrified of Iran’s growing regional influence and the potential of Sunni-Shiite regional conflict, wants to stem the Shiite tide at all cost. Fearing for their very existence, the Saudis seek to empower the Sunni Iraqis in order to decrease the threat of a Shiite-perpetrated genocide, which, from their perspective, is far more plausible once the Americans leave.

For Syria the war in Iraq has only increased its own economic difficulties.

Although there was no love lost between Saddam Hussein and the el Assad regime, extensive trade crossed the borders between the two nations. Syria could benefit again from a stable Iraq and at a minimum repatriate the more than one million Iraqis who have found refuge there. Syria, however, has no incentive to be overly helpful as long as the United States occupies Iraq and threatens regime change in Damascus.

It seems that only the Iraqi people and their government can save Iraq. To do so, they must first accept that there is no military solution and therefore all efforts must be focused on reconciliation, including the following measures: 1) passing an oil law that distributes oil revenues equitably among the Iraqi people, 2) allowing the majority of former Ba’athist members to rejoin the government, which will alleviate the financial plight of millions of Iraqis and dramatically reduce sectarian conflict, 3) establishing a political dialogue with the insurgency with the objective of empowering the Sunnis to create their own entity within a federal system, 4) granting universal amnesty to those who have been involved in unlawful acts of violence, 5) releasing all prisoners except hard-core terrorists, 6) opening up the ranks of internal security and the military forces to Sunni recruits.

It is up to the Iraqis to find the way to live with each other in peace and begin to rebuild their lives and their country. The bitter truth is nobody else really gives a damn.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.