As for Iraq’s neighbours Obama is focusing his attention on an alliance with a more open and stable Turkey, without neglecting this country’s Kurdish question, which Obama wants solved in a peaceful way and with reforms in favour of Kurds.
Indeed for the first time a US president has met the leader of the Kurdish-based Democratic Society Party (DTP), sending a strong signal to the Turkish armed forces and Turkey’s AKP government that they should find a solution to the Kurdish problem whilst protecting Turkey’s territorial integrity. Once the issue is out of the way, Turkey can rightfully claim its place as a modern Western state.
Iranian threat: war or diplomacy?
The other hot issue in the Middle East is the security threat to Israel and US interests posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Obama said he wanted to pursue a policy of dialogue with this country in order to convince its leaders to stop their military nuclear programme.
No solution has yet to emerge though. Iran insists that its programme is peaceful and the West and Israel are continuing to put pressure. Either they impose more economic and diplomatic sanctions or go for a second option, which is military.
The latter still seems to be on the table, but no one wants to take responsibility for it. Why? First of all because, if it involved limited strikes, it would not have the desired effect; and secondly, because a full blown war would have worldwide catastrophic consequences given Iran’s influence and strategic location.
We must also bear in mind that Western military forces are spread across various theatres of operation and that the current economic crisis could cause the world’s economic system to collapse. If the Strait of Hormuz were ever to be closed, the Persian Gulf would be choked off and oil prices would hit the roof.
Obama’s ‘surprise’ visit to Iraq: democracy and economic development
Now to Iraq. President Obama organised his trip to Iraq and Turkey very well. Iraqi authorities were told ahead of time of his visit and the US Embassy in Baghdad requested a meeting between President Obama and Iraq’s official authorities as well as those of the Kurdistan region.
Meetings with President Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki were set up. A meeting with Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani and his prime minister, both of whom came to Baghdad for the occasion, was also organised.
President Obama expressed his support for and commitment to democracy in Iraq and its constitution (drafted by an elected assembly and adopted by 80 per cent of the electorate).
Kurds are demanding that the constitution be implemented since it calls for a broad autonomy to be granted to Kurdistan, the return of Arabised regions [under Saddam’s regime] to the jurisdiction of the government of Kurdistan and an end to the policy of ethnic cleansing (carried out by Baghdad between 1968 and 2003).
President Obama seems interested in protecting what the United States has achieved in Iraq: a certain economic and cultural development and especially significant progress in terms of public liberties.
Once the average wage in Iraq was 3 dollars a month; now it is around 900. Today more than 700 publications exist compared to eight Saddam-controlled papers and magazines published before. Now we have more than 30 TV stations against three under Saddam.
One sore point remains, and that is security, which is still fragile. If the US pulls out too quickly it could cause chaos, especially because of the lack of regional support for Iraq, its ethno-religious diversity and its great wealth in oil and gas.
Iraq: a bridge between West and East, a crucial factor in regional stability
Iraq will continue to be important to President Obama because of its strategic position in relation to the three continents of the Old World and as a crossroad between the Persian, Turkish and Arab world. Plus Iraq’s Kurdish component brings it closer to countries with an important Kurdish population.
If Iraq, which is at the core of an axis that contains 80 per cent of the world oil and gas reserves, becomes a democracy and remains close to the West, this could be a great asset for the United States in the coming decades. It would be the only country with an important role in the whole Middle East.
The role and influence of America’s other allies is limited. First of all, Israel is almost totally isolated and cannot play any really positive role to restore the image of the United States. Saudi Arabia’s role is limited to its oil. Egypt is losing ground, especially at the cultural and diplomatic levels. For its part Turkey cannot be the expected bridge between East and West because it is trying so hard to stay out of the East whilst at the same failing to become fully integrated into the West for obvious reasons. Anyway its influence is very limited in the Arab world and Iran.
Multiculturalism: a resource for the new Iraq
Geographically Iraq is in the middle of the Middle East. It is home to Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and members of other religions. It is constituted by Arabs, Kurds, Assyro-Chaldeans, Turkmen, Armenians, Persians, etc. And it has developed religious, political, ethnic and economic ties with all the countries of the region. It has huge natural resources and many cadres and specialists in every domain.
As long as it continues to receive Western support and its federal constitution based on a just and permanent division of powers is maintained, it has the bases for sustainable development. Under its federal system each component will have its own institutions and an equal share of the resources within a clear division of power.
This is what the US administration means when it says that it is committed to respecting Iraqis’ will as expressed in their constitution. Defining rights and duties is essential for the future of the region.
* Saywan Barzani is the representative of the Kurdish government in Europe; he is also the nephew of the president of Iraqi Kurdistan.