Hey Washington, it’s a new century in the area
If its relations with Iraq are an example, American policy toward the Middle East region has not adapted to the greatest problems of the 21st century.
For example, Barbara Leaf, an esteemed former colleague, is the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, the main person responsible for day-to-day relations with the states of the region and a diplomat with particular experience of the Iraqi file. Three weeks ago, she met with Iraq’s president, prime minister and speaker of parliament, and a public statement from the State Department noted that she had discussed Iraq’s political crisis and regional security.
Two weeks ago, Deputy Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallender met in Baghdad with the Minister of Defense, the National Security Advisor and the Commander of the Army to discuss military cooperation and the fight against Daesh.
And Brett McGurk, the top Middle East policy official in the Biden administration, met with Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein in New York on Sept. 21 to discuss military and security relations and regional stability.
Thus, these three senior US officials spent most, if not most, of their time with Iraqi colleagues discussing Iraqi and regional political issues and the fight against terrorism. These are the same topics the Americans have been working on with the Iraqis for 15 years.
In the summer and fall of 2022, would we say that counterterrorism and regional politics are the biggest issues driving Iraqis crazy? Iraqi analysts point to electricity shortages during the summer, poor water services and corruption encouraging Iraqis to take to the streets. Of course, another year of drought and rising temperatures linked to climate change is another huge problem.
Climate change will hit the Middle East hard, like Iraq. How is a US military adviser going to solve the problem of families being forced out of homes where there was agriculture for thousands of years?
But in September meetings, US officials in Iraq said little about infrastructure, curbing corruption and limiting the adverse effects of climate change and water shortages. No senior official has met with the Iraqi Minister of Water or the head of the Anti-Corruption Agency.
Of course, Washington cannot solve Iraq’s problems; our experience of the war years should make us humble. Moreover, we have our own corruption problems; America’s position on Transparency International in 2021 was the lowest since 2012. And if you see the horrific wildfires in California and Oregon and the growing problem of water scarcity in the American West, it’s obvious that we cannot solve all climate change. problems in the United States, and certainly not in the Middle East and North Africa.
Nevertheless, there are lessons we have learned. For example, cities in the dry American West like Las Vegas and San Diego have significantly reduced their per capita water consumption over the past two decades. Additionally, the central government’s management of water resources like the Colorado River has delayed the worst impacts and given us more time to find solutions. America could share its experiences more widely with governments and experts in the region who need practical ideas. More importantly, senior US officials do not emphasize issues such as these as top priorities in their meetings.
American support for education must be part of a new approach, and I commend Barbara Leaf for visiting the new American University in Baghdad. Washington gives about $15 million a year to help universities using an American system in Iraq. US military support for Iraq is more than two hundred times that amount. And Washington plans this year to cut funding for some of the rule of law programs that help Iraqis try to find solutions to corruption. These are examples of how Washington is still focused on security and counterterrorism approaches in the region.
The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources has signed a short agreement with the US Agency for International Development to help deal with water shortages, but funds and experts are also small compared to our military support. The Development Agency needs more experts, managers and funding. It’s not like the Pentagon’s many employees and funding. For example, the key official to manage new initiatives would be the Assistant Administrator for the Near East at the US Agency for International Development; the position is the equivalent of Barbara Leaf on the development side. The Senate has blocked the Biden administration nominee for more than a year. The Pentagon enjoys broad political support in Washington, but the Development Agency does not.
One way to convince Washington to start changing direction is for Middle East officials to pressure Washington to adjust its focus from its focus on military and security issues to urging the place as much cooperation as possible on growing issues that Washington largely ignores but hurt citizens in the region on a daily basis.