Diplomatic Pouch / February 5, 2015
By Larry Luxner
Tumbling oil prices, fractious ethnic divisions and a bruising war against Islamic fanatics threaten Iraqi stability, but Iraq needs the United States to help it win this war.
Lukman Faily, the country’s ambassador to the United States, drove that message home during a Feb. 3 lecture to some 200 students at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
“No other country but the United States has the scope, the military or the history to be able to deal with such a vicious entity as ISIS,” he said. “The U.S. is already involved in the region, and this is important to its own national security, let alone the national security of its strategic partners.”
Faily’s speech came on the same day the self-styled Islamic State released a 22-minute video showing captured Jordanian pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasibah being burned alive.
“ISIS needs to go, because it’s endangering civilizations and taking us back to even pre-Islamic times,” he said. “Can this challenge be addressed by regional players alone? I’m afraid not.”
Faily, 48, took over from Jabir Habib Jabir as Iraq’s ambassador to the United States in July 2013. His appearance at GWU was arranged by political science professor Edward “Skip” Gnehm Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Kuwait.
“The U.S. should play a significant role, at least provide a breathing space in which we as Iraqis can sit down with the Saudis, Kuwaitis and Turks and have a sensible discussion,” said Faily. “Why? Because at this moment in Syria, I don’t see any light at the end of this tunnel. In Iraq, we have already decided that we cannot co-exist with ISIS. We will have that fight with or without U.S. support.”
But significant American military assistance would bring about the defeat of ISIS much more quickly, he said, adding that the Pentagon is much more sensitive to Iraq’s plight than it was in 2003, “when it had an ‘I know better’ attitude.’
At that time, the main U.S. objective was getting rid of Saddam Hussein and replacing his regime with a democracy. That effort cost 4,491 American and at least 134,000 Iraqi lives — and an estimated $1.7 trillion — between 2003 and 2014, when U.S. troops finally left, according to the Costs of War Project by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.
But nation-building takes a lot more than holding free and fair elections.
“If democracy is all about elections, then we are an A-plus democracy. Over the last decade, we’ve had one constitutional ratification, four provisional elections across Iraq and five general elections,” said the ambassador. “However, if a tribal leader asks his people to vote a certain way, or if you vote for a candidate because the color of his eyes means he’s a Kurd, then that’s a work-in-progress democracy. That’s where we are now.”
Faily said 85 percent of Iraq’s revenue comes from oil exports, so the recent dramatic drop in oil prices has forced drastic budget cuts, “all while we’re fighting a war with an enemy which has no rules of engagement.”
Iraq is now adding more new oil to global markets than any other supplier in OPEC in order to boost exports of crude to compensate for falling prices. An accord signed in January between Iraq’s federal government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region will increase those petroleum exports by more than 550,000 barrels a day, according to Bloomberg News.
Iraq — OPEC’s second-largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia — is already pumping a record four million barrels daily, Oil Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said Jan. 19.
Late last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said government revenue lost due to the decline in global oil prices may hinder Iraq’s ability to conduct its fight against Islamic State, saying the drop has been “disastrous” for Iraq. For this reason, the government in Baghdad is considering the possibility of buying necessary weapons and munitions while deferring payment until petroleum prices recover.
“Without addressing Syria, there can be no long-lasting stability in Iraq,” Faily said. “Syria is a complicated problem, but it’s not that much different than Iraq. However, we have oil wealth to be able to buy ourselves out of some of our problems. Syria doesn’t have that.”
In the long run, he suggested, this might actually be a blessing in disguise.
“Overdependence on oil is not the way out of this,” he said. “Historically, Iraq was the breadbasket of the region. We need to get out of our comfort zone and develop our country.”