Shaping the Long Term US-Iraq Relationship
While mainstream media outlets have focused on President Obama’s announcement of the withdrawal of all but 50,000 troops from Iraq, many critical foreign policy questions remain regarding the U.S.-Iraq relationship. First, who will be responsible for oversight of the private security contractors surging into Iraq? Will they be held to the standards of international human rights law or will they be a law unto themselves? Will private contractors be responsible for training Iraqi security forces to respect human rights, as is fitting of a country that aspires to govern by the rule of law, or will they simply train them to the brutal but efficient standards of the Ba'ath Party?
Thus far the Iraqi government has not sufficiently distinguished itself from its predecessors regarding torture and other abuses. As long as the U.S. maintains a training and advisory mission in Iraq it should have high expectations and lead by example. If American business executives and their counterparts in government are willing to operate in Iraq in an environment of impunity, civil society should be prepared to hold them accountable.
Looking beyond the security situation, American citizens should begin to shift their focus from military operations and the Department of Defense to economic and financial negotiations, for which the Department of State has primary responsibility. Business newspapers and journals are important sources of information that grassroots organizations should be increasingly attuned to in order to develop a picture of the foreign investment situation in Iraq.
Iraq will need to significantly boost its oil production and export capacity to support economic development and job creation, which is critical to its long term political stability. No less critical is the Iraqi public’s confidence that it’s elected and appointed officials are maintaining their independence from foreign interests, particularly in relation to the oil sector. Oil revenue comprises roughly 90% of Iraq’s federal budget and two-thirds of its GDP. The oil industry is a symbol of deep national pride that will provoke a violent reaction if foreign powers attempt to gain ownership stakes in it.
It is in the American national interest for Iraq to expand its oil production and export capacity to meet rapidly increasing global demand and the price increases that will accompany it. This does not require international oil companies to gain ownership stakes or contracts enabling them to control production levels however. American citizens should closely monitor the State Department, which has remained opaque on this issue, to ensure that its policies remain independent of oil company objectives. (To give some idea of the lack of transparency in U.S. foreign policy, nearly 18 months ago I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the State Department on its influence over the U.S.-Iraq oil negotiations and have yet to receive a written statement on how far along the request has been processed, notwithstanding multiple inquiries from various congressional staff members.) The IMF should not require Iraq to open its oil industry to foreign ownership as an explicit or implicit pre-condition for continued financial aid, as some media outlets have reported.
Other important sectors that should remain under Iraqi control include its financial and agricultural sectors, its water supply, and other critical public infrastructure. The terms of international financial aid should be closely scrutinized given Iraq’s continued dependence on foreign aid to compensate for budget shortfalls. Members of the Senate and House foreign affairs committees should be held accountable for any onerous strings attached to foreign aid from the U.S. directly or via the IMF and World Bank.
As long as the United States maintains an embassy in Iraq, American officials should advocate just as strongly for labor rights as for free markets. Despite its frequent public advocacy for privatization since 2003, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has been silent on Iraqi labor rights. Iraqi unions are still denied legal recognition by the Iraqi government and union leaders in the oil and electricity sectors in particular have had to deal with harassment in the form of office raids, seizure of communications and financial assets, trumped up criminal charges, forced transfers and physical assaults. U.S. officials are responsible for mediating such disputes in cases where American business interests play a role in exacerbating conflict between unions and Iraqi government officials.
Lastly, the U.S. government has a responsibility to provide long term financial assistance without strings attached to victims of a war that had no basis in international law. This includes, at a minimum, continued direct payments to the families of civilians killed in Iraq, economic aid to stimulate job creation and the resettlement of millions of refugees and internally displaced Iraqis, environmental remediation of areas contaminated by depleted uranium, and forgiveness of all remaining debt incurred under Saddam Hussein or under the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Some members of Congress have indicated an unwillingness to continue this aid, complaining that the U.S. has financial obligations of its own. The failure of U.S. officials to properly oversee our financial system should not be used as an excuse to abandon victims of a criminally negligent occupation however. The United States has a responsibility to Iraq and it should fulfill that responsibility in keeping with our better human nature, if not our public officials’ sense of moral obligation.
T.J. Buonomo is a former Military Intelligence Officer, U.S. Army and President of the Reparations Committee of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which advocates for Iraqi economic sovereignty, human rights, and a long term U.S. financial commitment to Iraq as an acknowledgement of its responsibility to the country.
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