Reidar Visser writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
Treaties, Acronyms and Spin-Doctors: The Changing Nature of Imperial Power in Iraq
In the 1920s, during the early days of the Iraqi monarchy, a major bone of contention between King Faisal I and Britain concerned the definition of their bilateral relations. King Faisal objected strongly to the concept of a “British mandate” with its connotations of colonial tutelage; feeling under pressure from Iraqi nationalists he pushed instead for bilateral agreements to be expressed in a series of Anglo-Iraqi treaties where the two countries had the superficial appearance of being more on an equal footing. Faisal eventually got his treaties, but those bilateral pacts – and not least the annexes to them – basically gave Britain what it wanted in Iraq, including permanent air bases and informal influence through advisers that only came to an abrupt end with the collapse of the monarchy in 1958.
In today’s Iraq, the relationship between Western powers, regional players and the Iraqi government seems vastly different. True, in 2008 a bilateral treaty or a so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) was entered into by the United States and Iraq; ever since the SOFA has been portrayed by Washington as a brilliant triumph of American diplomacy against a supposed Iranian desire to immediately evict U.S. forces from Iraq. However, few U.S. government officials have bothered to publicly acknowledge the fact that thanks to pressure from Iraqi parties supported by Iran, the duration of the treaty had been brought down to three years only during the course of the negotiations in 2008 so that all U.S. forces are now required to leave Iraq by 2011. So brilliant, in fact, was the U.S. diplomatic triumph of the SOFA that across Washington there is today consensus that the agreement needs to be renegotiated as a matter of urgency in order to secure a U.S. presence in Iraq beyond 2011!
The latest developments in the longish Iraqi government-formation process just serve to underline how Iraqi parties and their regional partners are increasingly getting what they want in terms of crude power, whereas the United States more and more is finding itself in the same position as King Faisal in the 1920s, with no other option than to spin-doctor treaties and agreements so that they appear more beneficial than they really are. Take the much-touted “power-sharing deal” that was supposedly clinched on 10 November by all the four major winning blocs in the Iraqi parliamentary elections.
The Obama administration has done more than just congratulating the Iraqis on this deal: In its aftermath, officials of the U.S. government went as far as highlighting their own “interference” as a factor that led to the “breakthrough”, even framing it as a supposed triumph over Iranian interests. What these officials failed to mention was that the inclusion of the biggest winner in the March elections, the secular Iraqiyya, was predicated on the formation of a so-called “national council for strategic policies” which does not even exist in the Iraqi constitution or in any Iraqi law. In other words, the whole “deal” is based on the questionable assumption that future legislation on such a council will pass in the Iraqi parliament in a version that is acceptable to Iraqiyya.
As of today there is no more “power-sharing” in Iraq than there was “independence” under Faisal I. In fact, all indications suggest that there is a long way to go before the much-trumpeted council set aside for Iraqiyya even becomes reality. Whereas Iraqiyya is hoping for real influence over decisions affecting key policy areas like defense, internal security and energy, the dominant Shiite Islamist faction are approaching the projected council more as a deliberative think tank. Iraqiyya is talking about “executive power” whereas the Shiite Islamists refer to “advisory power”, arguing that any executive role for the council would upset the distribution of power adopted in the Iraqi constitution in 2005.
In this context, the United States government is doing exactly what King Faisal did in his uneven contest with the British in the 1920s: Resorting to words to mask unpleasant realities. But whereas Faisal remained focused on substituting “treaty” for “mandate”, the Obama administration is using a slightly more sophisticated and multi-faceted approach. In particular, it seems to rely on the copious use of acronyms in its attempt at creating a semblance of coherence in its Iraq policy. The centerpiece of the recent “power-sharing deal” originates from an actual institution called the “political council on national security” that people close to Vice-President Joe Biden identified as the silver bullet for the inclusion of Iraqiyya in the next government last summer. Back then, Ambassador Christopher Hill enthusiastically embraced the acronym PCNS, using this term already in a public briefing on 17 August.
When Iraqiyya concluded they did not like the idea of just reviving the old and dormant security council, the idea was modified to involve the creation of a brand new council, the “national council for strategic policies” instead; U.S. officials and commentators promptly began referring to the NCSP. However, reflecting the continuing ambivalence about the council, some Iraqi politicians have recently begun talking about a “national council for high policies,” again highlighting the abstract and fictional character of the whole council. Perhaps fearing that things will start to unravel, Washington has so far been reluctant to switch to the new acronym NCHP!
So far, the minimal usage of the NCSP acronym beyond pro-American circles highlights the limits of Washington’s power in Iraq. Beyond a few news agencies, the adoption of the new abbreviation has been limited. In Iraq in 2010, local and regional forces are becoming increasingly dominant whereas Western powers are reduced to fidgeting with words and letters.
Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and member of the Gulf Research Unit at the University of Oslo. His latest book, just out, is
A Responsible End: The United States and the Iraq Transition, 2005-2010