SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq—What does the end of American leadership in the Middle East look like?
There’s no better place to find out these days than Iraqi Kurdistan, which is, by any measure, one of the most pro-American places in the world.
Kurdistan wouldn’t exist in anything like its current form if not for the intervention of successive American presidents going back to George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who insisted on protecting the enclave from Saddam Hussein. George W. Bush may be disdained as an occupier elsewhere in Iraq, but he is remembered here as a “liberator” and a “hero” for toppling Hussein, as nearly everyone with whom I spoke here reminds me. And just a couple hours away, in the raging battle to retake the strategic city of Mosul from the terrors of the Islamic State, the fight wouldn’t be possible without assistance from hundreds of American advisers on the ground and pilots in the air.
So it’s no accident that when Barham Salih, the polished and urbane pol who previously served as deputy prime minister of Iraq and prime minister of the Kurdish regional republic, gathers the Iraqi political class every year for a Western-style conference on their troubled country’s future, he invites them to the American University he helped found in Sulaymaniyah.
But this year America was scarcely in evidence at Salih’s annual forum, except as a subject of nervous speculation and Trump White House Kremlinology. President Trump has talked a lot about defeating the Islamic State but done virtually nothing to address Iraq itself, except to lump it in with other suspect states in a temporary travel ban, a move he ultimately reversed amid protests from his own commanders, who objected to treating an ally with the back of the hand.
So while Iraq’s political class wonders what, if anything, Trump now has in mind for their unsettled nation, they are preparing for a coming crisis that may be every bit as serious as the military battle against the Islamic State they finally look to be on the verge of winning.
Because 14 years after Bush’s invasion, Iraq’s future—and that of independence-aspiring Kurdistan along with it—is very much in doubt. The rise of the Islamic State triggered not only a new civil war and refugee catastrophe but also a spiraling economic crisis at just the moment when the oil prices upon which Iraq depends for virtually its entire government budget utterly cratered. And this all comes as America, once the region’s indispensable player, has been increasingly ceding the field to neighboring powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey—not to mention a resurgent Russia.
Will Iraq make it through?
The answer, I heard in dozens of conversations over the last week here, was strikingly uncertain, with dire scenarios ranging from the long-feared splintering of the state to a new outbreak of warlordism and civil war to the return of a Saddam-like dictator. Even self-proclaimed optimists for the future of Iraqi democracy say they have a hard time envisioning how the country manages to pull it off, and the country’s leader, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, is viewed as well-intentioned but weak, a creature of the Baghdad Green Zone who has few tools at his disposal to broker a lasting deal.
“To me, this is the collapse of the American order that began in 2003,” Salih tells me on the sidelines of his forum. “And a continuation of the collapse of the European order of the 1920s.”
“We are fighting a war of survival,” says Qubad Talabani, the 39-year-old heir apparent to one of the main Kurdish political parties, whose father Jalal Talabani was Iraq’s post-invasion president from 2005 to 2014 and who himself is a smooth Washington veteran now serving as deputy prime minister of Kurdistan.
And when America disengages, usually the world also disengages.”
Can the United States still help under President Trump? Will it, with a new leader whose foreign policy is premised on the idea of America First, who has said the invasion of Iraq was a terrible mistake and that we should have just taken the country’s oil and gotten the hell out?
“The world looks at America,” Talabani tells me in an interview for The Global Politico, our podcast on world affairs. “And when America disengages, usually the world also disengages.”
Sulyamaniyah looks pretty good for a place that even its own leaders say is on the verge of collapse. The central market is bustling, filled with bootleg iPhones and cheap Chinese goods and giant local radishes. The mountains that encircle the town still have snow on their peaks, and the city’s sunsets are famously beautiful; in another political universe, tourism would be one of Sulaymaniyah’s bumper crops.
But Mosul — and the brutal, months-long battle to retake it—is only 140 miles up the road, and the fight against the Islamic State has been the overriding political imperative for virtually all of Iraq’s faction-ridden politicians since the militant jihadists stormed through the country two and a half years ago, at one point even seeming to threaten Baghdad. In Kurdistan, that meant a region overwhelmed by some 1.8 million refugees—both internally displaced Iraqis and Syrians running from ISIS next door—even as the central government in Baghdad essentially went bust, stopping almost entirely all salary and other payments. Political infighting, long a tradition here, spiraled out of control as conditions worsened; Kurdistan’s president, Masoud Barzani, has remained in office two years past the expiration of his term – with no sign of new elections on the horizon – and the speaker of the local parliament has been blocked by Barzani from even going to the regional capital of Erbil.
“We have prevented the collapse of the government here,” says Talabani. “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”
We both had listened earlier that day as Prime Minister Abadi gave an unusually direct speech to the forum, delivered without notes and apparently straight from the heart, about the dream of a united Iraq, one in which Sunnis and Shias, Arabs and Kurds, Christians and Yazidis, would build on the military partnership they’d forged to challenge ISIS – and turn it into a new and more viable version of the Iraqi state than the weak, corruption-plagued, overtly sectarian one that almost fell apart when the Islamic State arose.
“This is not imagination,” Abadi said. “We are closer to the reality.”
And it is a reality that looks far better than just a couple years earlier, the prime minister reminded the audience, when the talk was all about how “Iraq will not return back to what it has been.”
Still, Iraq is no country for optimists, and Abadi’s warning, while sugarcoated, was clear in the heart of Kurdistan, a region that aspires to an independence that could well hasten the end of the state itself: work together and patch Iraq back up, or “encourage a new dictatorship”, as Abadi put it, in a place where longing for a strongman is an increasingly prevalent political fear.
So if we think that just by liberating Mosul, we have eradicated ISIS from Iraq, that is a fallacy.”
Not long before Abadi’s address, Talabani had said publicly that “Iraq has failed as a state.” It didn’t sound like he and other Kurdish politicians expected the cooperation and modest goodwill generated by the largely successful military campaign against ISIS to outlive the war. Was that right, I asked him? Well, he said, the military alliance is an easier one for the Kurds than the political mess that is sure to follow:
“We cannot just look at defeating ISIS on the battlefield, because ISIS is not just a security threat; ISIS is a political threat, it’s an ideological threat, it’s a global threat. So if we think that just by liberating Mosul, we have eradicated ISIS from Iraq, that is a fallacy. Much more needs to be done on the political and economic levels for us to feel safe that ISIS 3.0 will not return and cause havoc in this country.”
If there’s one thing that the Iraqi politicians who came to Sulaymaniyah this week seem to agree on, it’s that figuring out Iraq after ISIS will be a lot harder without American involvement. The Kurds, itching for independence, have put off a referendum on their future while the fighting still rages—but will resume their push for political autonomy as soon as the shooting stops. Many worry that revenge killings will proliferate in areas formerly held by the Islamic State and that Sunni areas where ISIS flourished will not have leaders who can or will reintegrate them with the Iraqi state. And Abadi, who faces reelection next year, has much to worry about from within his own Shiite political party—as well as from the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, widely seen as still waiting in the wings for Abadi to stumble.
With so much complexity swirling about, there’s one factor even more unpredictable than many of Iraq’s by-now-familiar dysfunctions: What about the Americans? If Trump has a political vision for Iraq, he has kept it well hidden, and his secretary of state has been a cipher, though Trump has appointed several generals to his team, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who served in Iraq and know its challenges well.
But if anything, I found that many Iraqis are surprisingly pro-Trump—despite his anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail, his talk of taking Iraq’s oil and even his initial inclusion of Iraq on his temporary immigration ban.
The answer has much to do with Trump’s all-too-familiar political style—and perhaps even more to do with Barack Obama.
Listen to Isa Mohamed, a university student here and aspiring novelist from Baghdad. . He’s convinced that not even a decade and a half after the fall of Saddam, Iraqis are so sick of the chaos they now talk of restoring a “strongman” to power.
And that also makes them open to Trump and his muscular pronouncements about defeating the Islamic State. “President Trump is an ideal concept for Middle Easterners in general, and Iraqis in particular, because he fits the loud, ‘strong,’ ‘one who will say it as it is,’” Isa says. “To them, they can see Trump is doing something, instead of what we saw with Obama.”
Talabani and other politicians, if not as blunt, are similarly critical of Obama’s policies toward Iraq – Obama-bashing, as one veteran observer of the region put it to me this week, is the one thing that unites the Middle East right now from Iran to Israel. I didn’t meet anyone who agreed with Trump’s campaign-trail insistence that Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton “created” the Islamic State by pulling out of Iraq—ISIS, Talabani told me, was “born out of the failure of Iraqi politics”—but there remain many hard feelings about Obama’s decision to pull out nonetheless.
In that sense, Trump’s version of America First might not be such a break with the American pullback the region has already seen—and it might even be better. After all, Abadi has now become the first Arab leader officially invited for a Trump White House visit; he’ll come to Washington later this month.
“President Obama, when he came into office, his mandate was to get out of Iraq, which you could say is an America first strategy,” Talabani notes. “But we saw that getting out of Iraq didn’t help Iraq. It didn’t help the United States in the Middle East. It didn’t help peace and prosperity here. So we’re hopeful that America First doesn’t mean disengagement.”
Hopeful, yes. But Iraqis have learned not to let themselves feel much more than that.