Meghan O'Sullivan, lecturer in public policy with the Belfer Center, speaks from Baghdad via teleconference with the Center's board of directors in November.
"Q&A with Meghan O'Sullivan"
Related: Meghan L. O'Sullivan, Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
Editor: Beth Maclin, Former Communications Assistant, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Meghan L. O'Sullivan is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. From July 2004 to September 2007, she was special assistant to President George W. Bush and served as deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan during part of that tenure. She spent more than two years in Iraq, most recently in fall 2008 at the request of Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General Raymond Odierno, to help conclude the security agreement and strategic framework agreement between the United States and Iraq.
Q: What is the greatest challenge facing President Barack Obama in Iraq?
One of the greatest challenges facing the new administration is how to divide limited resources between Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a general consensus, driven largely by the reality that Iraq appears to be stabilizing and Afghanistan deteriorating, that resources should flow from Iraq toward Afghanistan.
Resources have already begun to move in that direction and, on the whole, this is sensible. The big question is really one of timing. Afghanistan is a vastly more complicated place, where prospects for success are probably considerably lower than in Iraq. What no one wants is to find that resources removed from Iraq were critical in the difference between a stable and unstable Iraq - only to discover that those resources are insufficient to change the trajectory in Afghanistan. In that case, the United States and the region are in worse shape all around. The U.S. also needs to use its willingness to commit additional troops as leverage to convince the Afghan government to take actions only it can do to help the country succeed. Most importantly, the U.S. government should seek \ new pledges from President Karzai to tackle Afghanistan's corruption more aggressively. Although not well known, the Bush Administration had serious conversations with the Iraqi government before committing the troops needed for "the surge." Only with a new Iraqi promise to pursue Shi'a militia that had largely operated with impunity did President Bush decide to send more U.S. troops to Iraq.
Q: What is the significance of the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) and a security agreement concluded between the United States and Iraq in November 2008?
These two agreements lay the groundwork for a solid U.S.-Iraqi partnership over the coming years. The Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) delineates a range of non-military areas for future U.S.-Iraqi cooperation. The security agreement provides the legal basis U.S. forces need to operate in Iraq, absolving Iraq and the United States from going to the United Nations every year for a renewal of the international mandate. At a higher level, but equally significant, the SFA and the security agreement provide a much needed, common vision to both Iraqis and Americans about the nature and duration of U.S. engagement in Iraq. Up until this time, this vision had been lacking - and the uncertainty surrounding the open-ended nature of the U.S. presence was a major preoccupation in both Iraqi and American politics.
The security agreement tells Iraqis and Americans that U.S. forces are leaving Iraq, but not in large numbers immediately. The security agreement envisions a gradual, but eventually full departure of American forces over three years. And it acknowledges the primacy of Iraqi sovereignty - through the end of unilateral combat operations and the turning over of Iraqi detainees to the government of Iraq. Such actions make the overall arrangement more politically sustainable than the UN mandate, which gave greater authorities and immunities to coalition forces. Either the U.S. or Iraqi government could abrogate the security agreement - or the Iraqis could vote it down in an anticipated referendum in July. But, in practice, both Washington and Baghdad will likely see it as in their interests to broadly adhere to the terms of the agreement. Hopefully, they can use the agreements to shift their domestic debates away from the divisive issue of troop presence and direct political energies toward the pressing matters of political reconciliation and institution building.
Q: What elements of U.S. strategy toward Iraq will the Obama Administration change?
Interestingly, the combination of the security agreement and the improvements in the security situation in Iraq over the last 18 months - which have allowed for the drawdown of U.S. combat brigades without a significant upswing in violence - diminishes the chances that the Obama Administration will dramatically refashion the U.S. military strategy in Iraq. The biggest difference between the Bush and Obama teams may be how they interact with the Iraqi political leadership. There has been a great deal of talk about how the Obama Administration will make better use of U.S. leverage with the Iraqis. And, in fact, the improved security situation has opened the door to the greater use of conditionality.
During much of the Bush Administration years, the weakness of the Iraqi state argued against hard threats to withdraw American support which, if made good on, could have pushed Iraq to conflict or collapse - harming both Iraqi and U.S. interests. Today, as U.S. military planners point out, Iraq has moved from a failed to fragile state. As a result, there are fewer single points of strategic failure. Iraq's strengthening political institutions give greater scope for the constructive use of conditionality. In making certain types of U.S. support conditional, the United States should first assess that Iraq has the capacity to meet American requests and that a withdrawal of American support would not destabilize Iraq in irreversibly. I think the new administration will find that Iraqis better positioned to deliver and and to be an equal partner with the United States than in the past.
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