The 23rd Arab League Summit concluded on March 29 in Baghdad. Unlike the 22 non-emergency summits that preceded it, this one was worth watching for two reasons. First, to the surprise of many, the Arab League has become an organisation of consequence.
In the wake of revolutions across the region, the League has commanded something of a leadership role. In Libya, it was instrumental in ushering in and legitimising foreign intervention against Muammar Gaddafi's regime. And on Syria, through its proposals for monitors and peacekeeping forces, the League has been the most active organisation seeking to end the violence President Bashar Al Assad has unleashed on his citizens.
The other reason had to do with its host, Iraq. The event marked a major milestone for Iraq and is the most tangible sign of its potential re- emergence as a regional player.
Iraq has understandably been consumed by internal challenges over the past nine years. This inward focus has led to a foreign policy focused on alleviating Iraq's debt burden, getting out from under United Nations Chapter VII sanctions, gathering support for the fight against terrorism and extremism, and urging greater acceptance of the new Iraq. Thus far, Iraq has generally avoided the task of articulating its position on key regional issues.
The Arab League Summit gave observers more insight into what sort of role Iraq will seek in the months and years ahead. Several paths are possible: One scenario is that Iraq fully re-integrates itself into the Arab world, assuming traditional Arab stances toward regional issues such as Palestinian statehood, Israel, and Iran's nuclear programme, and that Iraq will give key shared institutions such as Opec priority over national interests.
Another possibility is that Iraq reclaims its regional prominence, but does so more on an independent and progressive basis. Iraq might work with nearby states on a common security framework, help shape the shared response to a nuclear Iran, be sympathetic to political reforms among its neighbours, and promote more pragmatic and flexible solutions to other regional issues.
Or Iraq might choose to develop itself as an unaligned state, seeking to isolate itself from regional quagmires and focusing on the promotion of national interests. Iraqis often talk about their oil policy as indistinguishable from their foreign policy. If this is the case, one might interpret the results of Iraq's ‘bid rounds' for contracts with foreign companies as an indication that Iraq's international priorities are to reintegrate itself into the global market and to build relationships broadly, without giving the US or regional countries any pride of place within Iraq.
Finally, and most distressingly, Iraq could be absorbed partially or fully into Iran's sphere of influence. In this scenario, Iraq might have some leeway in domestic matters, but internationally it will support Iran, especially in the face of a confrontation over Iran's nuclear programme. Over time, economic and physical infrastructure will integrate the two countries, while links between their security apparatuses grow stronger.
So, which of these futures is most likely? Several factors will come into play. The most important pertain to domestic politics. As we have already seen, the current government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, which is dominated by Shiites, has led to Iraq's cool treatment by most Sunni Arab states. Ironically, this frostiness has had the effect of pushing Iraq even closer to Iran. Iraq's geopolitical situation, and its need to export large amounts of oil through terrain that others control or have huge sway over, will be another factor. Iraq cannot afford to agitate all its neighbours simultaneously.
Iraq's relationship with the US will, of course, also be influential in determining its trajectory. The withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 made the scenario where Iraq is a regional power, but one with considerable independence from traditional Arab views, much more unlikely.
The final two scenarios — Iraq as an unaligned state, or solidly in the sphere of Iranian influence — are much more plausible now that American troops have departed. Unlike most other Arab states, Iraq has been distinctly reluctant to pressure Al Assad to step aside. While it is saddening to see Iraq shy away from condemning Al Assad, the Al Maliki government has sectarian sympathies for the Syrian government.
Iraq can still use the event to set the tone for the next year, during which it will assume the chairmanship of the Arab League. In doing so, Iraq would be wise to introduce a new focus to Arab League deliberations: prospects for economic diversification and for regional economic cooperation. Yet, in the wake of the Arab revolutions, regional leaders are more likely than ever to equate economic prosperity with their own political survival, whether they are part of the new wave or of the old guard. This should lead to new thinking.
A focus on economic diversity and cooperation would not only address real needs in the region, it could also make clear that Iraq is at the heart of a potential solution. Having large amounts of undeveloped oil and gas resources, a strategic location and a significant internal market, Iraq has the potential to use its energy wealth to help integrate the region. By bringing these economic issues to the fore in the next few days, Iraq can begin to carve for itself a critical, if more independent, role in the Arab world and win the respect — and perhaps ultimately even gratitude — of its neighbours.
— Washington Post
Meghan L. O'Sullivan, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, is a Bloomberg View columnist.