Obama’s Iraq policy must be focused on more than withdrawal

In a 71-minute State of the Union address, President Obama managed no more than 101 perfunctory words about Iraq. Throughout its term, the administration has recoiled from discussing Iraq’s geostrategic significance and especially America’s relation to it.

Yet while Iraq is being exorcised from our debate, its reality is bound to obtrude on our consciousness. The U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq will not alter the geostrategic importance of the country even as it alters that context.

Mesopotamia has been the strategic focal point of the region for millennia. Its resources affect countries far away. The dividing line between the Shiite and the Sunni worlds runs through its center — indeed, through its capital. Iraq’s Kurdish provinces rest uneasily between Turkey and Iran and indigenous adversaries within Iraq. It cannot be in the American interest to leave the region as a vacuum.

Nor is it possible to separate Iraq from the conflict with revolutionary jihad. The outcome in Iraq will influence the psychological balance in the war against radical Islam, specifically whether the ongoing withdrawal from Iraq comes to be perceived as a retreat from the region or a more effective way to sustain it.

But Iraq has largely disappeared from policy debates in Washington. There are special envoys for every critical country in the region except Iraq, the country whose evolution will help determine how American relevance to the currents of the region will be judged. The Obama administration needs to find its voice to convey that Iraq continues to play a significant role in American strategy. Brief visits by high officials are useful as symbols. But of what? Operational continuity is needed in a strategic concept for a region over which the specter of Iran increasingly looms.

Before the war, the equilibrium between Iraq and Iran was a principal geopolitical reality within the region. At that time, the government in Baghdad was a Sunni-run dictatorship. The Shiite-dominated, partly democratic structure that has emerged from the war has not yet found the appropriate balance among its Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish components. Nor is its long-term relationship to Iran settled. If radicals prevail in the Shiite part, and the Shiite part comes to dominate the Sunni and Kurdish regions, and if it then lines up with Tehran, we will witness — and will have partially contributed to — a fundamental shift in the balance of the region.

The outcome in Iraq will have profound consequences, above all, in Saudi Arabia, the key country in the Persian Gulf, as well as in the other Gulf states and in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, financed by Iran, is already a Shiite state within the state. The United States therefore has an important stake in a moderate evolution of Iraq’s domestic and foreign policies.

The Obama administration is stalemated in negotiations with Iran to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Whether the nuclear issue is settled by diplomacy or other evolutions, the stability of the region will be crucially affected by the ability to bring about a political and strategic equilibrium between Iran and Iraq. Without such an arrangement, the region runs the risk of living indefinitely on top of a heap of explosives toward which a smoldering fuse is burning.

The formal expressions of administration policy on Iraq primarily concern the rate of withdrawal. Even President Obama’s reference to Iraq in his State of the Union speech was largely in that context. Few high-level Iraqi leaders are invited to Washington, and their reception is reserved. America needs to remain an active diplomatic player. Its presence must be perceived to have some purpose beyond withdrawal. An expression of political commitment to the region is needed. In executing an exit strategy, we must make sure that strategy remains linked to exit.

Henry Kissinger, secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.