Last week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said that while facing the ongoing threats of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the only way forward is with a strong, united Iraqi government, free of factions and sectarian divisions. The sentiment is not a new one—in fact, it is the cornerstone of the administration’s policy on Iraq—keep Iraq united to keep Iraq strong. However, for Biden personally, the policy which he now champions is a far cry from his push for the federalization of an Iraq broken into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish zones.
Biden’s speech Thursday at National Defense University in Washington DC, framed itself as almost a parting address on the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama’s policies on Iraq, as the administration enters the final phase of its term. The farewell speech on Iraq is likely not nearly as romantic or optimistic as either Obama or Biden would have hoped—both now say they opposed the initial war in Iraq and both were eager to see it end.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that nearly 13 years into the conflict; the United States is still needed in Iraq—now more than ever because of the grave threat that ISIS poses in the oil-rich country. In his remarks, Biden assures “for all the years I spent in dealing with Iraqi public officials in the Iraqi Government, we knew for certain without a united Iraqi Government, there was no possibility, none, of defeating ISIL [another abbreviation for ISIS].”
The rave endorsement for a united Iraqi government came just days before Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi makes his first visit to the White House in his current capacity. The in person meeting will follow months of phone calls between Biden and Abadi, which, according to readouts distributed by the White House, seem to always center on Biden, and the United States’ backing of a unified Iraqi government working to counter all of its threats.
“So I go back to the focus,” Biden said in his remarks to National Defense University, “on the Iraqi Government, when the three major constituencies - Sunni, Shia and Kurd - are united in wanting a whole and prosperous Iraq, the likelihood of being pulled into the orbit of any single nation in the region is diminished expidentially [sic] because this would represent the only, the only government in the region that actually is not based on sectarian dominance.”
Biden, a longtime Democratic Senator representing the state of Delaware, voted in favor of the Iraq war in 2002, when he was serving as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—a vote he later said was a “mistake.” In 2006, while he was the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden and Leslie Gelb, of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) wrote an editorial for the New York Times (NYT) arguing for the decentralization of Iraq along ethno sectarian lines.
The idea, which was based on the policy Biden championed during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, aimed to do the same in Iraq when the country was at the height of sectarian violence and disorder. “The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests,” Biden and Gelb wrote in their NYT piece.
The idea was turned into legislation that passed a Congressional vote, but was not adopted as U.S. policy. In fact, the legislation was met with much disapproval by then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who immediately called for the Iraqi parliament to meet and release a formal rejection of the Biden plan. Maliki even went on Iraqi television and said that Biden “should stand by Iraq to solidify its unity and sovereignty” and “shouldn’t be proposing its division. That could be a disaster not just for Iraq but for the region.” Following the harsh reaction by the Iraqis, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also made sure to issue a statement distancing themselves from the legislation.
When Biden was elected Vice President on November 4, 2008 in President Barack Obama’s administration, his tune on Iraq changed completely. This change came with the reality of serving a president with different views on U.S. policy toward Iraq. At a national security meeting at the White House in June of 2009, President Obama turned to Biden and said “Joe, you do Iraq.” Biden, who three years prior had proposed breaking the country apart, was now tasked with keeping the country together. Biden’s task has remained the same in the face of the newly-introduced threat of ISIS.
The concept of unity may actually be the best viable option, as the division of Iraq “into three parts is not credible or applicable for the foreseeable future," said Ahmed Ali, the Senior Visiting Fellow for EPIC (The Education for Peace in Iraq Center) based in Washington, DC. “The threat of ISIS has forced Iraq's different communities to reconsider their positions on the unity of the country. Moving forward, Baghdad will have to enhance governance decentralization in order to allow every community a greater say in the country's affairs,” Ali added.
However, Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) said that the Obama administration’s policies have led to a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in the torn Iraq of today.
“Unfortunately Iraq seems to be less united today than it was in 2009. Of course this is partly due to ISIS and partly to Iran's role, but it is also due to Obama administration policy,” he told Al Arabiya News.
He added: “Many of the gains from the surge were simply abandoned in the rush to get out. So the irony is the Biden's old comment about dividing Iraq cannot be dismissed precisely because of the policies his administration has followed. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The threat of ISIS comes amid growing resentment and marginalization within Iraq where Sunnis argue that they are underrepresented and Kurds believe they are forcibly part of a country that is nominally theirs. With over a year left in this administration’s tenure, Biden must continue to uphold the policy that a unified Iraq is the best way forward—with the hope that he, and this administration, will not leave office with a country that continues to be in shambles.