Dr. Thomas Preston to Gulan: It is in the US interest to not have Iraq collapse into instability
Dr. Thomas Preston is a C. O. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Washington State University. He received his M.A. at the University of Essex (United Kingdom) and his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH). He is a Faculty Research Associate at the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University, New York and at CRISMART (The National Center for Crisis Management, Research and Training), part of the Swedish National Defense College, Stockholm, Sweden. A specialist in security policy, foreign affairs, and political psychology, Professor Preston joined Washington State University and the Department of Political Science in 1994. He teaches undergraduate courses on international relations, American foreign policy, U.S. national security policy, and intelligence analysis. At the graduate level, he offers seminars on international security and the psychology of leadership and decision-making. In 2003, he was awarded the prestigious William F. Mullen Excellence in Teaching Award by the WSU College of Liberal Arts, was named a WSU faculty Innovator by the university in 2007, and has received two Fulbright Senior Scholar Awards from the U.S. State Department to New Zealand in 2010 and to Romania in 2020. In a written interview he answered our questions like the following:
Gulan: What has changed in the international relations since By Mr. Biden Administration assumed power, given that this Administration has reiterated its commitments to multilateralism? And do you see and emerging Biden Doctrine with regard to the foreign affairs?
Dr. Thomas Preston: Actually, the best way to see the Biden administration’s foreign policy is as a return to more traditional US foreign policy that was upended by Trump. That means a real commitment to a multilateral approach, an emphasis upon working with and building up relationships with allies, etc. But it is also one that, while re-engaging with the world (and not being isolationist and America First like Trump), is one that is trying to pull back from the more interventionist approach of the Bush administration. Hence his focus upon ‘ending’ US active combat roles in long-standing situations (Afghanistan and Iraq) that have been ongoing since 2001 and 2003 respectively. It is a more realist approach in the sense that it recognizes that there is no longer political will in the US domestic political system for such engagement or the costs (which have now reached possibly $8 trillion since 2001) of the old policy.
Gulan: Between transactional and transformational foraging policy, which one do you recommend the current US administration should pursue, and which one of them is more realistic and realizable?
Transactional policy is probably the most realistic at the moment, especially with the limitations in the US (due to Republican/conservative opposition) to a more values focused foreign policy that would be required for a transformational approach.
Gulan: What is your overall evaluation of the Mr. Biden’s Administration’s foreign policy regarding the Middle East?
Dr. Thomas Preston: Anything would be an improvement over Trump’s foreign policy towards the region, but unfortunately, the damage was done and it is hard for Biden to repair it very quickly. A more even-handed approach to Israel/Palestinian issues is a welcome change, as is the attempt to restart Iran nuclear talks. Unfortunately, Trump destroyed the previous nuclear agreement and now (given leadership changes in Iran and continued GOP opposition here in the US), it seems unlikely that there will be great progress on this front. Also, Trump betraying the Kurds in Syria and giving Turkey a free hand will not continue under Biden, but the damage is done. Given the current domestic politics in Iraq, it seems the pulling back of US engagement in the country is inevitable – and it remains to be seen if Baghdad can maintain stability in the country given sectorial differences and ISIS reforming. I’d give them a B+, but it is a very difficult class to get a good grade in given the situation. But Trump’s policy was a clear F.
Gulan: There is believe real or perceived that USA is disengaging from the Middle East, do you agree that this is because this region is less important to the vital interests of America since it has achieved energy self-sufficiency?
Dr. Thomas Preston: I don’t believe the US doesn’t see the region as important to the vital interests of America, because that involves more than simply oil. Even if we aren’t taking as much oil as in the past from the region, if Iran or others upset production, etc., it impacts the world economy in ways that reverberate to the US. And regional security and preventing extremism (like ISIS) from spreading remains a security interest given US allies in the region (from Israel through Saudi and the Gulf States). A disengagement of an active combat role should not be mistaken for a belief by the US that the region is no longer important.
Gulan: As you know there is an enormous trust deficit between US and Iran, but it seems like Mr. Biden’s administration is willing if not saying determined to resume negotiation with Iran, so what are the prerequisites for taking confidence building measures between these two rival countries, at least for revitalizing the nuclear deal?
Dr. Thomas Preston: This to a great extent is dependent upon domestic politics in both countries. One of the greatest tragedies of the Trump era was the sabotage of the original agreement with Iran – which empowered the conservatives in both countries to obstruct progress. A hard-line regime in Tehran, now that Rouhani is gone, is unlikely to make many concessions to the US (especially given Ayatollah Khameini is not in favor of many). And Congressional Republicans in the US will try to use any concessions made by Biden as political ammunition for the 2022 elections. The original agreement was good because it did not attempt ‘linkage’ between the nuclear issue and other non-related issues (i.e., Yemen, Syria, etc.). Anytime linkage is attempted, it complicates the negotiations and makes agreements next to impossible. A more constructive approach would have been to maintain the original nuclear agreement, then engagement in containment strategies and cooperation with regional allies to counter Iranian activities (weapons sales, support for radical groups, etc.). One doesn’t need a ‘one size fits all’ policy – but dealing with the nuclear issue was the most important problem and the one most likely to lead to military conflict. I’m afraid I am not very optimistic that significant progress can occur under the current circumstances – and if linkage becomes key, there is literally zero chance of success.
Gulan: Do you see any prospect for Sustained, Strategic U.S.-Iraq Partnership after Joint Statement on the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue?
Dr. Thomas Preston: It all depends on the willingness of the current Iraqi government to continue active engagement with the US on security matters, despite Shia parties opposition to that relationship. It is in the US interest to not have Iraq collapse into instability (as will likely now happen in Afghanistan within the year), but it really will require Baghdad to choose to pursue that engagement. Statements are only pieces of paper without actions to back them up.