David L. Phillips to Gulan: The US has no friends in Iraq except the Iraqi Kurds
David L. Phillips is currently Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Phillips has worked as a senior adviser to the United Nations Secretariat and as a foreign affairs expert and senior adviser to the U.S. Department of State. He has held positions as a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle East Studies, executive director of Columbia University’s International Conflict Resolution Program, director of the Program on Conflict Prevention and Peace-building at the American University, Associate Professor at New York University’s Department of Politics, and as a professor at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. He has also been a senior fellow and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, director of the European Centre for Common Ground, project director at the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo, president of the Congressional Human Rights Foundation, and executive director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation. Mr. Phillips is author of From Bullets to Ballots: Violent Muslim Movements in Transition (Transaction Press, 2008), Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco (Perseus Books, 2005), Unsilencing the Past: Track Two Diplomacy and Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation (Berghahn Books, 2005). He has also authored many policy reports, as well as more than 100 articles in leading publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, and Foreign Affairs. In an interview he answered our questions as the following:
Gulan: First of all, we want to start with a general question about your assessment or evaluation of the Mr. Bidens administration policy towards this region.
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: The Biden administration is still engaged in the region. But its engagement is taking a different form. It doesn't want to use military assets. He wants to work in partnership, emphasizing soft power defined by American values and culture and economy with lesser emphasis on our military might.
Gulan: Mr. Professor in your opinion how, to what extent this policy has been effective and successful in achieving its stated goals?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: So, the stated goal is the promotion of peace and stability and democratic systems of government that can preserve progress. Clearly, in Afghanistan, the US made some serious mistakes. Our initial mission was to deny al Qaeda a sanctuary. This was achieved soon after the attacks on September 11. We then experienced mission creep, focusing on nation building. And over 20 years, the US spent $2 trillion, trying to build a democracy in Afghanistan. This mission was doomed from the beginning. Afghanistan has never been a democracy, and it's not likely to be a democracy anytime soon. We should have been more narrowly focused on our strategic objective, to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven. We could have then declared victory after Osama bin Laden was eliminated and withdrawn forces. Unfortunately, the Bush administration put us on a path towards nation building, which was folly from the beginning.
Gulan: So, in your opinion, this administration is going to abandon the mission of nation building and democracy promotion altogether?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: No, I don't think it will. The US will still be a force for good, helping countries develop their systems of government and promote human rights. We just are now reluctant to use military assets to advance those goals. So, the US is going to have to find some new balance between a credible threat of force to achieve diplomatic goals and a kind of passive approach where the military is not involved. A balance still hasn't been determined. It's a work in progress.
Gulan: So, don't you believe or don't you expect that this administration, unlike the previous one, Mr. Trump's administration will rely heavily on economic and financial sanctions, what's called economic statecraft for achieving its foreign policy goals?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: Yes, economic statecraft will be a primary tool of the United States. The US will continue to have a robust engagement in world affairs. But the tool that it uses will evolve. We've learned lessons from Afghanistan that we need to apply to other places in the world
Gulan: With regard to this region, specifically Iraq, how do you characterize the situation? How do you see the current situation in this country, especially with regard to the relations with the USA after the negotiations to end the combative man mission in this country?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: The US has a strategic objective to counter Iranian influence. Since Iraq is a test of Iranian influence, versus the influence of the United States, I expect that the US is going to stay involved in Iraq to make sure that Iraq doesn't become a colony of Iran or a proxy for the Iranian foreign policy.
Gulan: can we say that the US Iraqi policy will be held hostage to the US aim to revive the nuclear deal?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: I think US policy will be based on objectives that address Iraq's needs first and foremost, and how to end violent conflict and stabilize the country by promoting sectarian relations that are harmonious and aligned with priorities of the United States. As long as Iran continues to make mischief, the US is going to keep an eye on Iranian activities. Iran can't be trusted in the region, and especially not in Iraq
Gulan: so, don't see any prospects for the achievement of any tremendous progress or breakthrough with regard to the nuclear deal negotiations with Iran?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: We hope to see a breakthrough, but there's no indication to suggest a breakthrough is imminent. The US needs to keep the pressure on Iran, working with the international community, so as Iran doesn't get a free ride, and it doesn't continue meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. The US will push back to make sure that Iranians nefarious influence in the region is controlled.
Gulan: And do you see any prospects for sustained, strategic US Iraq partnership after the joint statement on the US Iraqi strategic dialogue?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: It's good to have a strategic dialogue. It's also good to end combat operations. Cooperation is always evolving. And the nature of US-Iraq cooperation will be calibrated to conditions on-the-groundin Iraq. I don't expect the US to disengage or withdraw from Iraq. We have important strategic and security interests that are served through the US position there. But we must take note of the new approach by the Biden administration. It doesn't want to be involved in endless wars, and it doesn't want to use the military unless it's absolutely necessary. The current level of US forces in Iraq is consistent with Iraq's needs and US interests. Those force levels should be maintained.
Gulan: But, as you know, Iraq struggling with enormous challenges and difficulties. And some say that these challenges and crisis calls into question the viability or even survivability of this country. So how do you describe the Iraqi state, do you you describe as a failed, fragile, fragmented or dysfunctional one?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: The Iraqi state is fragile and subject to external influence. The US and Iraqi partners need to work together to strengthen institutions and to promote democracy and human rights, which would serve the interests of both Iraq and the US.
Gulan: Right now, Iraq is approaching holding up upcoming elections, parliamentary elections. So, what's your perspective about the prospects for achieving progress and forming a new effective government in Iraq?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: I don't want to speculate on the outcome of elections. A new government needs to be inclusive, and it needs to function effectively. Previous Iraqi governments haven't been efficient in managing the country's affairs. It's time for Iraqis to step up, find ways of working together, and thereby send a signal that Iraq is ready for business.
Gulan: And how do you assess the Kurdish participation in the in these elections?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: The Kurds should participate in the elections; they should also strengthen their local government. If Iraq falls apart, we don't want the Kurds to be blamed. The Kurds can pursue cooperation with Baghdad, but not to the exclusion of Kurdish national interests.
Gulan: And what about your recommendation for especially for the KDP to pursue with Iraq? Do you believe that a real partnership and consensus will be reached with Iraq?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: So, the goal is not full partnership. The goal is the cooperation and social harmony. Iraqi Kurdistan should adjust its approach to Baghdad based on Kurdistan's interest and the level of US support to achieve those interest.
Gulan: don't you expect that by scaling back of US military engagement with Iraq, and in the Middle East generally, the radical and violent and also terrorist organizations will be regrouped?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: I don't think the US should scale back its forces. It can change the mission to counterterrorism. But without the US engaged in Iraq, the country will be increasingly fragile and risks becoming a satellite for Iran. Us interest is served through close cooperation with Kurdistan Regional Government. We should pursue cooperation with the KRG as well as with Baghdad. But if Baghdad proves to be an unreliable partner, or a satellite of Iran, we should shift our emphasis to Kurdistan and work more closely with the KRG to stabilize northern Iraq.
Gulan: what is your opinion about what's called a popular mobilization forces and Iranian backed militia, which they launch frequent attacks as we have seen the recent days on Erbil airport and on the US Embassy in Baghdad, and other diplomatic and military sites So how the Iraqi Government the Kurds should deal with this situation?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: The PMS are operating at the behest of Iran. Iraqi forces should counter their attacks and protect US assets in the country. The US doesn't have to do that alone. It's the responsibility of the Government of Iraq. It's time for Iraq to fulfill its responsibility.
Gulan: Our last question about your expectations for the future of Iraq in terms of best-case and worst-case scenario?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: If Iraq remains unstable and begins to fragment, the US should manage the deconstruction of Iraq, to preserve its interest in Iraqi Kurdistan and maintain close security and economic cooperation with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Gulan: Do you believe that because the Kurds in general are still reliable partners, especially you have written a book in 2018 in this regard, “The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East”?
Professor Dr. David L. Phillips: The US has no friends in Iraq except the Iraqi Kurds. And the Kurds have no friends in Iraq except the Americans. So, we need to find some common ground and develop it further. The interests of both the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the US are served through cooperation, which advances mutual benefit.