Iraq Can Move Arab States to New Economic Focus

By Meghan L. O’Sullivan, Bloomberg, March 27, 2012 –
The 23rd Arab League Summit is now under way in Baghdad. Unlike the 22 non-emergency summits that preceded it, this one will be worth watching, and for two reasons.

First, to the surprise of many, the Arab League has become an organization 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 legitimizing foreign intervention against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. And on Syria, through its proposals for monitors and peacekeeping forces, the league has been the most active international organization seeking to end the violence Bashar al-Assad has unleashed on his citizens.

The other reason for paying special attention to this summit has to do with its host, Iraq. The last Arab League Summit held in Baghdad was in 1990, just months before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Since then, Iraq has effectively been out of the Arab fold—on account of war, sanctions, occupation and sectarian strife. This week’s event marks a major milestone for Iraq and is the most tangible sign of its potential re- emergence as a regional player.

The meeting offers the Baghdad government its first real opportunity to demonstrate how it intends to orient itself as a regional actor. 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.

A Regional Role

Thus far, Iraq has generally avoided the task of articulating its position on key regional issues or its aspirations as a regional power. This failure to stake out such a role is mostly the result of major disagreements among Iraq’s political elites about how they see their nation in relation to its neighbors. Some of Iraq’s leaders see Iran as the country’s greatest threat to sovereignty, while others see the meddling of Arab nations in Iraqi domestic affairs as the most detrimental.

The Arab League Summit will give 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 program, and that Iraq will give key shared institutions such as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries 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 (if not an advocate for) political reforms among its neighbors, and promote more pragmatic and flexible solutions to other regional issues.

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