Beginning with the early January killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, the first months of 2020 have seen a spike in long-simmering tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Those tensions have largely played out within the borders of Iran’s western neighbor, Iraq, just as they have for much of the last 17 years. Still bearing the battle scars from years of war, few in the region want to see an escalation to more overt conflict. And after nearly two decades, the American public has clearly demonstrated its own fatigue with endless wars. The question remains, then, how can the U.S. achieve its objectives in regard to Iran and Iraq without military action?

Iraqi demonstrators shout slogans during anti-government protests in Baghdad on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Iraqi demonstrators shout slogans during anti-government protests in Baghdad on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

The direct use of military force, often called hard power, can instill confidence at home and fear and intimidation abroad—which in turn leads to deterrence. But as the beginning of 2020 has shown, deterrence only goes so far. With tensions ratcheting up between the U.S. and Iran, hard power alone will not advance U.S. objectives in the region, and if left unmitigated, the situation could lead to further conflict.

Rather than strictly an expression of military might, General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. CENTCOM, has said that “deterrence is not a military concept, but a diplomatic and political construct.” In order to deescalate tensions with Iran and build effective, durable institutions in Iraq, the U.S. will need to complement its hard-power deterrence with an increased investment in soft power—the use of positive, and often mutually beneficial, exchanges of culture, values, and policies.

Together, this combination forms what American political scientist Joseph Nye called “smart power.” “Smart power is neither hard nor soft. It is both,” Nye wrote. By leveraging the deterrence from hard power with the relationship building of soft power, the result is not only less costly in terms of monetary value and human toll—it can also yield more sympathetic attitudes toward the U.S. among Iraqi leaders, youth, politicians, and businesses and can ultimately result in a deeper and better-founded relationship between the two nations in the longer term.

Iraq is Primed for a Smart Power Intervention

There are questions about whether this approach can truly work. But recent examples from Iraq and Lebanon show that it can. Specifically, in Iraq, there is still a significant constituency for a friendly relationship with the U.S., whether by conviction, convenience, or fear.

In 2018, an Iraqi civil society leader who solicited, but did not get, support from the U.S. Embassy during the legislative elections told us, “I have been working closely with U.S. organizations since 2003, risking my reputation and often my life, and did not get minimal support. Had I done the same with the Iranians for the last 15 years, I would have been now a deputy prime minister.”

This satirical statement reflects a common state of mind among many Iraqis: The U.S. does not care to build proper political alliances, but at best works on occasional and timebound partnerships.

With the decline of U.S. political engagement in the country, many Iraqi politicians—while less ideologically aligned with Iran than the U.S.—have found themselves having to deal with Iran as the new major power broker in the region. Politically, the U.S. needs to make a considerable investment in order to reverse this perception. Signaling to key Iraqi political figures that the U.S. is indeed investing in the next generation of political leaders in Iraq will certainly push many of these figures to shift their allegiances back to the U.S.

Investing in All Aspects of Iraqi Society

Beyond the macro-political approach, an effective U.S. strategy for countering Iran in Iraq involves strengthening social, economic, and cultural ties with key figures and communities in the country.

Revisiting economic arrangements with Iraq, beyond acting essentially as the guardian of the country’s oil revenue, is also an essential step forward. Although tightening the U.S.’s grip on the fate of Iraq’s economy might persuade Iraqi officials to appease the U.S., this kind of relationship does not inspire trust or good will in the long term or among the citizenry.

Iraq is full of economic opportunities, and a coordinated and focused U.S. approach can highlight the scope of investment and the impact of bilateral economic cooperation. Selecting a few capital infrastructure projects, such as airports, or specific sectoral investments like health care that involve a high number of workers and contractors will certainly be a pathway to the hearts and minds of thousands of families—and at the same time, serve as an investment that later generations will see and use.

Additionally, promoting massive academic, cultural, and language exchanges between the U.S. and Iraq, a classic soft power initiative, would go a long way in bringing the two nations closer. Although programs such as Fulbright and Humphrey exist, they are massively overshadowed by the U.S. overemphasis and over-reliance on military might. Hosting Iraqi scholars at American universities—and vice versa—would be a bargain investment in the long-term relationship with the country. By establishing substantial and long-term cooperation mechanisms with a few major Iraqi universities, the U.S. could touch the lives of thousands of families, students, personnel, and faculty.

Envisaging a large-scale education cooperation strategy will also produce a whole generation of Iraqis who not only share a language but also the values of their U.S. counterparts. Of course, these efforts alone are not enough, but they contribute to an overall message that American and Iraqi interests and values are congruent.

COVID-19 and Smart Power

Literature surrounding public health diplomacy alludes to the possibility that international cooperation on medical fronts can lead to strengthened relationships in political and security areas down the road. Despite all its horror, if the coronavirus pandemic leaves us with any silver lining, perhaps it is that nations can revisit their relationships with each other and find common interests where there were previously believed to be none.

With the global COVID-19 pandemic throwing a set of additional challenges at Iraq, the U.S. has an opportunity to showcase true friendship and partnership against a common enemy. If the U.S. wants a better framework for a rejuvenated partnership with Iraq, it could start with massive tactical measures to support the ailing Iraqi health care system during and after the pandemic. This sends a message that the U.S. cares for the lives of Iraqis and could help build toward a broader discussion about other avenues of collaboration.

The U.S. needs to be more convincing when relaying a message to the Iraqi people about the significant overlap between the U.S. and Iraq in order to change the perception that the U.S. engages in relationship building in an ad hoc manner prone to fits and starts. These times of big structural shifts on the world stage must invite and inspire leaders to break out of negative, dysfunctional patterns and embrace new ways of achieving positive change through smart power.

Molly Gallagher is the senior executive assistant for the U.S. Institute of Peace in Tunisia. 

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