“This week in #Kuwait, Secretary Tillerson and the US delegation will join other governments & members of the private sector to discuss ways to facilitate the large-scale reconstruction taking place in #Iraq,” the U.S. Embassy in Iraq tweeted before dawn on Feb. 12. Just a few hours later, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted out his own priorities: “This will be a big week for Infrastructure. After so stupidly spending $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is now time to start investing in OUR Country!”
The success against the Islamic State group in Iraq stands as one of the crowning foreign policy achievements of President Trump’s first year in office. True to his word, President Trump intensified U.S. counterterrorism operations upon taking office, galvanizing a global coalition to destroy ISIS across Iraq, including in the northern city of Mosul.
By November, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi felt confident enough to tweet: “We finished Daesh [ISIS] militarily in Iraq and liberated our towns and cities.”
Today, ISIS no longer controls large-scale territory in the country.
This sets up a major test for the Trump administration — an opportunity to operationalize its concept of burden-sharing. To date, the Trump administration has continued large-scale humanitarian and stabilization assistance to Iraq. As the president’s tweet suggests, however, he has no intention of spending U.S. taxpayer money on the next phase in Iraq: reconstruction.
Recently, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert reaffirmed that policy. “Our policy posture has changed since previous administrations — remember, we used to be in the whole nation-building [business]. The United States government is not doing that any longer,” she stated. “We see that it’s best for the countries and best for the region, too — and U.S. taxpayers — to have other people participate in the reconstruction, large-scale reconstruction of these countries.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began laying the groundwork for this shift well before the reconstruction conference in Kuwait this week. For the past month, he has sought to ease Saudi concerns of an Iranian takeover in Baghdad in the hopes of winning a reconstruction commitment from Riyadh. And despite declining to pledge public money, the U.S. worked assiduously to facilitate the participation of more than 2,300 private companies, including many American firms, at the conference.
Even so, the rebuilding of Iraq has a Sisyphean quality to it: After spending billions of dollars on reconstruction last decade, U.S. partners are weary to sink money into the country yet again.
By the end of the conference, allies had pledged merely $30 billion to Iraq, mostly in credit facilities, which U.S. officials stressed was just the beginning of an extensive fundraising offensive. For U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, it was enough to pronounce the conference “an enormous success.”
In the security realm, Trumpian burden-sharing is proceeding along a similar track. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has requested NATO allies increase their security assistance to Iraq, reportedly sending a letter to Brussels calling for a formal training mission to the country. On Feb. 15, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appeared supportive of the initiative, stressing at a news conference that “it is extremely important to stabilize the country after the combat operations have ended.”
The Trump administration will push to finalize the issue next July at the NATO summit in Brussels, presenting it as compensation for allies who have yet to hit the target of 2 percent of gross domestic product for defense spending. If successful, such an appeal could allow the U.S. to lower its military footprint in the country.
President Trump’s red line on spending U.S. public funds for Iraqi reconstruction is a high-stakes wager. Ideally, it will position our allies to spend more, allowing Iraq’s reconstruction to proceed without large-scale U.S. funding.
However, if it comes up short, it could also exacerbate the fragile sectarian balance between Iraqi Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, erasing the gains of the past year and lessening U.S. influence.
Similarly, banking on a NATO mission to strengthen Iraq’s security sector requires support from European allies, many of whom regard it as akin to the one in Afghanistan — unpopular at home and never ending abroad. In its early stages, however, the U.S. appears to be making progress in both areas.
In May, Iraqis head to the polls to elect a new parliament, reshuffling the Iraqi political landscape. For months, beginning with a major address last October, President Trump has promised a sustained campaign to roll back Iran in the region. Now, with the collapse of ISIS, Iraqi politics enters a new stage in which Iran and the U.S. will be jockeying for position just as the U.S. unveils a new approach to reconstruction and security.
Will the Trump administration be successful in pressing and coordinating allies rather than committing its own resources? The outcome of this new strategy will go a long way toward determining the future of Iraq — and thus, the American position in the Middle East.
Jonas Parello-Plesner and Peter Rough are fellows at the Hudson Institute think tank.