Iraq In The Middle Part V: David Forsythe on Iraq’s Relations with its Democratic Partners

This on-going series examines the foreign relations of a regionally important transitional nation (Iraq) in the context of diplomatic leverage. To discuss Iraq’s relations with the nations often dubbed “the West,” I was very glad to have the opportunity to interview David Forsythe, expert on what is often cited as the cornerstone of our shared democratic values: human rights. For more information on the rationale behind this series, please see my blog.

RT: Some readers might think the inclusion of human rights in trade agreements is an exclusively liberal idea. Recall the 1974 Jackson Vanik agreement however, which barred preferential trade with Russia for blocking the emigration of Jewish citizens, and we see that human rights in such agreements is a not an abnormal part of foreign policy, as Sec. State Clinton remarked, “Respect for human rights is not a western construct or a uniquely American ideal; it is the foundation for peace and stability everywhere.” 

Normally, democracies will wait for a severe breakdown of relations with a nation state before imposing punitive sanctions, e.g. North Korea, Iran and Burma. Another approach would be to use trade to influence transitional countries, rather than waiting for a crisis. 

In the case of Iraq and Maliki’s deteriorating human rights record, do you think the US should use trade as leverage over the Iraqi government, or is pressuring a huge TNC such as Exxon simply an un-American thing to do?

It is worth noting here that US Trade Representative Ron Kirk does not think renewed US trade with Russia should include HR clauses. Also, despite serious concern over US oil companies making deals with Iraqi Kurdistan, a White House spokesman simply said that “in our economic system, private companies make their own business decisions, largely beyond the reach of government control.” The White House instead advised US IOC’s to “consider the legal risks involved in signing deals with a region, against Baghdad's wishes, and are concerned that such deals could be destabilizing.”

DPF:  Almost always, USFP only takes a punitive approach to human rights violations abroad in small weak countries that do not figure in US calculations about its major interests.  So the US may sanction Burma or Zimbabwe or Sudan, but will not apply sanctions to China or Russia—or Iraq.  It takes a gross violation, such as Tiananmen Square, to produce a sanction against an important state, and even then normal relations are restored as quickly as possible—as with China after Tiananmen.  This may be right or wrong, but it is the pattern.  The US, even under a Democratic President supposedly sympathetic to human rights, will be reluctant to press Iraq, short of atrocities by the government, for fear of contributing (further) to Iranian expansion of influence and further expansion of influence by others such as China.  And especially in time of a sluggish economy, USFP will be even more hesitant to restrict US corporations abroad in the name of human rights.  

Such pressure would only open up Iraq for French and other corporations.  Now this US position flies in the face of the UN Global Compact, which urges corporations to pay attention to human rights.  But if discussing USFP and Iraqi violations of human rights, one might find some US quiet diplomacy, but negative pressure and sanctions would be unlikely, in my judgment.  The 2003 invasion and resulting empowerment of the Iraqi Shia already has led to more Iranian influence under the Shia clerics in Tehran.  The US under either Democrats or Republicans is not anxious to assist Iran more.  Obama has a strong realist streak, which emphasizes US self-interest rather than moral crusades that jeopardize economic and security interests.  So if you are representing a small, unimportant state, or clearly an enemy state like North Korea, you have to worry about US sanctions.  But not so much for al-Maliki, which is why he continues to repress.

RT: Google “EU, human rights, democracy promotion” and you will find a plethora of mission statements detailing how the EU is committed to these notions in its Preferential Trading Agreement’s and foreign policy in general. Below is one example from the EU website: 

“The EU has put the human rights issue at the forefront of its relations with other countries and regions. All agreements on trade or cooperation with non-EU countries contain a clause stipulating that human rights are an essential element in relations. There are now more than 120 such agreements. The most comprehensive is the Cotonou Agreement – the trade and aid pact which links the EU with 79 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific (the ACP group). If any ACP country fails to respect human rights, EU trade concessions can be suspended and aid programmes curtailed. The EU sees democratic political structures as a precondition for reducing poverty – the main objective of its overseas development policy. It applies the same principles to other partner countries.” 

And yet, the reality with Iraq is somewhat divergent from this noble idea. In Europe, governments are as excited as the Americans or the Chinese about Iraq’s energy potential. One feels that human rights and democracy promotion are forgotten in this energy gold rush. When it comes to an energy resource rich country like Iraq, it seems as if the EU statement that “human rights are an essential element in relations” is not strictly true. Why do you think we are so timid in the West when it comes to backing up these noble ideas? 

DPF:  The EU, being made up of self-interested states, is not so different from the US.  Both make all sorts of nice sounding speeches in behalf of human rights abroad, and both have “legislation” that links human rights to trade and foreign assistance.  But neither the EU nor the US shows that it is anxious to upset major economic and security interests for the rights of others.  Moreover, the EU really does not control member states foreign policies.  So the UK, like the US, continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia despite Saudi torture and repression of democratic advocates.  The monarchy is an ally in trying to stamp out Islamic extremists, and in providing oil at reasonable prices.  The EU shows some serious interest in linking trade to human rights in small and weak developing countries, but that’s about it.  Moreover, the EU is often divided on such questions.  In the past some EU states were interested in some type of pressure on China for human rights violations, but other EU countries were not.  If the UK wanted a tougher approach to China, the French were ready to move in and take the contracts.

RT: To understand Iraqi public opinion regarding the West, we must not only look to Israel and the Palestinians but also to the issue of Shi’a minority rights in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as well as perceived Western support for the FSA and simultaneous ignorance of Saudi/ Qatari human rights abuses. Perceived Western hypocrisy represents a security challenge in the sense that it gives political ammunition to those that oppose rapprochement with the West (I refer here to rapprochement between the West and the people of the Middle East, as opposed to good relations between the West and the partially legitimate remaining autocracies of the region.) The US Treasury's recent targeting of Iraq’s Islamic Eslaf bank in sanctions against Iran can be seen as hypocrisy when the rulers in Bahrain only receive a mild rebuke from the DoS for their human rights infringements. How damaging are these double standards and do you blame citizens of the Middle East for not trusting us as a result?*

DPF:  Middle East political circles are very aware of US and Western double standards on human rights.  Bahrain and the repression of the Shia majority, the repression being implemented by Saudi Arabia and supported by the US, is an excellent example.  Moreover, everyone knows about the US close relations with Israel and the US use of the UNSC veto to block attempted pressure on Israel for human rights violations in the Palestinian areas.  Now sometimes Obama has done what Reagan did re Pinochet and Marcos: stop supporting a dictator like Mubarak in part because of the realist calculation that history was moving in a certain direction and the US wanted to position itself for good relations at the time of the changing of the guard.  And, if the US can appear to be on the side of democracy and human rights w/o upsetting most of its other interests, as in Libya, then it may do so.  Syria is of course different from Libya b/c intervention against Assad is much more difficult, and the Russians and Chinese are playing a different game.  Despite much initial rhetoric, most US Administrations wind up being pragmatic and inconsistent, doing a case by case analysis of what can be done where.  Even Reagan and Bush, who started out with a strong ideological streak, proved more pragmatic over time.  Reagan came around to seeing Gorby as an ally and the UN as useful.  Bush came around to using the UN and the ICC to pressure Bashir in Sudan.

*(It is worth noting here that Standard Charter received a $340m dollar fine for allegedly doing $250bn worth of business with Iran. Following payment of the fine, their shares rose. Contrast this with the US Treasury statement on Islamic Eslaf: “We expect that today's action will have a significant chilling effect on the ability of Kunlun and Elaf to operate anywhere in the world.”

RT: A few months ago, I interviewed the former counterinsurgency advisor to Gen. Ray Odierno in Iraq (Emma Sky) and quoted US army field manual FM-3-24. The quote -and her response, is a fascinating example of the dis-connect between the desire for human rights and foreign policy synergy, and the realpolitik which stops it from happening: US army field manual FM 3-24. Appendix D, section D-34 states: 

Congress typically limits when it will fund training or equipment for foreign security forces. If the Department of State has credible information that the foreign security force unit identified to receive the training or equipment has committed a gross violation of human rights, Congress prohibits funding. Such prohibitions impose a requirement upon Department of State and DOD. These departments must vet the proposed recipient units against a database of credible reports of human rights violations. 

Emma Sky: It is difficult to use the threat of stopping weapons sales as leverage, particularly as Iraq has plenty of money to buy weapons from elsewhere. Iraq will continue to purchase weapons from other countries to ensure it is not totally dependent on the US. 

This seems to be an example of how we have few alternatives but to increase security cooperation with transitional friendly governments such as Iraq: if we pull out because of a deteriorating human rights record, those governments will simply go elsewhere (E.g. China, Russia.) Do you agree that this is correct?

DPF:  Correct.  The Pentagon does not like to make arms transfers conditional on human rights performance.  The State Department does not like to make foreign assistance conditional on that same performance.  Sometimes US diplomats will talk about the threat of a US decision suspending some link, often painting the Congress as the bad cop.  But if arms or aid is suspended, one has fired that bullet.  Better to warn that Congress might do something crazy in the future, which gives USFP types some attempted leverage with target states.  But it is true that manipulating a linkage often allows some other actor to move in and take the business.  China has no hesitancy to sign trade agreements in Africa without any human rights conditions.  China, Russia, even France are ready to pick up military sales if the US tries to use military assistance as leverage.  So as the so-called neo-realists say, the structure of international relations, and in particular the absence of world government and sure rule of law, make unilateral attempts at leverage or pressure complicated and difficult.

RT: Despite the danger of over reliance on the lucrative energy sector, Iraq is currently signing contracts worth billions of dollars with countries all over the world, from Iran and China to the US and South Korea, and many more nations, in many different areas from transport infrastructure to telecoms. In terms of leverage over Maliki’s government, we have outlined how the leverage of the US government over Iraq is limited, in terms of holding back arms or tying human rights to trade. Perhaps a better way forward is a multilateral approach, as Amb. Zalmay Khalizad remarked in 2007, 

“In the role of mediator, the UN has inherent legitimacy and the flexibility to talk to all parties. Through the International Compact, the influence that the UN has over the release of any assistance will give its envoy significant leverage to encourage compromise among Iraqi leaders.” 

In terms of influencing a government such as Iraq’s, do you think there is such a thing as coordinated diplomatic leverage, or are Iraq’s democratic partners (US, EU, India, Japan etc.) simply too divergent to act as a united force for change? 

DPF:  As per above, the world is characterized by 193 states often looking to advance their narrow self-interests.  As per above, even the Europeans could not agree on a unified approach to China re human rights violations, b/c some were willing to reduce trade agreements whereas others were not.  And there is also hypocrisy: re South Africa during apartheid, some states voted at the UN for a trade and arms embargo, then sold items to the apartheid regime under the table.  Same for UN sanctions on the Ian Smith regime in old Rhodesia:  a lot of cheating went on.  In some cases an important group of states can hold together and impose collective sanctions that have some effect, such as current democratic sanctions on Iran re nuclear weapons.  But note US and UN attempts to pressure Bashir of Sudan b/c of Darfur:  China received him on a state visit rather than arrest him as the ICC wanted.  Note Russia and China (and Iran) re Assad.  This is the collective action problem in a world with weak central institutions.  There is weak global governance and strong narrow nationalism.

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Sorry, one more.

I respectfully disagree with this point: "There is weak global governance and strong narrow nationalism."

IMO, there is weak, confused, contradictory, and hypocritical attempts at global governance, which privilege the threat perceptions and diplomatic priorities of a select few devoted to one idea of global governance.

Okay, on rereading, I have some questions (and I don't think anyone knows the answers, if they do, put that person in charge):

1. Military or other types of aid can fuel uncertainty and conflict, so even if we don't want to give up the leverage that we think it gives us, we are basically stuck in a situation where we have some leverage, but we also fuel conflict. Both go on at the same time. Is there a third way? For instance, when supporting the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, it started relatively modestly and then grew and became a stateside cause celebre and kind of outgrew certain boundries. Is a third way some kind of moderation? But once you open the gates, domestic lobbies push for more?

Do we overestimate our own leverage? I think we often do. Letting others attempt to leverage and become overextended is worth considering, sometimes. The dangers of our attempted leverage have been great in some conflicts, at times, but Western countries often ignore this while emphasizing the dangers of not being involved.

I'm not sure I buy entirely that Saudi Arabia is an ally against Islamist terrorism in all its various guises and in all regions of the world. If it directly and immediately threatens the monarchy, okay. If not, if it primarily threatens someone else, then no. I think in some ways it currently is, and in some ways it is not -- hesitance to shut off some money flows because of domestic considerations, or working with some less than savory actors because of its conflict with Iran.

I think we need to stop using the word ally so much, and think in terms of "frenemies," because that's what we all are to one another in a multipolar age. All alliances are not equal, yet our diplomatic community persists in thinking so, at times.

2. In the past, strong attempts at a kind of global governance by Western institutions have arguably created or sustained insecurity. There is an entire South Asian scholarship that studies Indian and Pakistani independence and studies this question, that there are deep memories of perceived attempts at arm twisting by the UN and suspicions of motives of various Western actors because of an attempt to mediate in a strong fashion. Often, this is left out of diplomatic histories, IMO.

3. Attempts to help the human rights of one group of people inadvertently challenged the human rights of a different group, so that Western human rights campaigners lack the legitimacy that they think they have.

Fascinating. Excellent post.

Within that rubric, are there better ways of doing things? I think that's an interesting question. Personally, I think it's a key question and one reenforced by Robert Tollast's latest post about Iraq - how do we deal with illiberal democracies or autocracies that we deem essential in terms of a security relationship? In our all or nothing fashion, we have had trouble with this. Perhaps that is always to be?

I included the above question in another thread here and wanted to add it to this comment section, because I thought it fit the conversation.

http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/the-new-security-reality-not-business-a...

Also, this from my other comment:

Globalization basically means that we are involved in both sides of a conflict most of the time (I mean, we actually pay for both sides of the conflict, etc.), even if we often don't admit it to ourselves. I'm sure that is not new either, but it is particularly acute at this time in our history.