Rebalancing the Middle East

Yesterday’s friend, today’s enemy: President George W. Bush with Shia Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2006, top; Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen armed with US weapons

NEW HAVEN: Haider al-Abadi made his first visit to the White House April 14 as the prime minister of Iraq and requested expedited delivery of US weapons and F-16s to fight ISIS.

The prime minister’s trip to Washington offered an opportunity for the White House to refine not only its policy towards Iraq but also to resolve how Iraq fits within a broader strategy for the Middle East.

Currently, Washington’s regional policy is narrowly focused on achieving three objectives: the defeat of the Islamic State, principally in Iraq and then in Syria; neutralization of other extremist groups in the region that could threaten to the US or our allies; and the successful conclusion of a nuclear agreement with Iran.

Critics point to inconsistencies in the US approach to the region as it deals with each country on a bilateral basis, at times seemingly aligning with Iran and Shia militias against ISIS in Iraq and at other times aligning with Saudi Arabia against Iranian-backed Shia militias in Yemen.

Washington needs to better understand the dynamics in the region if it is to contribute to bringing about stability rather than exacerbating conflict.

Both the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 under President George Bush and the manner in which the US departed Iraq under President Obama left the Iraqi state weak and altered the balance of power in the region in Iran’s favor. The result has been intensified regional competition between Iran and the Sunni powers of the Gulf – foremost among them Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – which has exacerbated existing fault-lines, strengthened sectarian extremists, and transformed local grievances over poor governance into proxy regional wars in Syria and Yemen.