Iraq today is deteriorating in ways that should worry the United States. The country is gripped by its largest protests since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Unrest in early October has boiled over into a broad-based rage at Iraq’s political system. A brutal crackdown in response has killed at least 320 Iraqis and badly damaged Iraq’s image as an aspiring democracy.1 As mass protests persist, Iraq’s prime minister has resigned as its political system loses legitimacy at an alarming rate. 

The Iraqi protesters braving bullets to decry corruption and demand a better government show Iraq’s enduring promise. However, the country’s current crisis is also the latest warning sign that Iraq could once again stumble on the path from battlefield success to the peacetime stability that is supposed to follow. Instead, absent significant changes, the country risks lapsing into violent unrest, divisive and ineffective governance, creeping authoritarianism,2 and the politicized hollowing out of security institutions. These factors have in the past created openings for ISIS, lawless militias, or other violent actors to exploit, to the detriment of Iraqis. They could easily do so again.

As Iraqis navigate their immediate political crisis, the United States can still play a meaningful role in helping them arrest this broader deterioration. But doing so will require deeper, steadier U.S. engagement that goes beyond Iran, oil, and even ISIS to invest in Iraq’s stability as a good in itself—and to recognize that stability will prove illusory until Iraq’s 38 million people, three-fifths of them under age 25, begin to feel the benefits of better governance.3

U.S. Influence Depends on Engagement

To its credit, the Trump administration has prudently decided to maintain the U.S. military commitment to Iraq—a continued presence that gives America important influence far beyond the actual counterterrorism training mission.4 However, exercising that leverage requires a footprint that extends beyond U.S. trainers to include diplomats and American political leaders—and that requires a continuing welcome by the government of Iraq.

In previous U.S. administrations, of both parties, top leaders spoke regularly with their Iraqi counterparts and became familiar, trusted interlocutors. Despite tensions, leaders and lower-rank officials from Iraq and the United States established trust in a give-and-take relationship. President George W. Bush, for example, held weekly videoconferences with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.5 After a hiatus, Vice President Joe Biden came to assume this lead role as well.6 As Mideast adviser to Vice President Biden during the anti-ISIS campaign, I saw firsthand how these relationships reinforced diplomats’ work on the ground. These personal contacts made clear that Iraq remained a priority; illustrated that the White House stood behind what Iraqis were hearing from American diplomats; helped seal agreements; and made possible sensitive conversations and difficult asks.

For example, in the months after ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014, U.S. leaders made clear that America’s full military commitment depended on Iraqis forming an inclusive government and a national program that could unite the country.7 As diplomats in the field shuttled among Iraqis negotiating the contours of Iraq’s next government, they called in support from the vice president and other senior U.S. officials. This made clear to Iraqis that the U.S. government spoke with one voice; and that unity helped encourage outgoing and incoming Iraqi leaders to give the country a fresh start, by installing new faces as prime minister and parliament speaker who became close working partners in the campaign that retook all of Iraq’s territory from ISIS.

As the military campaign took shape throughout the second half of 2014, high-level political engagement led to progress on many sensitive issues—signaling U.S. priorities and helping to “unstick” issues bottled up in bureaucracy. For Iraqis too, these calls offered a direct channel to have their concerns aired and addressed at the leader level, whether the issue was visa restrictions on senior Kurdish officials or short supplies of Hellfire missiles Iraqi forces needed to hold off ISIS. When managed and executed with care, such interactions build interpersonal trust and political capital to draw on when difficulties arise.

When Iraq’s creaky Mosul Dam came under ISIS control and threatened to collapse and unleash a massive and dangerous flood, it took persistent U.S. pressure at the highest levels to impart a sense of urgency to Iraqis who were simultaneously busy fighting ISIS and skeptical of the threat posed by the dam’s precarity.8 A combination of on-the-ground diplomacy, public messaging, and persistent private high-level pressure eventually broke the impasse.9 It led to a U.S. role coordinating and brokering between the Kurdish Peshmerga who fought to liberate the dam, American engineers who inspected it, an intransigent Sadrist water minister who refused to meet directly with American officials, and a team of Italian private engineers who ultimately did the grouting required to keep functional what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers once called “the most dangerous dam in the world.”10 The effort averted what could have become a humanitarian catastrophe.

It was inevitable that U.S. influence would fall from this high watermark. But that fall should not now consign the United States to watch passively from the sidelines.

Just as vital were quiet, politically difficult conversations with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi about the need to keep Iraqi militias out of areas already liberated from ISIS, while racing to deliver stabilization aid so that Iraqis could begin returning home.11 This push also required signaling, listening, and coordination at the highest levels. It mattered, because the Obama administration had made the case to Congress and the public that it would do better to partner with Iraq’s military and not with Iran-backed militias. Also, it was already clear these militias would seek to use their prestige to undermine the Iraqi state. None of these successes were complete or permanent, and none  of them came easily, even as America helped Iraq fight for its very survival. It was inevitable that U.S. influence would fall from this high watermark. But that fall should not now consign the United States to watch passively from the sidelines. Persistent high-level engagement and diplomacy don’t always produce immediate results, but they do position the United States to be able to act when openings and crises arise.

A Troubling Pattern of Missteps

To be fair, the current administration has used U.S. influence in Iraq to take a few significant steps forward. It deployed the threat of anti-Iranian sanctions to force Iraqis to pledge to cease the wasteful practice of flaring its natural gas and reduce imports from Iran—a significant commitment requiring dogged U.S. follow-through until it is implemented.12 The Trump administration successfully pressed Iraq’s government to sign commercial contracts with U.S. oil and infrastructure firms as Iraq hits new record highs for oil production, which funds Iraq’s government.13 And the United States brokered an important rapprochement between Iraq’s government and Saudi Arabia, which holds the promise of offering Iraq meaningful regional alternatives to Iran.14

However, a series of recent developments suggest that the absence of high-level interest and the general policy chaos in Washington are exacting a toll on America’s influence inside Iraq.

Last December, on a surprise holiday visit to U.S. forces inside Iraq, President Trump failed to meet a single Iraqi leader.15 This slight offended Iraqis and squandered an opportunity to build personal rapport or bolster Iraq’s politically beleaguered prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

In February, Trump compounded the damage by declaring that America only remained inside Iraq to “watch Iran,” angering even those officials most sympathetic to U.S. interests in Iraq.16

In May, after Trump administration policies spiked tensions with Iran to the boiling point, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo evacuated all nonessential staff from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, leaving only a diplomatic skeleton crew to represent U.S. interests. The drawdown, along with the departure of U.S. diplomats from southern Iraq last September, appears permanent.17

Most recently, the Trump administration announced the redeployment of 1,000 U.S. troops from Syria into Iraq without notifying Iraqi officials, who had not granted permission.18

Individually, missteps like these are manageable. In aggregate, they reflect current U.S. priorities, which do not appear to include Iraq or sustained attention to diplomacy. This careless approach harms U.S. standing. Trump did not meet Iraq’s most recent prime minister, who held that office for more than a year. Vice President Pence’s interest seems largely limited to the endangered Christian communities of the Ninewa Plain.19 On a recent visit, he traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan and spoke by phone with Iraq’s then-prime minister from a U.S. air base, but security concerns reportedly prevented him from traveling to Baghdad to meet senior Iraqi officials.20 All of this means that envoys and diplomats pleading for U.S. interests in the rest of Iraq have little top cover from the White House at best, significant damage control to perform, and diminished pull with Iraqi counterparts. It also ensures an overly militarized U.S. posture and policy, at a time when Iraqis increasingly prioritize economic and political concerns.

It should not be surprising, then, that Iraqis such as President Barham Salih, long friendly to Americans, said Trump’s actions are causing countries to “recalibrate” and “rethink” relations.21 As former Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie recently put it, “American allies and America’s foes are all totally confused about what the U.S. wants in the region. We don’t understand, to be honest with you.”22

Had the Trump administration invested in ties at the highest levels and proven able to execute, it might have helped the United States quietly prevail on Iraqi political leaders to resist militia pressure to change the leadership of the highly capable, U.S.-trained Counterterrorism Service.23 At a minimum, it would have been worth testing that proposition. As the subsequent outcry makes clear, this is an area where America is aligned with a great deal of Iraqi nationalist sentiment.

Next Steps

The current protests—and recent missteps—ought to be a sign that U.S. priorities need to change.

As a first step, U.S. leaders should treat Iraq not merely as a geopolitical battleground against Iran, but as a partner nation whose stability matters in and of itself. Pushing back on malign Iranian influence in Iraq remains a critical U.S. goal and one shared by a great many Iraqis. As Iran manipulates Iraqi politics to be less responsive to popular discontent and pressures Iraqi militias to fire on protesters,24 its actions clearly threaten a range of other U.S. goals and Iraqi aspirations.25

However, that pushback risks being counterproductive if it undermines Iraq’s overall stability or America’s ability to remain in the country.26 At times, the Trump administration’s single-minded focus on squeezing Iran politically inside Iraq has run counter to U.S. goals to influence a broader cross-section of Iraqi Shia groups. In some cases, immediate and sharp pushback will be necessary, for example against the targeting of U.S. personnel, against the use of Iraqi territory for Iranian missile stockpiles or strikes or to preserve the professionalism of the elite, U.S.-trained counterterrorism services.

In the run-up to protests, the demotion of a decorated Conterterrorism Service commander under pressure from militias was an ominous sign and a contributor to popular disgust.27 The United States should resist injecting itself too forcefully into the anti-Iranian dimension of the protesters’ grievances with their own government. These grievances are constructive for Iraqi politics and may open doors to push back against undue Iranian interference.28 However, an American-led effort to use the protests to poke at Iran inside Iraq—rather than to focus on Iraqis’ demands from their own government—would almost certainly backfire and risk broadening Iraqis’ grievance to include U.S. as well as Iranian intervention.29

Instead, the most effective long-term U.S. counter to Iran remains to empower Iraqi nationalists—from the public squares to the ministries—seeking to build viable, sovereign, independent, and effective governing and security institutions. This is frustrating work, because Iran has many enduring levers of power inside Iraq and exercises strong influence over Iraqi’s government. However, saber rattling to the brink of war with Iran and then evacuating diplomats while Iran remains behind in full force accomplishes little. A more sustainable approach is needed.

As Iraq navigates its current political crisis, the United States should continue to respectfully call for restraint by Iraqi security forces, as it has belatedly begun to do. This should be coupled with a firmer private message from the administration and from Congress. Over time, the United States should consider sanctioning Iraqi militias involved in killing protesters under the Global Magnitsky Act.30 If Iraq’s crackdown signals a turn toward authoritarian-style repression or, as a recent article memorably put it, “A New Republic of Fear,” that should undermine long-term U.S. support for Iraq.31

At the moment, even if the political will existed to do so, neither Iraqi protesters nor civil society are fully prepared for the dialogue both will need to have to translate protest into political change and avoid further bloodshed.32 Over time, the United States and other international partners could help build that capacity on both sides, sending a strong message of support for dialogue rather than repression.

The United States should urge pragmatism and responsiveness in negotiating the next political steps. Both urgent near-term reforms and a years-long effort to achieve longer term structural change are essential.33 The United States should make clear that Iraqis—not Americans and not Iranians—must decide the right sequence and their current government’s fate.

However, the United States can and must engage with whatever Iraqi leadership emerges from these protests—both in government and in civil society. Such an effort starts with high-level meetings and assigning a senior U.S. point person for Iraq and restoring the United States to full diplomatic presence. But it must go further—beyond counterterrorism, oil, Iran, and Christian villages—to include a State Department–led engagement plan to reach the next generation of Iraqis and help them in areas ranging from job training to civil society workshops. To maintain influence, the United States needs to push Iraqis to hold themselves accountable to their commitments to reform a political system that has not delivered. That could prove to be a fruitless slog, but the odds of success without U.S. prodding are even lower. Moreover, merely being seen as trying to help Iraqi youth is a public diplomacy opportunity to increase America’s standing.

Support for universal human rights for Iraqis regardless of sect and ethnicity will have to be reintegrated into U.S. policy.

Support for universal human rights for Iraqis regardless of sect and ethnicity will have to be reintegrated into U.S. policy. Killing protesters raises the odds of violent instability. Warehousing Sunnis in displaced persons camps—or failing to create the conditions that allow for their safe return home—may be politically expedient today, but it is a recipe for a renewed terror threat tomorrow and undermines the fraught process of mending Iraq’s ruptured social fabric.34 While the United States may not wish to fund reconstruction, it should still spend civilian assistance on stabilizing areas liberated from ISIS, many of which have been neglected. And it should exert greater energy to press Iraqis and others to invest in rebuilding.

Dealing with the shortcomings of Iraq’s political system will require the United States to act with a sort of dual vision: on the one hand, competing for influence among today’s Iraqi political elites and pressing them to reform the system from within; and on the other, forging a broader set of ties with Iraqi political leaders, youth, civil society, and technocratic experts to help shape the country’s democratic future. That last effort at broadening people-to-people ties among a younger generation of Americans and Iraqis is almost entirely lacking. Counterterrorism, Iran, and oil will almost certainly remain central issues for bilateral relations between America and Iraq. But if they are the only issues, both Iraq and the relationship will grow needlessly brittle.

Iraq Is More Than Another “Endless War”

Given Iraq’s serious political challenges, it will undoubtedly be tempting for the United States to walk away from Iraq as another “endless war.35 That would be a mistake. While Iraq may no longer capture headlines in the United States, it still matters for U.S. interests.36 It sits on the frontlines of three interlocking struggles that will shape the future of the region: the fight against jihadist terrorism, the prevention of both Iranian regional hegemony and outright regional war with Iran, and, most importantly, the struggle to show that peoples of different sects and ethnicities can still live together peacefully in today’s Middle East.37

For all its missteps, America still has much to offer Iraq as a partner: close relations with the world’s most professional counterterrorism forces; a voice at the lead table of international financial institutions and donor conferences; a counterweight to help Iraq gain strategic independence from Iran by diversifying its ties. Unlike Iran, the United States does not seek to diminish Iraq or devour its state from the inside. Even after a disastrous invasion, occupation, withdrawal of U.S. troops, and other recent Trumpian offenses, many Iraqis remain open to a meaningful U.S. role in Iraqi politics.

But Iraq is not standing still. Where the country is headed—whether pulled backward into past pathologies or carried forward toward the idealistic vision embodied by the protests—remains an open question. Recent events offer ample cause for concern, but also for a cautious hope that Iraqis might defy the odds to write a new and better chapter for themselves. The period ahead is sure to be turbulent. America should reengage to shape what happens next.

Cover photo: A flag waves over Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq. Source: Erin Trieb/Getty Images


  1. Miriam Berger, “A breakdown of the death tolls in some of the more-high-profile protests around the world,” Washington Post, November 15, 2019,; “Iraq: Deadly Sniper Attacks and Intimidation as Protesters Face Intensifying Crackdown,” Amnesty International, October 9, 2019,
  2. Renad Mansour, “Iraq’s New Republic of Fear,” Foreign Affairs, November 20, 2019,
  3. Harith Hasan, “Iraq Is Currently Being Shaken by Violent Protests,” Carnegie Middle East Center, October 4, 2019,
  4. Daniel Benaim and Jeffrey Prescott, “Will Trump Scuttle the Success of Retaking Mosul?” Foreign Policy, March 20, 2017,
  5. Michael Gordon, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (New York: Pantheon, 2013), 694.
  6. Clemons, Steve, “The Biden Doctrine,” The Atlantic, August 22, 2016,
  7. President Barack Obama, “Statement by the President on ISIL,” September 10, 2014,
  8. Dexter Filkins, “A Bigger Problem Than ISIS?” New Yorker, December 25, 2016,
  9. Louis Charbonneau, “U.S. Warns Mosul Dam Collapse Would Be Catastrophic,” Reuters, March 9, 2016,
  10. Dexter Filkins, “A Bigger Problem Than ISIS?” New Yorker, December 25, 2016,; Saif Hameed, “Italian Engineers Need Two Months Before Starting Dam Repairs: Ministry,” Reuters, March 14, 2016.
  11. Joe Biden, “Remarks on Iraq,” National Defense University, April 9, 2015,
  12. Jennifer Gnana and Jamie Prentis, “Iraq to Eliminate Gas Flaring by 2022,” The National, June 28, 2019,
  13. “America is trying to get more out of its relationship with Iraq,” The Economist, January 12, 2019,; Natasha Turak, “Iraq Is Pumping Record Oil, Creating A ‘fully-blown Migraine’ For Opec’s Cutting Plans,” CNBC, September 6, 2019,
  14. Ghassan Adnan and Isabel Coles, “Iraqi Premier’s Visit to Saudi Arabia Reflects Deeper Ties to Kingdom,” Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2019,
  15. Philip Issad, “Furious Iraqi lawmakers demand US troop withdrawal,” Associated Press, December 27, 2018,
  16. Eric Schmitt and Alissa Rubin, “Trump Calls for Keeping Troops in Iraq to Watch Iran, Possibly Upending ISIS Fight,” New York Times, February 3, 2019,
  17. Robbie Graemer, “Pompeo Seeks to Make Baghdad Embassy Pullout Permanent, Officials Say,” Foreign Policy, July 12, 2019,
  18. Alexandra Ma, “Iraq Says Us Troops Leaving Syria Can’t Redeploy There And Have To Leave In 4 Weeks, A Fresh Embarrassment In Trump’s Botched Withdrawal,” Business Insider, October 23, 2019,
  19. Carol Morello, “Under Pressure from Pence, U.S. Aid Is Directed to Christian, Yazidi Communities in Iraq,” Reuters, June 16, 2018,
  20. Zeke Miller, “Pence works to reassure Kurdish allies in surprise Iraq trip,” Associated Press, November 23, 2019,
  21. Jonathan Swan, “Exclusive: Iraq President Reveals Trump Fears; Warns Of War, Ethnic Cleansing,” Axios, October 27, 2019,
  22. Yaroslav Trofimov, “America Can’t Get Out of the Middle East,” Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2019,
  23. David Witty, “Iraq’s Post-2014 Counterterrorism Service,” Washington Institute, October 2018,
  24. Bilal Wahab, “Iraqi Freedom Confronts Iranian Domination,” Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2019,
  25. Michael Knights, “Exposing and Sanctioning Human Rights Violations by Iraqi Militias,” Washington Institute Policy Analysis, October 22, 2019,
  26. Michael Wahid Hanna and Thanassis Cambanis, “Trump;s Iraq Strategy Is Foolish,”Foreign Affairs, February 14, 2019,
  27. Hussein Dawood, “Iraq after the ‘October Protests’: A Different Country,” European Council on Foreign Relations, October 11, 2019,; Mustafa Saadoun, “Iran’s Influence Seen in Transfer of Iraqi War Hero,”Al-Monitor, October 4, 2019,
  28. Bilal Wahab, “Iraqi Freedom Confronts Iranian Domination,” Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2019,
  29. C. Anthony Pfaff, “Iraq Protests: How Should the Government and the US Respond?” Atlantic Council, October 3, 2019,
  30. Michael Knights, “Exposing and Sanctioning Human Rights Violations by Iraqi Militias,” Washington Institute Policy Analysis, October 22, 2019,
  31. Renad Mansour, “Iraq’s New Republic of Fear,” Foreign Affairs, November 20, 2019,
  32. Hussein Dawood, “Iraq after the ‘October Protests’: A Different Country,” European Council on Foreign Relations, October 11, 2019,
  33. C. Anthony Pfaff, “Iraq Protests: How Should the Government and the US Respond?” Atlantic Council, October 3, 2019,
  34. Thanassis Cambanis, “The Coming Emergency in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, November 1, 2019,
  35. Donald Trump, “The Endless Wars Must End!” October 12, 2019, 5:20PM,
  36. Michael Wahid Hanna and Thanassis Cambanis, “Trump’s Iraq Strategy Is Foolish,” Foreign Affairs, February 14, 2019,
  37. Daniel Benaim and Hardin Lang, “Engage and Compete,” Center for American Progress, January 18, 2018,