With security improving in Iraq, it's possible for the first time in a long time to think about the role a sovereign Iraq will play in the Middle East.
Long ago, advocates of the war hoped the post-Saddam government would be in the vanguard of a changed Middle East. It would be democratic. It would be a reliable ally of the United States. And it would be an Arab country willing to deal with Israel. Well, Iraq was the major no-show at the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis last month.
Asked at the conference about Iraq's absence, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "We invited them. We thought that they could have made a positive contribution. They chose not to come." In fact, the Bush administration did more than just invite Iraq to Annapolis. Senior officials lobbied hard, making the case that Iraq needed to be there to show the world that a maturing Iraqi government is ready to be a regional player. President Bush personally asked Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to send a representative--a fact the White House does not like to advertise.
The Iraqis didn't turn down the invitation, they simply failed to respond to it. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari wanted to go, but Maliki refused to make a decision on whether to participate. The conference date approached, and it became too late for Zebari to travel to Annapolis. It was then suggested that the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Samir al-Sumaydi, represent Iraq at the conference.
On the morning of the conference, frustrated U.S. officials still did not have an answer. Amazingly, they had an easier time dealing with Syria, a government that barely has diplomatic relations with Washington. Syria was in town, and Maliki still hadn't made a decision. Ambassador al-Sumaydi, his briefcase packed, was ready to take the drive to Annapolis as soon as he had a green light from Baghdad.
Still unable or unwilling to make the decision, Maliki convened a secret cabinet meeting on the day of the conference to vote on whether to allow al-Sumaydi to go to Annapolis. A majority of the cabinet voted against attending. No one will say how the vote broke down, but a senior official tells me it wasn't even close. The public reason they gave for nonattendance was a "scheduling conflict."
But there is a more convincing reason: Iran. The Annapolis conference was designed in part to isolate Iran, the only country in the region not invited. Iran loudly condemned the conference and called for a boycott. As Iran's government spokesman said after the conference was announced, "Regarding our brotherhood relations with Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, we are not interested in these countries standing next to the U.S. and Israel."
In the end, the one Arab country the Iranians seems to have had enough influence to convince to boycott the conference was Iraq. (The Kuwaitis were also a no-show, but they were not lobbied to attend like the Iraqis.) Maliki faced a dilemma: skip the conference and offend the United States or attend the conference and offend Iran.
The United States has 160,000 troops in Iraq, but Iran also has real influence. The second largest embassy in Baghdad is the Iranian embassy. And unlike the American embassy, where almost none of the diplomats speak the language and almost all serve for terms of only 12 months, the Iranian embassy is staffed with people who have spent their entire careers working with some of Iraq's Shia political leadership, dating back to when those leaders were in the opposition--many of them in exile in Iran.
That is not to say that an independent Maliki government is going to be controlled by Iran, but it isn't controlled by the United States either. An Iraq that can stand on its own is an important goal for the United States, but we shouldn't be surprised when it doesn't stand exactly where we want it to.
Jonathan Karl is senior national security correspondent for ABC News.