Shifting to multilateralism

WASHINGTON — Though President-elect Barack Obama has yet to clarify his Iraq strategy, we can be sure of one thing: He will want Europe to do more.

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While the majority of European countries have contributed one way or another to the coalition, the war in Iraq has been profoundly unpopular in Europe. A majority of Europeans judge it unjustified and believe that the U.S. should clean up its own mess. Iraq’s volatile security situation has made Europeans chary of direct engagement.

It is not surprising then that Europe has been hesitant. It has pledged about $2.5 billion to Iraq’s reconstruction, a substantial sum, but a much smaller percentage of the total than in many other international operations. Most of the money is funneled through the United Nations and World Bank in a way that minimizes European exposure.

It is time for Europe to consider a more substantial effort — in exchange for a greater decision-making role. The new U.S. president will be open to a more multilateral approach to foreign policy.

America’s top priority will likely be more troops for Afghanistan, a request that Europe will not fulfill. The Dutch and Germans are more likely to withdraw entirely than offer more military support in Afghanistan, and others may follow suit.

If it wants America to persist with a more multilateral foreign policy under Obama, Europe needs to be quick to offer something else substantial. The EU and Britain have already shifted funds from UN and World Bank programs to bilateral efforts requiring an on-the-ground presence in Iraq. Italy, France and Germany now have leaders openly interested in improving relations with the U.S.

The essential prerequisites for a U.S.-European partnership in Iraq will be present in January. Both the U.S. and Europe want a single, stable Iraq that does not harbor terrorists or threaten its neighbors. Obama will want to demonstrate that U.S. policy is shifting in a more multilateral direction, laying the basis for at least a partial U.S. withdrawal. Europe will want to encourage this.

The improving security situation gives Europe incentives to engage in Iraq that have been lacking. And not only is it safer, but it is also likely to be far more lucrative. Iraq is already contracting for oil services with European and American companies.

What are Europe’s options for greater engagement? The U.S. needs Europe to contribute more on-the-ground state-building support. This is the EU’s forte.

In the past 35 years, the EU has taught 21 countries how to run their governments. This experience should be applied to the most pressing security and governance problem in Iraq: the Interior Ministry.

The U.S. soldiers and contractors currently mentoring there lack appropriate experience. The EU could adopt the ministry, undertaking a major effort to train its officials and ensure the police are nonsectarian, down to the neighborhood level.

To assist with Iraq’s internal political reconciliation, Europe could contribute several hundred additional staff to the UN, increasing its deployment of people in the provinces and enhancing its capacity to handle upcoming elections as well as manage the risks of ethnic and sectarian strife.

None of these efforts will be successful unless Iraq’s neighbors help by blocking assistance to insurgents and militias, and by corralling their Sunni and Shiite compatriots into stabilization efforts. Reluctant U.S. efforts with the neighbors have not produced great results. Europe should offer to help the new U.S. president to get the neighbors, especially Iran and Syria, on board.

What if Iraq descends into civil war? In this scenario, the U.S. and Europe would have to rely on containment. This would require European assistance with a vigorous regional strategy, including dissuading Iraq’s neighbors from interference as well as providing humanitarian assistance to countries accepting refugees.

Whatever happens in Iraq, things will go better if Europe and the U.S. work together.

(Daniel Serwer is vice president for peace and stability operations at the United States Institute of Peace, where Megan Chabalowski is a research assistant.)