During discussions with well-educated and professional Iraqis I keep hearing that the cause of Iraq’s inability to assert itself internationally is because there is no serious and continuous lobbying effort by Baghdad to rally support for its causes. While I believe in the importance of lobbying and other approaches to soft power, I don’t think that it is the answer to Baghdad’s toughest problems.
This issue of lobbying often comes up during discussions related to the KRG. Many believe that the KRG is successfully ‘punching above its weight’, getting deals for itself and more significantly attempt to undermine Baghdad, all that through serious lobbying efforts. People often suggest that Baghdad should do the same in order to get what it wants.
Without doubt, a country must use all available legal means to achieve its goals and influence others, Iraq no exception. In addition, the KRG is definitely more successful in its endeavors because of its lobbying efforts. However, one must note that the KRG lobbying efforts are often dubious, and potentially illegal. Freedom of Information regulations in the United States and other countries allow researchers to get access to the contracts between different entities and lobbying firms. The public numbers payed by the KRG for lobbying purposes are significant. However, given the lack of transparency in KRG finances regarding many aspects, and the correlation between think tanks and several foreign dignitaries on one hand and KRG interests on the other hand, one has to assume that more than what is announced is going on under the table.
On the other hand, Baghdad would not be able to engage in such practices the same way the KRG does. Quite obviously, lobbying does not seem to be in Baghdad’s repertoire of getting things done. But if lobbying was practiced, Baghdad would not think, nor would it be able to get away easily with intransparent lobbying practices. While the Iraqi parliament has many shortcomings, it closely watches the government finances. Also, given the current financial crisis, lobbying would rank low in Baghdad priorities. Paying large amounts of money for services that might not lead to results would garner sharp internal criticisms the government would be better off without.
More importantly, although the KRG lobbying efforts have been practiced for more than a decade, the Kurdish leaders were not able to win over the international community, most importantly the United States, to accept the results of the unilateral referendum held on 25th of September 2017 in the region and the so called ‘disputed areas’. All permanent members of the UNSEC, EU, UN, Arab League, in addition to Iran and Turkey opposed it and rejected its results. Ankara has large economic interests in Iraqi Kurdistan, but in regards to independence the rhetoric became harsh very fast. The same applies to Iran who is engaged in substantial trading activities with the Kurds but was the first to close its airspace to Kurdish airplanes after it was clear that the KRG would go on with its referendum unilaterally. This shows that when it comes to certain strategic interests, global balances, and developments with long-term effects, no lobbying effort can influence the main stance of key global and regional actors. Kurdistan’s independence is one of these issues, at least for now.
Regardless of what the KRG does, Baghdad needs to increase its lobbying efforts when there is perceived benefits and potential to achieve certain goals. However, lobbying should not be regarded the main approach to become influential. Baghdad needs to change the way it engages with the [global] public as well. It is obliged to improve and diversity its interaction with the media, and work harder on making its message more accessible to the world. Baghdad also needs to improve its diplomatic efforts. A more coherent foreign policy needs to be pursued in which Baghdad asserts its global interests and makes its vision for the future clearer.
That said, the better and more permanent approach for Baghdad to become relevant in global politics is to continue its administrative and financial reforms. Iraq’s credibility increased dramatically when it quickly restructured its security apparatus shortly after the invasion of ISIS, and was able to liberate Iraqi territories in record time by smartly investing in the international support and mobilizing all its sources of strength to incorporate them into its well planned liberation efforts. Concurrently, it was able to overcome the harsh financial crisis caused by the sharp decline in oil prices through cutting costs and implementing some effective economic reforms. These significant victories sent a message to the world that Iraq is capable of overcoming very difficult obstacles, and that Baghdad has the ability to move forward despite the many setbacks.
The global support for the integrity of Iraq’s territory was a vote of confidence for Baghdad’s current reform policy and leadership style, which in my opinion proved to be more effective than any lobbying effort by the KRG. It is important that Iraq continues moving forward on this path, and that it does its best to eliminate the causes pushing Erbil to lobby elsewhere instead of talking directly to Baghdad, assuming there are any.
Muhammad Al-Waeli is an Iraqi commentator on political and social issues. He is currently doing a PhD in Human Resource Management and is interested in politics, media, and development.