(Cartoon by Iraqi artist Maytham Radhi)

Foreign influence is certainly one of the most serious challenges facing Iraq since 2003. While the issue is extensively discussed in the media and analyzed by think tanks, the prevailing theme of the discussion is how foreign influence in Iraq manifests itself.

In fact, the foreign influence theme in viewing the events in Iraq has morphed into a paradigm through which many analysts and decision makers explain virtually everything political happening in the country. The discussion goes beyond the influence of foreign powers in brokering election alliances and intervening in the negotiations of government formation. Every thing that is said, every visit that has been made, every meeting that takes place is seen through the lens of the ongoing power struggles between foreign actors in which Iraq does not have much to say.

While this might be annoying to the balanced Iraq observer, the analysis and reports of foreign experts and journalists reflect more or less the views and interests of their societies and the organizations they belong to. However, what is more problematic is that many Iraqi analysts and decision makers have adopted the same style of thinking. It has become the prevailing approach they view and react to the events related to their country, picturing Iraq as helpless and lost in the turmoil happening in and around it.

This way of thinking is however based on faulty assumptions about the nature of power and influence, which many ignore or are ignorant about. By applying Richard M. Emerson’s thinking about power and relations to Iraq’s situation, it becomes clear that Iraq has or at least can have more agency in its relations with other countries and entities, something that many are denying Iraq in their faulty analysis and limited views.

William Richard Scott in his excellent book about organizations discusses the views of Emerson about power, which he sees as having three main properties: Power is relational, situational, and reciprocal.

By relational it is meant that power is not a characteristic of an individual or entity, but a property of a relation. Applying this principle to the situation of Iraq, we cannot say that Iraq is weak or strong. Rather, we have to determine in comparison to which country Iraq is weak or strong, taking into consideration all the different characteristics of both countries when analyzing their power relation.

According to Scott, the power of the superordinate is based on their “ability and willingness to sanction others by providing or withholding rewards or penalties.” However, the interesting part is that what constitutes a reward and penalty is ultimately determined by the goals, values, and needs of the subordinate.

If a country for instance imposes an export embargo of a specific resource on Iraq, that country has only power over Iraq if the latter is in need of that specific resource. If however Iraq restructures its industry and reduces its dependence on that resource, it is in fact reducing the leverage that country has over Iraq, and therefore becoming stronger in its relation with that country. In other words, the less dependent Iraq is on what the other country has to offer, the more powerful it is in its relation to that country.

Furthermore, if Iraq is in need of that resource, but a second country with which Iraq has a good relationship is offering it, the power that the first country has over Iraq would be limited. This is why power is described as situational, because it is based on the situation of both sides of the relationship in question and changes accordingly.

The third characteristic of power according to Emerson is that it is reciprocal. As Scott describes it, “power relations can cut in both ways.” Iraq might need something, but it has things that other countries are desperately in need of. The obvious example is energy. Iraq is rich in its oil and gas resources, but in need of high-tech resources that energy hungry countries like Japan and Germany could offer. Hence, the mutual dependence or interdependence allows a country to form partnerships instead of followership relations with others.

What does this mean in light of Iraq’s foreign influence issue?

When thinking about foreign influence in Iraq, we need to consider the fact that Iraq is actually enabling it directly or indirectly. In other words, the situation of Iraq is inviting it. If Iraqis lack the will or ability to solve their own problems, they are giving the external parties offering intervention access to internal Iraqi politics, which often represents unwanted influence. If Iraqis do not have a solid plan to face the current financial crisis, they will be forced to borrow money from other countries and institutions, which might give them a say over Iraq’s economic policy. If Iraqis do not improve their defense and intelligence capacities, they will always be dependent on others in dealing with their security challenges, which often manifests itself in big leverages that more or less undermine Iraq’s sovereignty.

Furthermore, Iraq needs to reconsider its relationship with other countries on an individual basis away from axis politics and regional struggles. If this superpower has issues with that neighbor country, it should not prevent Iraq from having strong and independent relationships with both. This relationship should be considered individually as much as this is possible based on Iraq’s own interests with the other side of the relation, not based on the other side’s interest in relation to a third country.

Most importantly however, Iraq should seek to provide value to the international community in order to build strong partnerships with others, through improving its situation by enhancing its capacities, instead of engaging in followership relations in which Iraq only takes and has nothing to offer. For Iraq to survive in its neighborhood, it needs to follow a policy of interdependence.

In other words, resolving Iraq’s internal problems constructively and engaging in developing itself on all fronts is the only effective approach and a real insurance that unwanted foreign influence would be reduced. Iraqis need to accept that they have agency over their own situation and should work hard to claim more of it.

In order for this to happen, the discussion about foreign influence in Iraq needs to evolve. Any analysis that wants to be taken seriously needs to give Iraqis more agency in what is happening in their country. Any decision maker who wants to bring about real change needs to think beyond the exaggerations about the influence of foreign powers in the country.

Explaining everything happening in Iraq in light of its neighbors’ interests is lazy analysis that is slowly losing its appeal. Using the negative influence of foreign powers as an excuse for not achieving anything is irresponsible. Portraying the leverage that other countries have over Iraq as invincible is damaging Iraq’s pride. And inviting foreign powers to intervene in Iraq’s problems instead of working hard on resolving them internally is undermining Iraq’s sovereignty.

Foreign influence is unavoidable, but it is manageable. I hope that Iraqi analysts and decision makers start thinking more about what Iraq needs to face unwanted foreign influence instead of continuously reiterating its existence, endlessly describing it, and helplessly complaining about it.

Muhammad Al-Waeli

Muhammad Al-Waeli

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.