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Iraq: vital U.S. interests are at stake, IU visiting professor says

This May, Feisal Istrabadi accompanied his mentor, the 85-year-old Iraqi statesman Adnan Pachachi, to give a lecture at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The center's director, former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, lamented as he introduced Pachachi that U.S. discussion of the situation in Iraq had been "shallow, narrowly focused and partisan," Istrabadi recalled.

The presidential election campaign has made it even more so, said Istrabadi, a visiting professor in the Indiana University School of Law--Bloomington and former Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations.

"What I would love to hear is a mature, rational explication of what U.S. interests are and how to safeguard those interests, rather than this bumper-sticker mentality that both candidates are forcing on us," he said.


Photo by: Ann Schertz

Feisal Istrabadi

Istrabadi said you can debate whether the U.S. had vital interests in Iraq in 2003, when its forces invaded, but there's no doubt it now has a major stake in seeing the fragile Iraqi democracy succeed.

"This is not 2003," he said. "Nobody's going to get to turn the clock back."

Istrabadi has a unique perspective. He spent his childhood in Iraq and in Bloomington, where he graduated from IU and the School of Law. Practicing law in northwestern Indiana, he joined the State Department's Future of Iraq project. He was a primary drafter of an Iraqi interim constitution and was later appointed to represent Iraq at the United Nations.

Iraq represents one of the sharpest divides between presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. Obama calls for a "responsible, phased withdrawal" of U.S. troops and a shift to fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. McCain says it is "strategically and morally essential" for the U.S. to win in Iraq.

Obama points to his own early opposition to the U.S. invasion and blames McCain for supporting the Bush administration's failed policies. McCain says the 2007 troop surge has worked and Obama's approach would be unconditional surrender.

Istrabadi said he is concerned that Obama's hands are tied by his own early opposition to the war. He questions whether Obama has the maturity and judgment to tell his anti-war supporters that the U.S. may have to stay longer in Iraq if security conditions don't improve.

"If you've got a determined enemy, what does it mean to say you will end this war if the enemy is determined to continue?" he asked.

He is upset with Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, who as a candidate for the presidential nomination supported the "soft partition" of Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones, a position that Istrabadi says may have fueled the Iraqi insurgency. And he says Obama's claim that Iraq has a $79 billion surplus is a myth, given Iraq's international debts.

But he also faults McCain for saying the U.S. might have military forces in Iraq for 100 years. "That's just silly and untenable," he said. "What I'm not hearing from the Republicans is, OK, we have to win the war, but what does that mean, exactly, and what is the outlook five years from now?

"Generally speaking," Istrabadi said, "for far too long the Republican Party has been married to the idea that things were going well in Iraq, even when conditions were demonstrably deteriorating at an exponential rate. I think the Democratic Party is too much married to (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid's declaration that the war was lost -- and a need to say the Republicans lost this war.

"It's really been a deeply disappointing political season."

Istrabadi said there are at least three reasons success in Iraq is vital to the U.S.:

  • Recent gains by U.S. and Iraqi forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq are significant but reversible. Iraq isn't the only front in the fight against terrorism, but it is certainly one front.
  • The U.S. clearly has an interest in limiting the influence in the region of Iran, "which is considerable in Iraq at the moment."
  • The U.S. has strong economic interest in the region's oil, "which is one of the reasons the U.S. intervened there. Anyone who argues not is being disingenuous."

But the "hyper-polarization" of U.S. politics is getting in the way of serious debate, Istrabadi said. "I would like to see," he said, "an assessment and an understanding that, whatever the situation was in 2003, in the foreseeable future the U.S. has a vital interest in Iraq. It is in the vital interest of this country to leave a reasonably democratic, reasonably stable Iraq which is able to secure its borders and act as a rational counterweight to the hegemonic intentions of Iran or any other power in the area."