On 27 February this year, President Barack Obama held one of the best speeches on Iraq delivered by a US senior official for a long time. Obama congratulated the Iraqis for having resisted the forces of partition, and while he noted the need for political reconciliation, he pretty much refrained from imposing his own interpretation of what the relevant problems were and how they should be solved. As such, the statement was in harmony with the better parts of his speech in Cairo in June, in which he went out of his way to make it clear that he had no intentions of framing America’s relationship with the Muslim world as a monologue where only the values of one side receive attention.
However, after the reappearance of Joe Biden on the Iraqi stage this weekend – this time as vice-president of the United States and special envoy charged with facilitating national reconciliation in Iraq – there is considerable danger that both the optimism among Iraqis from Obama’s first speech as well as the substantial progress towards a more mature form of politics seen during the January local elections may be reversed. Biden’s brief public remarks as well as those offered by high-level US officials in conjunction with the visit all suggest that while Iraq itself may be maturing, US policy in Iraq is not. Conceptually, Washington seems stuck in language dating from 2007, and it consistently adheres to a public discourse on Iraq that features old and stale categories of analysis. At worst, the choice of words by US leaders could help resuscitate the very sectarian forces that are cited by Washington as its main concern.