U.S.-Iraq engagement now economic
By: Lionel C. Johnson
With this month’s drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, our two countries are preparing to shift from a military collaboration to a relationship driven by economic engagement.
Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s visit to Washington this week marks an enormous opportunity to advance ties by establishing commerce, trade and investment as a major focus for America’s new role in the Middle East. His visit allows us to demonstrate that Iraq is a promising strategic partner in the region.
Americans must understand that our participation there doesn’t end with the troop drawdown. It begins anew with an economic buildup. The Iraqi and U.S. business communities are at the core of a new partnership. Together, they can serve as the engines of long-term economic expansion and employment generation, benefiting both nations.
U.S.-Iraqi commercial ties — with the personal interaction this involves and the mutual economic interests it develops— can help forge a stronger civil society in Iraq connected by shared values. Some of this groundwork has already been laid.
In the first six months of 2011, U.S. business activity in Iraq was a record $2.92 billion — up almost $1 billion from a year ago. Growth has come with Iraq’s dramatic shift from a traditional, bureaucratic, centrally planned economy, to one more broadly participatory, in which the private sector can better provide the energy, capital and constancy for long-term growth and development.
This private sector-led growth will be on display during Maliki’s visit, as businesses from both nations come together to discuss commercial relations and demonstrate why economists now forecast that Iraq’s $100-billion economy is poised to grow at more than 11 percent for the next two years.
This growth comes as a number of U.S. companies are recognizing Iraq’s immense infrastructure needs. With the oil and gas sector returning to high-performing pre-2001 levels, the Iraqi government now plans to spend $100 billion on thousands of reconstruction and development projects over the next four years — including building roads, bridges, housing and power plants.
Officials there are rightly laying the foundation needed for long-term economic growth and prosperity. Now is a historic opportunity for the private sector to shape the development of entire industries and sectors.
With about 30 million citizens, this young Iraqi nation is among the most populated in the Middle East, and offers U.S. businesses a large new market. The potential for U.S. companies in reconstruction efforts makes Iraq one of the Middle East’s most vital markets. U.S. businesses are expanding there each day, and the new U.S. Business Council in Iraq can provide a much-needed platform for their interests.
Even as we celebrate the end of our military engagement, we must ramp up our focus on commerce — to ensure that the peace and stability won is supported through economic investment and development.
The Iraqi people are ready and willing. Now is the time for U.S. business leaders to extend our hands to our Iraqi friends and future business partners.
Lionel C. Johnson is vice president for Middle East and North Africa Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce