Iraq’s March 7 parliamentary elections represent the ultimate “stress test” for the country’s fragile democratic transition. Just as a cardiologist uses a treadmill to test a heart patient’s vital signs, the upcoming elections will test how well Iraqi political institutions and processes have evolved since the last round of national elections in 2005.

Regardless of the outcome, a new government in Iraq will represent an opportunity for the Obama administration to link its Iraq policy to a more coherent strategic approach to the broader Middle East.

Last year’s provincial elections in Iraq offered some encouraging but still mixed signs of political evolution. The emergence of a handful of new political forces—new coalitions touting nationalist instead of divisive sectarian agendas, more active engagement by a wider range of Sunni actors (many of whom stood on the sidelines in previous elections), and new leaders and parties challenging the dominant leaders and parties—were positive signs of a strengthening democratic transition.

Beneath the surface, however, more fundamental questions remain unanswered. How strong are the foundations for advancing liberties, including religious freedom, respect for minorities, and protection from human rights abuses? Recent reports by the U.S. State Department and independent human rights monitors offer a grim picture of endemic abuses. Furthermore, reports of misuse of Iraqi security forces by the Maliki government to settle political battles raise concerns about whether those forces will remain politically neutral. How much have Iraq’s internal sectarian and ethnic divisions narrowed in reality? It took leading political factions months to agree on rules for the elections, and the opaque manner in which numerous candidates have been banned from running was extremely troubling. 

The 2007-2008 surge of U.S. forces helped reduce violence and this relative calm held (except for a handful of prominent attacks) after U.S. forces withdrew from urban areas. But this reduced violence has not yet resulted in major political progress. Honest assessments of the benchmarks outlined in U.S. Congressional legislation three years ago —long-forgotten yet rudimentary measurements for Iraq’s political transition—conclude that Iraqi leaders have not achieved much progress to date on resolving core power-sharing issues. Promises of constitutional reform made on the eve of the 2005 constitutional referendum have not been kept. Major unresolved issues, including the Arab-Kurdish divide in Kirkuk, the disputed territories, and the unfulfilled Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution (which outlined a process for settling the status of the disputed territories in northern Iraq), do not seem any closer to resolution. 

Meanwhile in Washington, the Obama administration is focusing more of its attention on problems at home and other priorities abroad. In the past 18 months, the center of gravity for U.S. national security policy in the broader Middle East and South Asia has shifted eastward, with Afghanistan getting more troops and money and Iran and Pakistan receiving increased diplomatic attention. President Barack Obama’s central message on Iraq in his January 27, 2010 State of the Union address was clear and succinct: U.S. troops are leaving, just as he promised when he ran for office. Left unanswered are larger strategic questions: what sort of Iraq is the United States leaving behind, and how does that Iraq fit into the broader U.S. regional strategy?

President Obama did note in his speech that “we will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and we will continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity.” And in fact, the Obama administration remains heavily invested and engaged in Iraq. On the most simple measure—troop levels—the United States still had more troops there than in Afghanistan as 2010 began. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad remains the largest in the world, and the Obama administration has started to implement programs aimed at fulfilling the promise of the bilateral Strategic Framework Agreement, which outlines security, economic, educational, and cultural activities to build the foundations for a privileged bilateral relationship. The U.S. State Department last month announced new initiatives to maintain a strong presence and involvement in Iraq on matters such as police training and economic development.

The United States also invested significant efforts to intervene in the election law debate last fall and the recent dispute over banning candidates. Vice President Joe Biden flew to Baghdad in January, and has met with a steady stream of Iraqi visitors to Washington in advance of the March elections. Several Iraqi leaders have openly criticized this intervention, however, as ineffectual.

In fact, it is no longer clear just how much leverage the United States retains to shape political outcomes in Iraq. For many years, the United States overestimated its power to affect trends such as intra-Shi’i politics or to bridge Arab-Kurdish divides in Ninevah or Kirkuk. The United States has had a major impact in rebuilding Iraq’s security forces in the past few years. But just as the 2007-2008 surge of U.S. forces has not necessarily ushered in a new era of cooperation and reconciliation among Iraq’s competing factions, it remains unclear how much that security assistance will translate into progress in Iraq’s political transition.

Another important question for U.S. policy in Iraq also remains unanswered: where does Iraq fit within a broader regional strategy? In its first year, the Obama administration has set a new overall tone of engagement in the Middle East in speeches in Egypt and Turkey. It embarked on aggressive diplomacy on the Arab-Israeli front and reached out to Iran, efforts that have not yet produced tangible gains. 

But as of yet, the Obama administration has not defined its overall strategy for the broader Middle East and where Iraq fits into that approach. If, as some analysts argue, the recent political developments inside of Iraq point to the country moving closer to Iran’s orbit, what does that mean for broader U.S. policy objectives? Iraq featured prominently in the past two administration’s broader regional strategies: Iraq was at the center of the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda, and was one half of a dual containment policy that included Iran under the Clinton administration. Whether those approaches were the best for advancing U.S. interests is debatable, but there was an overall strategy.

The Obama administration should more clearly define how it sees the bilateral relationship with Iraq fitting into a larger plan to deescalate tensions and foster stability in the broader Gulf region. A new Iraq is emerging, and the elections will produce a different government, but the Obama administration has not yet figured out a coherent regional strategy in which Iraq once again plays an important role.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC.

Visit our Iraqi Elections webpage for additional analysis.