When the United States begins to draw down overseas military forces from trouble spots, the American media, and therefore the public, assumes the show is over and loses interest. This waning of attention and interest has happened in Iraq and is dangerous.
This phenomenon occurred even during the Vietnam War. President Richard Nixon told the nation about his “Vietnamization” program, which would expand, train, and equip South Vietnamese forces to replace drawing-down American forces. Thinking “problem solved” because the war was de-escalating for America, the antiwar movement quieted mass protests on college campuses. But when word leaked out that Nixon was secretly escalating the conflict in Cambodia and Laos at the same time he was supposed to be de-escalating in Vietnam, large antiwar protests resumed. And when U.S. troops finally left Vietnam in 1973, the fall of the South Vietnamese government to the communists two years later seemed anti-climactic to an exhausted American public.
The public has become similarly fatigued with the years of counterinsurgency war in Iraq. During his campaign, President Barack Obama pledged that U.S. forces would withdraw completely from Iraq, and he reiterated the promise in this year’s State of the Union message and his speech on Libya in March. Yet the U.S. security agencies, as they did before on the Afghan War, appear to be trying to box in Obama’s decision-making—this time, by forcing him to leave a residual American presence in Iraq even after the end of this year. At that time, according to the U.S.-Iraq security agreement, American forces are supposed to have been completely withdrawn. However, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, visiting Iraq last week, said that some U.S. troops might have to remain in the country after year’s end to defend Iraqi airspace and borders.
This may be the most unsurprising development in American foreign policy since U.S. forces remained in Europe, Japan, and Korea long after World War II and the Korean War ended, their East bloc foe fell, and all of these countries became wealthy enough to defend themselves from any remaining threats from much poorer countries. Similarly, after the USSR collapsed and Saddam Hussein’s military was shattered during the first Persian Gulf War—that is, after the major threats to Gulf oil were extinguished—U.S. forces remained in the Gulf and set up the first permanent bases on the ground there. In fact, in recent U.S. history, the norm is that U.S. forces stay rather than leave.
And since Iraq has much oil beneath its soil and because the country borders Saudi Arabia, the jewel of all oil-producing countries, efforts to keep a permanent military presence there have always been an unspoken U.S. goal, which is only now bubbling to the surface publicly as the deadline for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq approaches. In the absence of other significant post-Cold-War threats, the globally dominant U.S. military, looking for a primary mission, has essentially become an oil-protection force. Where better to protect oil than in Iraq?
Almost universal agreement exists among U.S. politicians from both parties that safeguarding oil is critical to U.S. security. But the only conceivable external threat these days to Gulf oil might come from Iran militarily closing the Straits of Hormuz, a key oil-shipping bottleneck. Even if the Iranians could close them, which academic research casts doubt on given the Iranians’ limited weaponry, they would be committing economic suicide, because their oil, the life’s blood of their economy, must be shipped through those straits too. In reality, the most severe threat to Gulf oil is internal to oil-producing nations, especially with the current uprisings in the Middle East. Continuing the U.S. military presence in Islamic countries, including Iraq, could contribute to many of these pro-democracy movements eventually becoming hijacked by anti-U.S. forces. If an uprising occurs in Saudi Arabia, it could easily be taken over by such forces. After all, Osama bin Laden attacks the United States primarily because of its meddling and military presence in the Persian Gulf.
Therefore, at a time of unrest across the Middle East, the U.S. should be thinking about how to lighten its footprint in that region, not keep more troops there permanently. In addition to the U.S. keeping its finger on the world’s oil supply, the desire for permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq arises not from a perceived need to defend Iraq’s airspace and borders, but from a U.S. fear that the country could collapse into an ethno-sectarian civil war after the U.S. leaves. This may very well happen anyway, and a permanent U.S. military presence would ensure that the United States would be “responsible” for stopping the bloodbath—perhaps even by re-escalating its force levels there.
Even if the United States feels it needs to keep a finger on other countries’ oil supplies (a dubious proposition), it can best be done from over the horizon, as was accomplished during the first Gulf War.
The only thing that might save Obama from himself—he tends to cave in to people wearing uniforms—is that many Iraqis hate the idea of the foreign invader becoming a permanent occupier. On the recent anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces, large numbers of Iraqi protesters condemned the continuing American presence and threatened more violence if any U.S. troops stayed past the end of the year. Because of such adverse popular opinion, the Iraqi government has not yet requested that American forces stay longer than that. Earlier, however, Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki hinted publicly that this was a possibility. Thus, the American public sleeps through the danger that the American military presence in Iraq will become permanent; the Iraqi public—for the sake of both Iraq and the United States—hopefully will not and will instead continue peaceful protests to prevent its government from allowing such a lasting presence.