The debate over how or whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq is stuck in a quagmire, bogged down on the question of what happens when we leave. What happens to those we supported in their quest to bring democracy and liberalism to a region that has known neither? What happens to the Kurds, long oppressed under Saddam Hussein, and to the minority Sunnis, who were initially described by U.S. officials as "dead-enders" and hard-core Ba’athists, and are now the objects of American affection? What happens to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which is propped up only by the presence of U.S. troops? What, indeed, happens to Iraq, as a nation does it dissolve into its constituent parts?
This is the big argument offered by proponents of continuing the war: whatever lies were told to goad us into attacking Iraq in the first place are now irrelevant, they say. We’re there, and we must stay there, or else a humanitarian catastrophe will take place that we’ll be responsible for, and our interests in the region will be fatally damaged. This can only be avoided if our soldiers stay. It may be true, as war critics aver, that Saddam’s links to al-Qaeda were overblown, or even totally nonexistent, but "the terrorists" are there now. We cannot abandon Iraq to their not-so-tender mercies, or else we risk creating a terrorist state, one that will provide al-Qaeda with a base from which to attack U.S. interests in the region, or even the American homeland itself.
This is, quite simply, nonsense, yet many otherwise well-meaning people have fallen for it. It would, they claim, be "irresponsible" to just pack up and leave: the consequences, they say, would be horrific. But would they?
Our efforts in Iraq have aimed at propping up the Maliki government, while sidelining or seeking to sideline the only authentically nationalist movement in the country with any degree of strength and legitimacy, and those are the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, fourth son of a famous Shi’ite cleric and the leader of a movement that opposes both the U.S. occupation and efforts to divide the country into its sectarian-ethnic constituent parts. Yet Maliki and his supporters are weak: they have no chance of defeating the Sadrists or the Sunni-led insurgency. The Maliki government has neither legitimacy nor the armed forces required to establish control over the whole country. This is the conundrum faced by U.S. policymakers, who have responded to the prospect of defeat by employing the same failed strategy that brought them to this point in the first place.
This piece by William Lind in The American Conservative gives a good indication of what is wrong with our present strategy, and how to correct it. The idea of "victory," in the terms presented by the Bush administration, is here completely redefined to mean not the creation of an American client state in the middle of Mesopotamia, but the recreation of a viable Iraqi state that will deny al-Qaeda in Iraq a safe haven. Lind writes: "A restored Iraqi state that is allied with Iran will quickly roll up al-Qaeda and other non-state forces in Iraq, which is the victory we most require."
The key, however, is a rapprochement with Iran, and as unlikely as that seems, perhaps it’s not completely unrealistic. The U.S.-Iranian negotiations over the situation in Iraq are a hopeful sign, as is the establishment of a joint body set up to monitor security in Iraq: this could be the framework of a more comprehensive agreement that will permit the Iranians to exert their natural influence without subverting Iraqi independence.
It is absurd for the Americans to insist that there be no Iranian influence in Iraq: it is as if Vladimir Putin insisted on ending American influence in, say, Mexico or Canada. Geography, economics, and culture militate against it. Aside from these objective factors, the elected government in Baghdad is very close to Tehran, as the leaders of the Shi’ite resistance to Saddam were headquartered in Iran and given support by the Iranians prior to the U.S. invasion. Iraq’s Shi’ite spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Sistani, was born in Iran, and there is no way Tehran’s gravitational pull will be neutralized by U.S. actions.
However, we can use Iranian influence to eradicate our real enemies in Iraq, by encouraging the Iranians and their Iraqi supporters to take on al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s Iraqi franchise recently issued a warning to the Iranians to stay out of Iraq: might we not use what amounts to a veritable declaration of war on Tehran by Osama’s Iraqi minions to our advantage or is that too subtle for our Washington policymakers?
The Shi’ites, unleashed, would make short work of al-Qaeda. And once that occurs, our problems are essentially over. After all, Bush keeps telling us that our enemy in Iraq is the very same enemy that took down the World Trade Center and bombed the Pentagon. With those snakes crushed underfoot, the way is cleared to getting out.
Sure, there will be a bloody interregnum, innocents will die, and it could well be that the regime emerging from the chaos will hardly resemble a Jeffersonian republic. Yet these results will be better than the alternative the present chaos made possible by a weak Iraqi central government, with U.S. troops caught in the middle of the Mad Max movie that is the Iraqi civil war.
If the U.S. left Iraq tomorrow, the Kurds would have nothing to worry about, since they have one of the biggest and most well-trained-and-armed military forces in the region. Nor would the southern, Shi’ite part of the country be in any danger from enemies at home or abroad: the Shi’ite militias are pretty firmly in control of the south, and this is not likely to change in the absence of U.S. forces. The Sunni triangle is another matter altogether, but, then again, this area has never been controllable, and the conflict there isn’t likely to end unless there is some kind of political solution or an Iraqi strongman arises someone like Sadr who will take the sort of measures Americans would prefer not to engage in so openly.
Supporters of continuing the war would say, at this point, that this is precisely what we have a moral obligation to prevent. Yet it is not preventable, under any circumstances, whether we stay or leave and the risks of staying include the likelihood of war with Iran, a conflict that would result in many more deaths and would soon make the horrors of the Iraq war pale in comparison.
The calculus of mass death yields this inevitable equation: as long as we stay, the killing continues, but U.S. withdrawal will not halt the current orgy of murder and mayhem, which may even accelerate, if only for a brief period. At some point, however, one side the majority Shi’ite side will win, and the upsurge of violence will peter out, like a geyser that’s out of steam.
This scenario could work, but it lacks one essential ingredient: an administration that has given up its original project of regional "regime change." The Iraq war was never intended as a stand-alone experiment in "nation-building," but as the first in a series of wars launched to "liberate" the entire Middle East and implant our version of "democracy." The only use this administration has for Iraq is as a launching pad for the next war the one against Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The U.S. isn’t massing its naval might in the Persian Gulf for nothing, nor are the daily rhetorical broadsides aimed at Iran just boilerplate. Tehran has been the target from the beginning.
The clock is ticking. It is just a matter of time before an incident on the Iran-Iraq border ignites the coming conflict. That’s why the administration is desperately trying to buy time and put off congressional demands that we start withdrawing from Iraq. Meanwhile, they’re busy ramping up the war of words with the Iranians.
What’s ominous about all this is the lack of opposition coming from the "antiwar" Democrats, who have yet to make any unified, definitive statement on the prospect of war with Iran. Indeed, all the major Democratic presidential candidates are eager to prove their hawkishness by averring that nothing is "off the table" when dealing with Iranian aspirations to join the nuclear club. On the other side of the aisle, only Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul sees the danger while the rest of the GOP presidential wannabes eagerly anticipate nuking Iran.
Once we’re stuck in the Iranian quagmire, one can easily imagine the objections to a U.S. withdrawal: just re-run the arguments made by this administration and its supporters in regard to Iraq. At that point the American people may wake up and realize that we’re on an endless treadmill of "regime change" and occupation. Unfortunately, it will be too late to do any good.