President Barack Obama has announced that nearly all American soldiers will be home from Iraq by the end of the year. Despite the fact that Iran, as the Middle East’s most serious would-be hegemon, will benefit more than any other country from our regional drawdown, the American and Iraqi governments wish to go their own separate ways.
The president has a campaign promise to keep. Most Americans are tired of sending their money, their sons, and even their daughters to Iraq, and most who haven’t spend money or blood are tired of hearing about it. The Iraqis have been trying to elbow us out for years and hope to regain a measure of sovereignty and respect when we’re finally gone.
It’s risky. In a worst-case scenario, Washington could end up evacuating its embassy a few years from now as we did in Saigon nearly four decades ago. But there’s a big difference between withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 and withdrawing from South Vietnam in 1973: The war in Iraq is over.
THAT’S NOT TO SAY that Iraq is a model of stability. “Iran is laying low right now and is riding us out,” U.S. Army sergeant Nick Franklin told me in Baghdad two years ago. “When we pull out, though, and they know we're almost out, it will be game on here in Iraq.” By aiding and abetting violent Shia militias and terrorist organizations, Iran has indeed been doing its worst to export its sectarian grievances and repressive political system to Iraq ever since coalition forces chased Saddam Hussein out of his palaces. Tehran is still striving for dominance—not only in Iraq, but everywhere else in the region, as well—and that job will surely be easier without the United States in the way.
The Obama administration knows this perfectly well. “To countries in the region,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this week in Tajikistan, “especially Iraq’s neighbors, we want to emphasize that America will stand with our allies and friends, including Iraq, in defense of our common security and interests.” Obviously she was referring to Iraq’s Iranian neighbor. No one worries that Jordan will nefariously interfere in Iraq any time soon. But Clinton’s assurances are less credible given the imminence of America’s withdrawal. Promoting our interests in Iraq will be a lot harder when our closest military forces are in Kuwait rather than Baghdad.
Even so, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime won’t benefit nearly as much from our withdrawal today as it would have five years ago. Iraq was an absolute disaster in 2006. Before General David Petraeus “surged” thousands of additional counterinsurgency troops to the country, a hurricane of car- and suicide-bombers turned Iraq into the most terrorized place on the face of the earth. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq lorded over Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and points beyond. Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia had its own Hezbollah-style state-within-a-state with its capital in Sadr City, a vast slum in Baghdad that’s home to millions of people.
If the United States had withdrawn its forces then, as many commentators and policymakers demanded, the Iraqi government almost certainly would have disintegrated. Iraq might not even exist as a state anymore. Al Qaeda could have claimed it beat the United States Marine Corps in a shooting war—a feat far more impressive for the purposes of propaganda than even the killing of thousands of civilians in New York and Washington. Iran, meanwhile, could have successfully replicated the quasi-imperial foreign policy it all but perfected in Lebanon where it acquired its own private army—Hezbollah—during a chaotic time of sectarian civil war and foreign occupation.
Iraq is a completely different country today. Al Qaeda in Iraq scarcely even exists anymore. No militia, either Sunni or Shia, controls territory or has its own “capital” anywhere. Baghdad’s government is not going to fall, no matter how much Tehran tries to undermine it. No one will be able to claim even implausibly that Americans were driven out of Iraq under fire. Nor can anyone plausibly say the United States lost. The enemies of the United States and Iraq’s elected government have either been vanquished, forced to give up the gun, or driven into the shadows.
“In all societies there is an acceptable level of violence,” U.S. Army captain A.J. Boyes said to me in Sadr City in 2009, suggesting that Iraq was reaching that point. Baghdad was no longer the war zone it used to be, and it’s even less violent now that it was then. No society in the world can be completely free of violence, but the “acceptable” level, given factors like history and political grievance, is higher in some countries than in others. It’s higher in the United States than it is in Japan. It’s higher in Mexico than it is in the United States. And it’s higher in Iraq than it is in Mexico. But Iraq today is less violent than Mexico, one of the most heavily touristed countries in the world.
That’s not to say there are no reasons to stay. “If there is one constant of American military history,” Max Boot wrote in Commentary, “it is that the longer our troops stay in a country the better the prospects of a successful outcome. Think of Germany, Italy, Japan or South Korea. Conversely when U.S. troops rush for the exits hard-won wartime gains can quickly evaporate. Think of the post-Civil War South, post-World War I Germany, post-1933 (and post-1995) Haiti, post-1972 Vietnam, or, more recently, post-1983 Lebanon and post-1993 Somalia.”
Boot is right about that. President Obama’s decision to withdraw may well end badly. But if it does turn out to be a mistake, it will be a much smaller mistake than a pre-surge withdrawal would have been. We are no longer staring down the possibility of a military or grand strategic defeat on the battlefield.
Iraq just isn’t as dangerous anymore, not to itself and not to others. If Iran tries to destabilize it with terror militias again, Iraq will fight back. And the Iraqis know how to fight back effectively now after so many years of American training. If Iran actually tries to invade with conventional forces—a spectacularly unlikely event, but one never knows in that part of the world—odds are excellent that the American military would respond to the breach of international law and sovereignty by again joining the fight alongside the Iraqi military.
Iraq has been gearing up to stand on its own for years. President Obama merely decided the time would come sooner rather than later. A Republican president would have eventually made the same decision even if it might have taken a little bit longer. Few Americans are in the mood for any more nation-building or babysitting. Iraqis, for their part, are tired of being built-up and babysat by Americans. Some kind of withdrawal and disengagement has been a long time coming for those reasons alone. A substantial number of American officials were persuaded that sticking around in Iraq to prevent a catastrophe was probably wise as long as we’d leave when a howling abyss no longer yawned at everyone’s feet. For better or for worse, that time has arrived.