The notion that soft power can replace American military forces in Iraq on January 1, 2012, fundamentally misjudges the situation on the ground. The tenuous peace along the northern Arab-Kurd seam is maintained by the presence of tripartite peacekeeping forces in which American ground troops play a decisive role. The withdrawal of those forces would almost certainly lead to the collapse of the peacekeeping agreement and might lead to the collapse of the peace itself. Without the continued presence of American military advisers, Iraq’s security forces will be inadequate to meet the challenges from Iranian-backed militias and Sunni revanchist groups including Al Qaeda in Iraq. Iraqi Security Forces are not even up to the basic requirements of defending Iraq’s sovereignty. Iraq has no capability to police or control its own airspace and an extremely limited ability to defend its coast and the vital offshore oil platforms through which most of its oil flows. Nor will such a capacity be in place by 2012.
Critics of the war in Iraq have long argued that the 2003 invasion did nothing but give Iraq to the Iranians. Tehran certainly leapt to take advantage of Saddam Hussein’s fall, and some U.S. policies were remarkably complacent about dealing with Iranian-backed political figures. But, from 2004 until today, American forces have continuously resisted Iranian military operations in Iraq and, until 2009, attempted to support and encourage Iraqi leaders willing to stand up to the threat from the east. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did so on many occasions, most notably in 2008 when he ordered the Iraqi Army to clear Iranian-backed militias out of Basra. The United States supported him with everything we had.
The contrast between that support and the near-total disregard of Iraqi requests for help in resisting Iranian pressures during the formation of the current government could not have been starker. If Maliki now feels the need to bow to Iranian pressure, it is not because he is Tehran’s man. Quite the opposite: Tehran’s agents spent most of 2006-2009 trying to kill him. But why would anyone expect Maliki or Iraq’s other leaders to continue risking their lives to oppose Iran when there is no support forthcoming from Washington? Iraq’s Shiites have demonstrated repeatedly since 2003 that they do not wish to be ruled by Iranian mullahs. They have said publicly and privately that they need help to remain independent. Will America really not provide that help?
Nothing requires us to keep massive numbers of American troops in Iraq. Twenty thousand soldiers would be enough for the next several years. That number is smaller than the American military presence in Korea, Japan, and Germany. Nor would those forces be engaged in combat. The 50,000-odd U.S. troops in Iraq today are occupied primarily with peacekeeping, training, supporting the Iraqi Security Forces, and counterterrorism. These are missions Americans would continue to undertake in 2012 and beyond. Nor is there any need to pour money into Iraq to support the modernization and development of the Iraqi Security Forces—Iraq has more than enough money to pay for itself. What Iraq requires are trainers, foreign suppliers, and, above all, supporters. To extend the American military presence in Iraq would not be a commitment to endless war or large expenditures. It would reap the benefit of the cost in blood and treasure that the United States has already paid.
The ball is not in Maliki’s court. It is in Obama’s court. If the administration understands that American interests in Iraq and throughout the Middle East are best served by supporting an independent Iraq and cementing a long-term U.S.-Iraqi relationship, then the White House must take the initiative. The administration must stop signaling that it can take Iraq or leave it and instead signal a determination to stand by Iraq’s leaders as long as those leaders stand by the democratic processes now tenuously in place and commit to the ethno-sectarian peace achieved at such a high price. The administration must make clear to the Kurds that there will be no American support for them now or in the future unless they throw their weight behind a new agreement between Washington and Baghdad. The administration must call on the Turks and the Saudis to help counterbalance Iranian pressures on Iraq’s leaders. Above all, the administration must stop using Iraqi missteps in forming their current government as an excuse to put off discussion of the U.S.-Iraq security partnership. Iraq has a prime minister and a parliament. That is enough to start negotiations.
American policy can no longer be to “end this war.” “This war” was over long ago. But the fight for Iraq and for America’s place in a critical part of the Greater Middle East continues. It is a fight the Obama administration must win.
Recent Blog Posts