Iraq: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

If either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton wins the net presidential election, there is going to be a radical change at least in the current size of American troop presence in Iraq.  But if John McCain were to win, the present U.S. commitment would remain the same or would even increase.  But the bottom line regarding Iraq is that making a clean break from there is well nigh impossible for America.  At least three explanations are being offered for not getting out of Iraq.  The first one is that the terrorist-extremists would takeover Iraq.  The second one is that America’s withdrawal means its defeat and soiling of its reputation as hegemon (not used pejoratively here).  And that such an eventuality would permanently damage its presence and interests in that region.  Finally, it is argued that America’s withdrawal from Iraq would lead to an immense boosting of Iran’s clout and influence in the Middle East.  A closer look at these explanations is in order.


    I. The Extremist-terrorist Takeover Explanation:  Of the three explanations offered, this one is most alarmist and equally unrealistic in nature.  Any redeployment of American troops from Iraq can and will be done only after a careful implementation of another security arrangement, most probably under the U.N. mandate.  But this time, it is most likely to be done with the caveat that the U.N. mandate will be backed up by a multinational force presence.  More to the point, Iraq’s neighbors would fully participate in the making of such an arrangement, since they must also guarantee the security of borders through which extremists and terrorists entered Iraq in the past in order to destabilize it.  The active participation of Iraqi neighbors in the new arrangement would also means that they would be held accountable by the international community if there were to fail to live up to their guarantees.  It should be noted that they had no such interest or any stake in guaranteeing the security of Iraq that was occupied by the lone superpower.


    The United States can negotiate for itself a role of a protector of the sovereignty of Iraq, but without acquiring military bases inside that country.  The over-the-horizons capabilities of America’s military would enable the lone superpower to carry out operations without acquiring a military base in Iraq, but only when asked by the U.N. to do so.  So the prophets of gloom and doom–who see an end to Iraq as a nation if the U.S. were to pull out–should stop crying wolf.  Iraq is the keeper of one of most ancient human civilizations, it carries the legacy of being a capital of one of the major Muslim dynasties (the Abbasids), and it remains a major Arab state and the owner of the second or third largest oil reserves in the world.  All these characteristics make it vital for its neighbors and the United States (there is no role for any other major power here) to ensure that Iraq’s security, stability, and territorial integrity is not jeopardized, and that it does not become a long-term, if not a permanent, colony of the United States or any regional power.


    Iraq is likely to be unstable after the U.S. exit, but not any more unstable than it is while the U.S. remains there as an occupying power.  Its stability would stem from the ability of its elected government to enhance its legitimacy through good governance.  That can only happen if all the major powers contenders in Iraq have ample stakes in its stability.  


    II. The U.S. Withdrawal as its Defeat Explanation:  Those who equate America’s withdrawal from Iraq as a defeat of the hegemon and as damaging to its reputation may have a point.  However, they are carrying that argument to an extreme.   The United States’ ouster from South Vietnam was also its defeat.  But the world does not exactly come to an end.  There were no falling dominos there, contrary to the predictions of the Cassandra callers of that era.  If one takes an even longer view of what happened to the Cold War itself, an argument can be made that America’s “defeat” in South Vietnam still enabled it to emerge as an eventual “victor” of the Cold War, while its chief rival, the Former Soviet Union, imploded.


    Thus, a withdrawal of the United States from Iraq might be depicted as its defeat, but the world will continue to march on.  The Middle East will continue to be misruled by corrupt and nepotistic monarch and equally inept and nepotistic dictators.  Religious extremists would continue their challenge to the current status quo, but the status quo would remain undisturbed, except for minor turbulences.  In other words, the defeat of the United States in the Middle East would not result in serious upsurge in political instability.


    The reputation of the United States would be damaged, to be sure.  However, that damage is least likely to be debilitating for the lone superpower.  It would not keep from asserting its influence in the future when its stakes are in jeopardy.  The only difference would be that the United States would be forced to make a persuasive case before it goes to the extreme of intervention in another country in the future. And that is not bad outcome, indeed. In fact, given the discovery of abuses of the Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison and those of the “detainees” in Guantanamo prison, one should welcome even more constraints on America’s predilections for a ” war of choice” under the Bush administration. 


    The only catch related to the U.S. withdrawal and defeat proposition is that the next U.S. president has to decide to bite the bullet and take that plunge and withdraw.  The best way to handle it–with minimum possible dame to his/her electability in the second term in the case of Obama or Clinton, since they are committed to make radical changes in America’s military in Iraq–is to make decision of the withdrawal within the first year.


    III. The “Rising” Iran Explanation:  Since Iran has become the new boogeyman of American electoral politics, neither McCain nor Clinton manifested any sense of proportionality or thoughtful moderation toward it.  In fact, the silly season of one-upmanship (or one-uppersonship, since one of the major presidential contenders is a female), McCain has wisecracked by recalling the Beach boy ditty, bomb bomb bomb Iran, in response to a serious question about to respond to that country; while Clinton threatened to “obliterate” it if it were to launch an attack on Israel.  Only Obama has demonstrated any amount of suave by thoughtfully asserting to engage it. 


    What befuddles all American presidential candidates is that no one really knows how to deal with ran, a country whose clout is very high in the Middle East.  In an era, when the idea of facing down the Bush administration sends shivers down the spines of autocrats and dictators of Middle East, Iran has maintained an attitude of constant confrontation.  It wishes to be treated in the diplomatic arena as an equal, not as a third-rate power, while the lone superpower’s diplomatic maneuverability (or the lack thereof) is only manifested in the inane bumper sticker phrase that depicts Iran as one of the “axis of evil.”


    Such obtuse phrasemaking cannot become a basis of diplomatic exchanges.  By backing Hezbollah’s confrontational policies toward Israel and by being equally assertive toward the United States about its interests and stakes in Iraq, Iran is showing the world of Islam its own way of dealing with the lone superpower.  The fact that the United States wishes to negotiate with Iran the modalities of peace and stability in Iraq assigns Iran a heightened primacy in the Middle East.  If the U.S. were to get out of Iraq, Iran can legitimately argue that its own intransigence toward Washington has played a crucial role in its decision to get out of Iraq.  That is one reason why there is that urgent necessity of negotiations between the two countries.  In the absence of such negotiations and a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, any American withdrawal from Iraq would be highly beneficial to Iran.  However, even in the absence of such a rapprochement, the United States may not wish to postpone its withdrawal, especially if that measure appears vital from America’s vantage point.



    There are, to be sure, various minuses and pluses associated with all preceding explanations.  The next U.S. President would have to weigh them strictly in the light of what is best for America.  The time for making that choice would be right after the new President enters the White House, and at a time when America is not pressured by the tsunami of events in Iraq forcing it to withdraw from there, as was the case in the weeks and months preceding America’s withdrawal from South Vietnam.