America’s last combat brigade departed Iraq on August 18 leaving behind 50,000 troops to “advise and assist” Baghdad’s security forces. This was the first step to fulfilling President Obama’s campaign promise “to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end.” But the hard part lays ahead—taming Iran’s interference and withdrawing American forces without Iraq returning to sectarian chaos.
A “responsible end” to the Iraq war was defined by former President Bush as the creation of a thriving, peaceful, democratic Iraq that deals “the terrorists a crippling blow and establishes a beacon of liberty in the Middle East.” Right now Iraq has no functioning government, its security forces are unprepared to defend the country, and it is uncertain Baghdad will ever be “a beacon of liberty.”
In spite of these uncertainties Obama has already rhetorically washed his hands of Iraq. “The future of Iraq belongs to the Iraqis,” Obama said. But reality dictates that both Baghdad’s future and by association America’s national interests in the Middle East depend on Iran’s cooperation.
Consider the obstacles opposing a “responsible end” to our role in Iraq, Tehran’s geopolitical intentions for Iraq, and Obama’s strategic alternatives upon which to base America’s exit from Iraq while protecting our national interests.
America has paid a high price in Iraq. To date 4,415 Americans have been killed and almost a trillion dollars spent to fight and rebuild that country. Yet Iraq remains a very troubled country plagued by numerous obstacles to a stable future.
Its economy is slavishly tethered to underdeveloped oil resources, which provide 95% of government revenues and 60% of all economic output. Even though it has massive oil reserves Iraq suffers from crippling 17 % unemployment, spotty electricity, an antiquated manufacturing sector and massive corruption. The war drained huge numbers of the well-educated professionals which are critical to any economy.
Iraq is in serious political trouble. On March 7, Iraq hosted its fourth democratic national election but today it remains without a functioning government. The lack of a stable, functioning government created widespread insecurity which is contributing to new violence.
The political stalemate encourages the re-emergence of sectarian—mostly Sunni and Shia—differences which were suppressed over the past three years. But America’s partial withdrawal compounded by the lack of a functioning government rekindled those deeply held sectarian fears. That fear has contributed to the return of extremists like Ismail al-Lami, who the U.S. military has targeted since 2004, when he served in Muqtada al Sadr’s Shiite Mehdi Army.
Sunnis, a religious minority once favored by Saddam Hussein, fear America’s withdrawal will leave them at the mercy of a Shia government backed by Iran. Already al Qaeda is reportedly returning to Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq claimed credit for a suicide attack last week.
The increase in violence associated with the uncertainly explains why a stable, non-sectarian government with a loyal and capable security force is necessary before the U.S. eventually withdraws.
Iraq’s security forces are not up to the task. Hamid Fadhel, a political science professor at Baghdad University labels America’s combat troop withdrawal “irresponsible.” He continued, “There are dangers to do with security of the country, concerns and fears for Iraq’s external security, because of the lack of military that is able to protect the country.”
Tehran’s geopolitical intentions for Iraq are clear as well. It does not want a strong Iraq because of past wars. Tehran lost more than one million personnel in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and will do whatever necessary to keep Baghdad from posing a similar threat again.
But Iraqi Sunnis, who fueled the recent insurgency, expect Tehran to wrestle back control over Baghdad once all Americans exit. Until that time, Tehran will work with its Shia proxies and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to keep Iraq unstable and therefore weak, which presents no threat to Tehran.
Tehran’s geopolitical aim extends beyond Iraq. It is working against the U.S. in Afghanistan, supports its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon to undermine U.S. interests, and it continues its secretive nuclear weapons program threatening the entire region. These activities and its frequent military exercises near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which 40% of the world’s oil passes have created a very tense situation.
Iraq’s fragile state and Iran’s hegemonic activities threaten America’s interests in Baghdad and the region. President Obama has four bad alternatives upon which to base his “responsible end” in Iraq.
First, the U.S. with a coalition of partners could attack Iran to remove the regime, keep it from interfering in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deny it nuclear weapons. That’s highly unlikely and not just because the U.S. is already stretched thin by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A ground assault on Iran, a country with 70 million people, would likely lead to an extended occupation by a force much larger than the 192,000 man coalition used to take Iraq. And air power alone can’t change the regime or its policies. Besides no one in Washington has the stomach for another war.
Second, Obama’s rhetoric indicates he might withdraw all our troops from Iraq whether Baghdad is ready or not. But that option abandons both Iraq and the Persian Gulf countries to Iran and would protect American interests only if Baghdad is stable and able to defend itself. The consequences of total withdrawal before Iraq is ready could be catastrophic because Iraq would likely become Tehran’s puppet and Sunni blood would flow leading to a civil war.
Third, the U.S. could remain in Iraq on a semi-permanent basis much as it has in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait. Top Iraqi and U.S. military leaders acknowledge Iraq may need help well beyond 2011 and Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledges the discussion but said the “initiative will have to come from the Iraqis.” The intent of a semi-permanent presence would be to act as a trip wire much like U.S. forces in Europe during the Cold War or South Korea does today against a potential North Korean invasion. But Iran would reject any permanent U.S. presence in Iraq and demonstrate its displeasure by creating instability.
Finally, the U.S. could negotiate with Iran. Two weeks ago retired Gen. Jim Jones, Obama’s national security advisor, said the U.S. is considering negotiations with Iran. But to draw Tehran to the table the U.S. must be willing to give-up something desirable to Iran. Right now Iran appears to have all the leverage—threats to continue disrupting U.S. operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, endanger free passage through the strategic Strait of Hormuz, and an unchecked, advancing atomic weapons program. The only bargaining chips Obama might use are lifting economic sanctions which are having some effect, compromising security guarantees with Gulf allies, and ratcheting down our hostility to Tehran’s atomic programs. But are these really worth negotiating away in order to win a peaceful Iraq?
President Obama has nothing but bad options to deliver on his promise to bring “the war in Iraq to a responsible end.” His best option appears to be a semi-permanent presence in Iraq—well past the December 2011 deadline—until Baghdad has a stable government capable of securing itself internally and from Tehran’s interference. That serves the region’s and America’s best interests.