It is hard to know what to think of the administration’s announcement that we are leaving Iraq, since President Obama has said so many contradictory things, from ‘all troops out by March 2008’ to ‘staying on until the foundations of civil society are established and institutionalized.’ Neither happened. The U.S. military, which evolved in brilliant fashion to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, cannot be happy that in the midst of the usual contorted negotiations, we simply quit and bugged out.
The so-called Arab Spring may have been inspired by the removal of Saddam Hussein, and yet without a direct U.S. presence, most countries are perhaps more likely to follow the Iranian model: removal of the tyrant, establishment of a weak elected government, the hijacking of the revolution by self-proclaimed “moderate” Islamists, and ultimately, theocracy of the Khomeinist/Hezbollah/Hamas sort. Note that Iraq, almost alone, escaped Arab Spring mass demonstrations, largely because the U.S. had shepherded a constitutional government considered legitimate and stable enough to endure the almost nonstop efforts by both Iranian agents and al-Qaedist terrorists to overthrow it. So, will the postwar American presence in 2008–11 turn out to have been sufficient, given that Iraq is still not able to defend its borders and its democracy is deeply feared by Tehran? Time will tell, but we should worry about everything from the survival of Iraqi territorial integrity to preserving the near miracle of a booming Kurdistan.
As for the cost in American blood and treasure, it was immense, which to Obama and many Americans means enough is enough, but to others argues that we owe to veterans and the dead an adequate peace-keeping force to ensure their sacrifices lead to a stable and constitutional Iraq, something now within our grasp. We have two postwar models — well apart from Italy, Germany, and Japan (where U.S. troops still reside) — South Korea and Vietnam. Both the latter wars cost the U.S. dearly, but the former, with a committed U.S. postwar presence, evolved into a strategic partner and a humane society; the latter, with helicopters fleeing the embassy, is still a Communist authoritarian state. And remember there are geo-strategic ripples, as we saw from Vietnam, when a pro-U.S. government and partner in war unravels. Nothing would make terrorists happier than to go after Iraq in force after in January 2012, to show that the noble effort of 2003–11 ended in infidel failure.
We also must not confuse irony with U.S. strategic interest. One artifact of Obama’s “leading from behind” foreign policy is a sense that many of our allies had it coming — “be careful what you wish for,” essentially — and now can no longer ankle-bite with unquestioned and guaranteed U.S. commitments. The more we consulted and defended Europe, the more it criticized us; the more we helped Iraq, the more its politicians blustered that we should leave, pronto. Now, with everyone unsure exactly of the present U.S. global foreign policy, many of our former friends are shocked and confused that American is no longer there for them anymore. This evokes schadenfreude, of course; but we should ignore that and decide to what degree a relatively defenseless Iraq is in our national interest, in the way that a shrinking and insolvent Europe is not in our interest, in the way Somalia-like chaos in the monarchial Gulf is not in our interest.
Right now, the future of Iraq is up in the air. If it is stable in 2012, Obama will campaign on the boast that he got all U.S. troops out. If it is not, ‘Who lost Iraq?’ will be the counter-charge. How sad — the U.S. was slowly drawing down with an eye on any unrest, and was planning to leave eventually anyway. Without much violence in Iraq (five Americans lost during the last three months), a U.S. force of say 10,000–15,000 was an iconic presence of U.S. commitment and did not cost the taxpayer much more than these troops being stationed elsewhere — and may well have proven a bargain in the retrospect.