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.