It is becoming apparent that the U.S. may have left Iraq too soon–before the urgent threat posed by the Iranian regime could be removed or reduced.
Critics of the Iraq War complained, with some justification, that its real strategic consequence had been to strengthen Iran–both by removing Saddam Hussein as an enemy and by creating new opportunities for Tehran to meddle via terror groups and through Shiite leaders and organizations.
Many of those critics, however, together with Democrats in the U.S. Congress, pressed unreasonably for a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. President Barack Obama recently carried out that policy, according to a timetable dictated by his 2012 re-election campaign, not by military or political circumstance on the ground.
Now, mere days after the last American troops have left, Iraq has been shaken by renewed tension and violence.
Almost immediately after the U.S. withdrawal, the Shiite-led Iraqi government issued an arrest warrant for the country’s Sunni vice president on charges of terrorism–charges he vehemently denies. A series of bombs were set off in Baghdad last week, apparently targeting Shiite communities, and yesterday another suicide bombing was carried out in the capital. An Al Qaeda-linked group has claimed responsibility. Meanwhile, the Shiite bloc of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is calling for new elections.
Growing chaos creates opportunities for Iran–which may, indeed, be fomenting it.
A new report by Anthony H. Cordesman, Adam Mausner, Peter Alsis, and Charles Loi at the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that the so-called “realists” who once opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq were utopians when it came to the consequences of rapid withdrawal.
The events of the last few days have made it all too clear that the US celebrated the end of the Iraq War without any realism as to the impact of the war and US occupation or the fact that the real result has been to create a new theater of competition between the US and Iran…
Unless the US does act far more decisively, Iran seems likely to be the de facto winner of the US invasion of Iraq…
Iran’s problems give the US the potential ability to compete for influence in Iraq, especially in aid, political development, military sales, and security training. If the US does not compete skillfully and consistently, however, Iraq’s insecurity and ties of some Shi’ite leaders to Iran may tether Iraq closer and closer to Tehran and further from the US. Iran’s relative influence in Iraq may rise even if Iraqi nationalism chafes against Iranian interference. The US unleashed forces in 2003 that it must now deal with or risk seeing Iran as the real winner of the war in Iraq.
The report does not suggest that the Obama administration should not have withdrawn American troops, but it notes that the withdrawal “will not put an end to violent retaliations against the US and GOI.” It suggests that the U.S. needs to stay involved in Iraq in every way possible, and that the U.S. urgently needs to grapple with the strategic challenge posed by Iran’s growing influence.
The authors fault both Democrats and Republicans for failing to think through the consequences of the war and the withdrawal: “[T]he public stance of the Administration, the Congress, and opposition Presidential candidates is at best what might politely be called a bipartisan intellectual vacuum.”
The fact is that the Iranian regime is a major threat to the U.S. and to American interests in the Middle East, and it has been for several decades. As it races towards becoming a nuclear power capable of projecting an even greater threat to the U.S. and our allies, the need to confront the Iranian regime has become urgent–all the more so since the regime’s domestic support has eroded significantly.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Iraq War, the fact that Iraq has emerged as “a key focus of the strategic competition between the United States and Iran” suggests that having a significant military presence there would have been far better than having none at all. Now that U.S. troops are gone, that option is closed, for better or worse–and new avenues of influence must be found.
President Obama has been more interested in re-litigating the political battles of 2002-3 than in thinking about what ascendant Iranian power means for the U.S. and our allies. It is time for his would-be opponents to fill the “intellectual vacuum” and face up to the reality that has evaded American policymakers for the past decade.