Giving Away Iraq
Reports that the U.S. intends by year's end to reduce the U.S. presence to 3,000 troops in Iraq, down from the current 45,000, has been noticed and remarked on mainly by specialists on the subject. Beyond that, President Obama's intention to drastically reduce the U.S. presence there passed in and out of sight within a day.
Arguably this reflects public weariness with Iraq, but it's the job of a nation's political leadership to see clearly the needs and implications of its overseas commitments. By this standard, Mr. Obama is ill-serving our interests or Iraq's.
A historic footnote: In the Korean War, more than 36,000 Americans died. Today, 60 years later, nearly 28,000 U. S. troops are stationed in South Korea, with no recent serious Presidential candidate calling to pull them out. About 4,400 have died in Iraq, and the Administration's troop reduction to 3,000 looks more than anything like President Obama is trying to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to leave Iraq.
Whether in Korea or Iraq, the U.S. presence should reflect an assessment of America's vital interests. That interest in the continuing standoff between South Korea and volatile, nuclear-armed North Korea is unquestioned. What is troubling about the 3,000 troop decision is that the White House hasn't attempted an explanation of how this supports U.S. postwar interests in that region, where Iraq's most important neighbor is nuclear-bomb-seeking Iran.
This past July, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen told reporters, "Iran is very directly supporting extremist Shia groups, which are killing our troops. And there's no reason . . . for me to believe that they're going to stop that as our numbers come down."
This surely was foremost among the reasons the current commander in Iraq, General Lloyd Austin, asked for between 15,000 and 18,000 troops. After resistance, General Austin reduced his request to 10,000. He got 3,000.
Earlier this week, Iran's main ally inside Iraq, Shiite cleric Muqtada-al-Sadr (whose army Mr. Maliki bravely disbanded in 2008) told his followers to stop attacking Americans--to ensure that they leave. Sadr's disingenuous restraint aside, those 3,000 U.S. troops face heightened, needless risk. As the Brookings Institution's Kenneth Pollack noted in these pages on Monday, "a force that small will have a very hard time protecting itself, let alone other American personnel in Iraq. They will have to remain on a small number of forward operating bases that are well known to Iraq's myriad terrorist groups, who will continue to attack them for a variety of emotional and political reasons."
In July Admiral Mullen also said the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had to help the U.S. "control" Iran's influence there. The Obama troop decision enables the opposite result. The Iraqi army is in no sense prepared to be a counterweight to Iran's power. A troop drawdown this drastic tells Mr. Maliki he is on his own. White House spokesman Jay Carney imperiously suggested as much this week when asked about the troop number: "If the Iraqi government makes a request of us, we will certainly consider it."
Mr. Maliki already has begun to behave as if the U.S. is leaving and his interests lie in a modus vivendi with Iran. In August, for example, Mr. Maliki expressed support for the embattled Bashar al-Assad in Syria. If Iraq, with its oil revenue, joins (or replaces) Syria in Iran's small stable of allies, the region's axis of power tilts to Iran. Any conceivable sanctions regime against Iran would become even less enforceable than it is now.
Critics of this view cite historic Iraqi Shiite distrust of the Iranians, and there is no doubt that Mr. Maliki has shown a nationalist streak in the past. But Iraq lives in a tough neighborhood and Iran's mullahs have proven to be patient in their nuclear standoff with the West. The pressure on Iraq to come to terms with Iran's primacy will be steady and relentless.
There is as well the stabilizing role U.S. forces have played along the volatile seam separating the oil-rich Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq from its Arab neighbors (Iran lies to the east). That, too, could go.
The White House points to the 2008 agreement made by the Bush Administration to withdraw all troops by the end of this year. As well, they suggest, Prime Minister Maliki has said a number greater than 10,000 wasn't politically possible. So our hands were tied.
Managing relations with a domestic host--whether Iraq, South Korea, Japan or anywhere U.S. troops are stationed--is always difficult. That comes with the Presidential assignment. But the Obama Administration has been largely passive to events in Iraq, leaving us little leverage when this important moment arrived. With the U.S. showing de minimis interest in him, no wonder Mr. Maliki defaulted to a decision not in America's interests.
At great cost, the U.S. has made enormous gains in Iraq since the surge began in 2007. With the steady diplomacy that has shaped our relations with other postwar allies, the U.S. stood to make more gains by strengthening its association with a frontline state in this vital region. Instead the U.S. looks like it is taking the easy way out of a postwar commitment. Normally we stay to protect a U.S. ally and to enhance regional stability. Unless the U.S. acts quickly to change the negotiations, we'll soon find out how well going from 45,000 troops to next to zero serves U.S. interests.