Why the U.S. Can’t Leave Iraq

The debate in Washington over troop withdrawals from Iraq is largely a pantomime for domestic political consumption — the Democrats are maneuvering to disassociate themselves from an unpopular war that a majority of their senators originally backed, and that they know can’t be ended any time soon but for which they don’t want to share the blame come election year 2008. The reality is that the U.S. can’t leave Iraq for the foreseeable future without fundamentally altering the basic goals of its Middle East policy over the past half century, and the Democrats talk of “benchmarks” and “deadlines” is unlikely to be taken seriously by the Iraqi players — except to the extent that they need to humor the Americans. The failure of the Iraqi government to make significant “progress” towards achieving the Bush Administration’s benchmarks may be routinely reported here has a sign of infighting among them or their political weakness, but the reality may be that they have no intention of acting out Washington’s script.

The Iraqis are unlikely to believe the threats that if they don’t do as they’re told, the U.S. will go home — Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may have reason to fear that the U.S. will try and engineer his ouster in a coup (although it has no alternative leader capable of gaining any traction), but not that the U.S. will simply walk away from Iraq. That’s because Maliki, like all the other players in Iraq, knows that the Americans didn’t invade their country out of some magnanimous concern for Iraqi wellbeing; the invasion was motivated by U.S. concerns and interests. And so the threat to take their troops and go home unless the Iraqi politicians agree to adopt the Americans’ idea of good governance rings pretty hollow in light of the matrix of interests that drive U.S. foreign policy in the region.

It’s not that they doubt that the U.S. will eventually be forced out of Iraq by domestic pressure driven by the cost in U.S. blood and treasure of maintaining the expedition — they’re not “shocked and awed” by U.S. power, remember, and recognize it as finite and fallible. Each of the players in Iraq has a Plan B for that eventuality, but they’re in no hurry to hasten the moment. (Even Moqtada Sadr plays to popular sentiment by demanding withdrawal, but he’s demanding a timetable rather than immediate withdrawal.) They’re actually assuming that the U.S. will eventually go. Until then, however, they’ll continue using the U.S. presence to pursue their own political interests and agendas — even as many of them publicly demand U.S. withdrawal — and position themselves to gain maximum advantage when it actually does go (as opposed to acting in ways that advance U.S. interests in order to allow Washington to substantially draw down). And, of course, Washington’s own position reflects a similar gulf between the actual policy and the public statements — Bush, for example, has always dodged the question, whenever asked (even by John Kerry in the presidential debates) about why the U.S. is building 14 permanent bases in Iraq

“While the U.S. can no longer successfully manipulate regional actors to carry out its plans, regional actors have learned to use the U.S. presence to promote their own objectives. Quietly and against the deeply held wishes of their populations, they have managed to keep the Americans engaged with the hope of some elusive victory.

That’s an observation by Dr. Hussein Agha, in one of the best pieces I’ve read in ages on Iraq, arguing why none of the region’s political players, from Israel to al-Qaeda, wants the U.S. to withdraw right now. (Agha’s piece is an absolute must-read; as are his ongoing contributions along with Robert Malley to the New York Review of Books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — most recently this one.) There’s no comfort in this for the Bush Administration, because it’s not as if anyone in the region (indeed, anyone from Israel to al-Qaeda, regardless of their rhetoric) who believes the U.S. can win in Iraq; the reason all of them need it to remain there is in pursuit of their own interests.

Even while King Abdullah denounces the U.S. occupation as illegal, Saudi Arabia and its fellow pro-Western Arab regimes can’t afford to see the U.S. leave, because such a departure would bring great peril to their own prospects of survival. The U.S. for better or worse long ago signed on as the guarantor of their security, and the spectacle of a stunning defeat for their key backer is intolerable to these regimes — and would force them, at minimum, to fundamentally alter their relationship with the U.S. to Washington’s detriment, in order to ensure their own survival. They’re already suspicious of the Shiite dominated regime in Baghdad, and without the U.S. there to restrain its excesses against the Sunnis, these regimes would be even more hostile, forcing Maliki even closer to Iran and simply deepening the cycle of suspicion and hostility. Also, Agha notes, “As some Arabs see it, the occupation is what holds the country together. So long as coalition forces are deployed, a full-blown breakup can be avoided.”

The interests of these regimes, as well as Israel whose own sense of its military deterrent power has been badly shaken by the U.S. failure in Iraq, need the U.S. to remain. So does Turkey, which sees the U.S. presence as the best guarantor against the Iraqi Kurds seceding and forcing Turkey into a political-military quagmire of its own in northern Iraq. (The flip side, of course, is that the Kurds have used the U.S. presence as a buffer against their Arab and Turkish foes, behind which they have maximized their autonomy.) Al-Qaeda’s interest in having the U.S. in Iraq is so obvious there’s no need to dwell on it here.

Having created a vacuum, Washington simply has no alternative but to fill it — or, as Colin Powell might have it, “you broke it; you own it.” And I have no doubt that if the Democrats were in the White House now, and given responsibility for managing the realm (not just Iraq, but the entire connected matrix of U.S. interests in the region), that they’d reach the same conclusion. That’s why Iraq is seen as such a catastrophe by the U.S. strategic establishment: The U.S. cannot win, but nor can it accept the consequences of retreat.

Agha notes, though, that it may be equally important for the likes of Syria and Iran to keep the Americans engaged in Iraq, because as long they’re bogged down there, they’re unable to contemplate other adventures — and if they should do so, the massive U.S. troop presence in Iraq gives those countries an accessible target for retaliation.

Among the Iraqi political factions, none is yet ready for the U.S. to withdraw, according to Agha:

Inside Iraq, this is a period of consolidation for most political groups. They are building up their political and military capabilities, cultivating and forging alliances, clarifying political objectives and preparing for impending challenges. It is not the moment for all-out confrontation. No group has the confidence or capacity decisively to confront rivals within its own community or across communal lines. Equally, no party is genuinely interested in a serious process of national reconciliation when they feel they can improve their position later on. A continued American presence is consistent with both concerns – it can keep clashes manageable and be used to postpone the need for serious political engagement.

Shias in government would like the US to stay long enough for them to tighten their grip on the levers of state power and build a loyal military. Those Shias who are not in power would like them to stay long enough to avoid a premature showdown with their rivals. Militant Shia groups can simultaneously blame the occupation forces for their community’s plight and attack them to mobilise further support.

The maneuverings of Moqtada Sadr perfectly illustrate the point: He is at once in the government — even since he withdrew his cabinet ministers, he has continued to have his bloc vote with Maliki, and has even been said to be helping Maliki accomodate U.S. concerns by making himself scarce — and out in the street, riding the wave of popular anger against the occupation. He’s not hedging his bets as much as playing out the clock to preserve his political advantage.

In short, the Iraqi political class is unlikely ever to give the U.S. what it wants — a client regime that will secure the interests that drove the U.S. to invade in the first place. It’s not that they don’t understand the demands that Washington has deemed to be in their best interests; it’s that they have something else in mind. Their patience is a lot greater than that of the U.S. public, which is why the U.S. occupation, for them, is a phase that will eventually end, but which they’ll use to position themselves to best take advantage of the moment in which the U.S. is forced to withdraw — or more likely to radically reorder things in Iraq, perhaps by backing some form of coup. That’ll be the moment for Sadr to bring his forces onto the streets, for the Kurds to consider their options, for the Arab regimes to once again back an Iraqi dictatorship, and so on. Until then, however, the U.S. occupation represents less of a crisis than an opportunity.

Last word to Agha:

In this grim picture, the Americans appear the least sure and most confused. With unattainable objectives, wobbly plans, changing tactics, shifting alliances and ever-increasing casualties, it is not clear any longer what they want or how they are going to achieve it. By setting themselves up to be manipulated, they give credence to an old Arab saying: the magic has taken over the magician.

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28 Responses to Why the U.S. Can’t Leave Iraq

  1. alex says:

    It’s not hard to see, but the similarities between present day Iraq and 1980s Lebanon are truly striking. The militias are manipulating the American presence in Iraq just as well as they did with the Marines in Beirut. Unfortunately, whatever outcome happens in Iraq will have far greater-reaching effects than in Lebanon. Iraq is far more strategically important, both in terms of the oil and the location, but also by the fact that it is the spark to the dynamite of an all-out regional conflict between Sunnis and Shi’iits, represented by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

    The fact that the last thing the Middle East’s main players want is for the US to leave Iraq makes me wonder if that isn’t exactly the thing that we should do. It seems possible that Bill Richardson’s recent comments that if it were up to him, he would withdraw from Iraq immediately, was representative of his actual beliefs and not an exaggeration attempting to grab the media spotlight from whatever minor gaffe has most recently been committed by Hillary, McCain, Obama, et. al.

  2. Waleed says:

    Yes I agree, but the question becomes why is this so? And the answer leads to questions about what’s wrong with the security architecture and the structure of political states in the region; and these questions should lead to a profound rethinking of the US role in the region akin to the questions popular nationalist asked of the French and British role in the region during the interwar period. The result was the collaspe of colonial backed “independent” regimes across the Middle East, North Africa and else where. Post war decolonization served US interests (by limiting British and French power), but what will the endgame be in the 21st century. A US-UK backed miltiary coup, yep that’s been tried (Iran, etc..), never really ended well for US interests. Few seems to see the writing on the wall, except, say, people like Sadr who lead populist-type movements and can use, manipulate, but ultimately are not dependent on external backing…and thus are the sort of movements that seek the kind of sovgernity that populations (in contrast to political elites) generally seek.

  3. KB says:

    Dear Colleagues,
    As an American I am so ashamed to say that we have become the big stupid bully of the world. We are led by the other sly and sneaky weasels to do their dirty job. Every time there is a conflict somewhere around the world, make sure to call on the stupid Americans they will fight. We are wasting our money, our blood for nothing. We are always out there conducting this and that war in order to help this and that Dictator or murderous establishment. I know for sure if we ever needed a help form anyone they will not even give us a quirt of piss, and why should they. We have created so many enemies in this world that they are all waiting for the time to attack us and tear us apart, and if we do not wake up in America (we will not as long as there are Republicans Democrats and Israeli Lobby) that time will be approaching slowly and surely.
    As much I hate Isolationism I think we should just sit back and mind our own business and let the world just F***ing tear each other apart.
    I am sick and tired of all these Asshole politicians and their analysis. They are the ones that created this quagmire and now they are looking for a solution. The world would be a better place without politicians, lawyers, bankers, and rich greedy industrialists.
    America and Americans it is time to wake up and smell the Hummus.
    So mote it be.

  4. rm11 says:

    I wonder just what American ‘interests’ might lie in Iraq? Perhaps that untold oil wealth, well over $10 trillion worth. Perhaps convenient basing for military forces who might later be called upon to protect Israel or Saudi Arabian oil facilities. Recall that Saudi Arabia has the most petroleum reserves, with Iraq and Iran vying for second, worldwide. It seems that if the Western oil companies cut a sweetheart deal with the currently-in-power Shia leaders to pump out the oil, and later there was a coup with a new government, then the oil contracts negotiated under US occupation would be thrown out by the new government. Maybe the new government would go so far as to nationalize the Iraqi oil resources, as has been done before. Assuming the US can shepherd Maliki and Co. into signing hugely advantageous (for Western oil companies) oil deals which contain terms for the next thirty years, even the Democrats might gain some largesse from the oil companies in contributions. Was it Bill Clinton who once said, “Follow the money?” Some might think it cynical to figure out who and which corporations stand to gain from various foreign policy initiatives. Some would argue that Bush’s and Cheney’s connections to the oil industry are purely coincidental with the occupation of the country with the second largest petroleum reserves in the world. In conclusion, the type of contracts Western oil companies want to sign with Iraqis are PSAs (production sharing agreements). They are unalterable once entered into, EXCEPT IN THE CASE OF A VIOLENT CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT, such as a coup. So of course the US cannot leave Iraq until all of the oil is pumped out, in about 35 years. If the US leaves prematurely, there will almost undoubtedly be a coup, a new government, and a re-negotiation of the oil contracts, with Western oil companies likely cut out and French and Russian oil companies back in control of those reserves, just like when Saddam was in charge. And what would be the point of the entire war if French and Russian oil companies remain sole distributors of Iraqi oil, as was the case before the war? Is it not enough that French and Russian oil companies distribute Iranian oil?

  5. martin cadwell says:

    The apparent goal of Bush, a stable pro-American, pro-Israeli (as pro as say, Jordan or Egypt), pro-privitization of oil weatlh, client state in Iraq seems indeed to be the least likely outcome of the US occupation. Re-Baathification—installation of a new Sunni dictator who colludes with the US (as Saddam did for so long) to suppress the Kurds, Iraqi Shia, and is virulently anti-Iranian—-seems doomed. Consolidation of a Shia puppet regieme beholden to the US with Maliki or a successor as its leader is failing before our eyes. The eventual rise of a Sadrist lead Iraqi national coalition based on ending the occupation seems most likely, but would be terrific defeat for the US and Israel. Lately, the US has been re-running its WMD claims/UN mandates and sanctions campaign against Iran, while simultaneously escalating its Iraq war and blaming Iran and Syria for many of its losses in Iraq. It seems quite likely that the US response to seeing a Sadrist lead, nationalist, anti-American, anti-Israeli, pro-Iranian coalition rising to power in Iraq would be to further escalate its invasion of Iraq while eventually expanding the war to Iran and possibly Syria, which the key US neocons and Israeli hardliners contend are the hidden hand moving the most important anti-American forces of the Iraqi Shia. Perhaps this would be accompanied by a call for a partition of Iraq into three states, although this would enrage at minimum, the Turks and nationalist Iraqis. At best, it would result in an independant Kurdistan at war or nearly at war with US ally Turkey, a oiless Sunnistan in a state of war or near war with Kurdistan over Kirkuk and with Shiastan over oil, and a Shiastan that would be closely allied with Iran in a war against the US. Meanwhile, the US and Israeli hawks dream that they can strike Iran with impunity as to Iran’s ability to retaliate in the Gulf and against Israel while the Iranian people will rise up and reinstall another pro-American Palavi dynasty or perhaps a constitutional monarchy with an Iranian Chalabi at its head in partnership with the baby would be new Shah. Could anything be less likely? It seems more likely that an American attack and eventual invasion of Iran would really mark the beginning of World War III. If it has not already begun……………………………

  6. Strelnikov says:

    Alex, if you want to avoid paying $5 for a gallon of gasoline then US has to stay in Iraq. I was opposed to the war when it was still being “planned” out because, on top of the killing of Iraqis and pointless destruction, it would radicalize the regimes we call allies in the Arab world. I fear that Iraq will be to US what Afghanistan was to the USSR.

  7. rm11 says:

    Should the US leave Iraq precipitously, either Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam’s right-hand-man and an ex-Iraqi Army general officer, or Muqtada al-Sadr are the likely candidates for the new Iraqi strongman. al-Douri, a Baathist, is apparently in charge of the Sunni insurgency and is also apparently quite brilliant. In spite of his wife and daughters languishing in American-Iraqi jails for the past several years, al-Douri shows no signs of surrender. al-Sadr is of course the popular Shia choice for leader. Both of these men hate the US. In terms of Iran, al-Douri hates Iran, al-Sadr loves Iran. If the neocon plan is to consolidate control of Iraq’s government and resources, and then somehow gain control of Iran via a change of regime, and thus Iran’s resources, truly the United States would be in control of most of the petroleum resources in the world. The US could bring China to its knees! China desperately needs affordable energy in order to complete its economic domination of the world. Thus China looms over the horizon as the ultimate rival to the United States. It seems no US presidential candidate, Democratic or Republican, will back down from this gambit to cut off the legs of China. America is going to be in Iraq and ultimately Iran for a long time. It may be that this entire Middle Eastern expedition of the United States is in fact the first salvo in the developing war with China.

  8. Arnold Evans says:

    Yeah right.

    Everybody is lying when they say they want the US out, everyone really wants the US to stay for some undetermined amount of time before eventually leaving so they can position themselves.

    Yet no quotes, no statements even hinting that this is the case from the leaders of the Shia, the Sunnis, the Iranians, the Saudis.

    Everyone says they want the US to announce a date it is leaving and leave. But everyone is lying.

    The Turks want the US to stay to prevent the Kurds from becoming independent – they are lying when they say they would rather take care of the Kurds themselves or pressure the Kurds themselves to remain part of Iraq.

    There are exactly two parties in the MIddle East that for strategic reasons do not want the US to announce when it is leaving and to leave – Israel and the Kurds.

    There are also a minority of Shiite leaders in Iraq who believe they can be personally empowered or enriched by the US but who do not have the popularity to remain in power without the US.

    That’s it. Nobody is calling for the US to leave tomorrow. Everyone is calling for the US to announce it is leaving and leave. When the US bases were kicked out of the Phillipines, the Filipinos did not say leave by tomorrow, they said we want you to be gone by this reasonable date in the near future.

    The fact that everyone in the Middle East is saying the same thing about Iraq does not mean they want the US to stay for an undetermined amount of tmie.

  9. AJ says:

    You wrote: That’s why Iraq is seen as such a catastrophe by the U.S. strategic establishment: The U.S. cannot win, but nor can it accept the consequences of retreat.

    I think you’re about half right here, we haven’t yet accepted the consequences of defeat. But I believe that a Democratic administration would, in a way the congress can not. They had better it’s coming one or the other.

  10. Ziad says:

    Arnold, I’m quite a fan of your analysis and website, but I think their is a lot of truth in Husein Agha’s article. The Shiites no doubt despise the U.S. by now but prefer to have help in a civil war against the Sunnis. The moment the U.S. is no longer useful they will turn on it.

    For Turkey and the Iraqi Sunnis I disagree with Agha.. The Kurds grow bolder and more powerful under U.S. protection, so I doubt Turkey is pleased with this state. Certainly, the Sunnis would prefer not to fight both the U.S and the Shiites. U.S. presence has been by far the greatest disaster for them.

    Iran and Syria are more complex. America being stuck in Iraq gives them tremendous leverage, which would be lost the moment the U.S. withdraws. Both look forward to a U.S. departure, but why rush? The more blood, treasure and international prestige America expends the better from their point of view. They would also prefer the most humiliating withdrawl possible, an increasingly probable outcome over time. Of course, none of them can say this publicly hence the talk of timetables.

  11. Ziad says:

    I would add America will do anything to stay in Iraq. To leave now with less than nothing and with Iran in control of the field would be too painful. Overtime, they probably hold hopes of weaning the Shiites from Iran and to themselves. A faint prospect but perhaps false hope is better than none.

    P.S. Arnold didn’t plug his site, so I will (all due respect to Tony;)
    Certainly worth a look.

  12. Tony says:

    Arnold — I think Agha’s right, and that the players in the region have a more dynamic view. It’s not a case of whether they want the US there or like the US being there or not, it’s that they recognize that it will be there for a while longer, and to use that interim to their own advantage. Each of them is trying to make the U.S. presence, and the terms of its operations now, and of its eventual departure, work to their best advantage. It’s not a case of them lying, I think Agha is making a good case for why each of those actors would be served by delaying that departure — I’m not sure that Turkey actually wants to get involved in a war with the Kurds, if one can be avoided from their perspective (i.e. the Kurds are restrained politically). I think it’s a sound argument — the Shiites will probably be the first to be “ready” for such a departure, although the extent to which they can direct US firepower at the Sunni insurgency for now will be to their advantage… For the same reason, the Baathists will be talking to the US and seeking common ground on the basis of hostility to Iran etc. So, yes, I think the poltiical game the Iraqi players are engaged in is more complex than simply demanding that the US withdraw

  13. Patrick Cummins says:

    To Arnold,
    There is no lack evidence underlying the arguments of Dr. Agha.

    For example, this NYTimes article mentions “The Saudis have argued strenuously against an American pullout from Iraq…”

    This well known WaPo editorial by Nawaf Obaid, a senior advisor to the Saudi government, warned of grave consequences for the Saudis should the US pull out of Iraq :

    As for Iran, this USA Today article,


    covering the US tour of Mohammend Khatami during the fall of 2006, begins with this sentence: “Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami said Monday that U.S. forces should remain in Iraq until that country’s fragile government can assume greater control.” Khatami is quoted as saying “”We can’t leave this newly formed government at the mercy of terrorists and insurgents.” Iran supports the political process that the US has been defending in Iraq and for obvious reasons: it has placed friends of Iran in control of Iraq’s governement.

  14. Finn says:


    My opinion is that USA made IRAQ invasion only because it could first(demoncrazy) Iraq and after that attack Iran and Syria too. That was just again just for imperial(USA,Israel) reasons, although oil is of course important thing to bring lot of money back. My opinion is that 9/11 was the biggest lie in the world’s history. If USA used more soft power in the 90’s it would be real world leader but i think evil cant change its plots!!!!!

  15. bunkerbuster says:

    Ah the legend of Iraqi oil.

    So much of it.

    So much temptation for the “greedy imperialists.”

    So much “strategic significance” for pretend realists.

    Reality does get in the way, though.

    There isn’t that much Iraqi oil yet. Getting what there is out of the ground and into Hummers, Caddilacs and various land yachts that drive Republicans to Las Vegas or their nearby mega-church in “style” involves much more than subduing the uppity locals.

    Iraqi oil did not pay for the first round of postwar national reconstruction, as Bush administration officials had predicted. Nor has the industry come close to matching its decades-old pumping record of 3.7 billion barrels a day.

    And now many of the fields are being ruined day by day by attempts to jump start production by injecting water into wells.

    Big American oil is not charmed by the Iraqi disaster. It’s disgusted by it.

    Big American oil may be greedy and surely includes its share of racists, but it knows logistics. You don’t get to run a big oil company these days without understanding the immense difficulties of getting oil from there to here. In the case of Iraq, that means you know that the invasion and continued occupation insure that it will not matter for decades who actually owns the oil, because it just isn’t going to be coming out of the ground anytime soon.

    People in Baghdad wait in line to gas up their cars. What oil? They may be inclined to ask.

    As political mythology, though, the we invaded Iraq to get the oil notion has the benefit of having a little something for all sides.

    It’s a reason for “anti-corporate” leftists to believe that, at root, capitalism caused the war. Thus reassuring them that they still have everything figured out, without having to think.

    For wannabe “realists” the oil angle lets them recite the reliably soothing “Follow the money” quote and to be reassured that no one’s pulling the wool over their eyes.

    To the rightwing militarists, the “we can’t survive without taking the oil” provides a patina of sensibility and rationalism to an enterprise that otherwise has none.

    With so many insecurities soothed, it’s no wonder the Iraqi oil legend has such staying power against the obvious fact that little oil has come from Iraq since the invasion and it may be a long time before it does in appreciable amounts.

  16. Well said, finally a good report on this stuff

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  21. Grade Acai says:

    Will anybody be ready to smell a smoke smell on me?

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  24. IDM Terbaru says:

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