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.