Shi’ite demonstrators call for U.S. Withdrawal
Don’t take this to the bank (hell, what can you take to the bank these days?) but Rootless Cosmopolitan suspects that the war in Iraq is drawing to a close — and it will hardly end on the terms of those who initiated it. And it’s the confluence of two factors that will hasten its close on terms less than favorable to the U.S. no matter how robust the commitment of any in Washington to continue it. The first factor hastening the war’s closure, quite ironically, is the very democracy that the U.S. invasion brought into being; the second is the retrenchment of U.S. power globally, which has been visibly underway since the U.S. mired itself in Iraq, and will now be accelerated by the sharp downturn of the U.S. economy.
In the summer, I wrote that the Bush Administration had called a straw poll in Iraq, and that it would not like the result. Extract:
There has been precious little progress towards the political reconciliation for which the “surge” was intended to create security conditions. That’s because while the U.S. remains the dominant military force in Iraq, none of the Iraqi factions accept U.S. political tutelage. On the contrary, they are using the U.S. presence — which they assume will be finite — to best position themselves to trump their rivals once the U.S. has departed. That’s why, when it has come to substantial political legislation favorable to U.S. interests that Washington has pressed for — the obvious example being the oil law, which privatizes Iraq’s oil reserves and opens them to ownership by foreign investors — the Iraqis have politely, but firmly demurred. Laws such as the oil law, of course, run counter to the interests of the Iraqi parties with which the U.S. is in alliance, and where that happens, the Iraqis protect their own interests.
A similar dynamic may be unleashed by new U.S. efforts to get the Iraqi government to sign a security agreement that would keep 50 permanent military bases in Iraq [Ed: This was what the U.S. demanded at the beginning of the negotiations] and commit Baghdad (and President Bush’s successor) to accepting an open-ended military deployment in which U.S. forces would be free to pursue their own objectives on Iraqi soil. [That] may turn out to be a decisive moment in which all the key stakeholders in Iraq are forced to declare their intentions. And that could prove disastrous for the U.S., because outside of the Kurds, all of Washington’s key Iraqi allies cooperate with the U.S. only insofar as that advances their own interests in the intra-Iraqi political battle. That much is true for the leading parties of the Iraqi government, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and also the Shi’ite Islamic Supreme Council of Abdulaziz al-Hakim, on the one hand, and the various Sunni nationalist and Islamist groups both in the political process and among the insurgents of the “Awakening” groups who fight alongside the U.S. against al-Qaeda, but also oppose the Shi’ite led central government — none of these groups can in any sense be claimed as a strategic, let alone a principled ally of the U.S. Their alliance with the U.S. is purely tactical.
So, now that the U.S. is once again pushing for a political agreement by the Iraqis that many deem inimical to their national interests — and which Iran, the key regional player in Iraq, has deemed unacceptable — we’re suddenly being treated to a kind of snap survey or straw poll among the players in Iraq on the long-term U.S. presence and goals for Iraq. Sadr is out on the streets protesting; Maliki is unhappy and so is SCIRI; Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani seems likely to oppose it by insisting that it be passed by parliament and not run contrary to the principle of Iraqi sovereignty (which it obviously does); Iran is warning of resistance; and the Sunnis don’t like it either. The interests of none of the key players in Iraq run to a permanent U.S. presence, particularly given the fact that the vast majority of ordinary Iraqis oppose it.
Bush is clearly betting that Maliki lacks any option but to sign on, because without the U.S. he wouldn’t remain in power. The problem that it can’t recognize, however, is that being seen to embrace the U.S. will also result in certain political doom for Maliki. Forced to choose, the smart money says he can’t say yes to Bush. Which is why he’ll probably find a way to avoid having to make the decision the U.S. wants him to make.
If the new law is passed in the way the U.S. wants it, to sanctify a permanent U.S. military presence, I’d concede that it’s a sign that the U.S. is, indeed, beginning to win in Iraq. Anything less, however, would confirm my suspicion that surge notwithstanding, Washington is no closer to achieving its political objectives in Iraq than it was five years ago.
And as Gareth Porter has explained, the Iraqis have pushed the U.S. back in the course of negotiations to the point of accepting withdrwal deadlines and greater Iraqi control over military operations. And, as I noted last week, if the current deal were to be adopted by the Iraqi government, it would not only set a firm withdrawal date — despite John McCain’s protestations to the contrary — it also “puts any ‘conditions-based’ decision to extend the deadline into the hands of the Iraqi government. And on current indications, the Iraqis are unlikely to accept any extension. In fact, right now the Iraqi government appears unable even to accept the “final” draft agreement that contains those deadlines its negotiators demanded — for fear of enraging its electorate.”
Democracy is now the reason that the Iraqis can’t give the U.S. what it wants. And that’s becoming a common problem — Palestinian democracy and Pakistani democracy have had the same effect, recently. As I wrote in the National,
The democracy genie is out of the bottle in Iraq and elsewhere, and it has been eagerly embraced by long-suffering peoples exhilarated by the prospect of taking their national fate into their own hands. The question is not whether the Iraqis are ready for democracy; it is whether the United States is ready to accept the democratic verdict of Arab electorates looking to chart a future independent of US tutelage.
One reason the U.S. may now be more inclined, no matter who wins the White House, to accomodate the Iraqis, is the economy, stupid… or the law of diminishing returns. Like my beloved Liverpool Football Club (owned for two years now by unloved Americans), Iraq was a leveraged acquisition. The Bush Administration, as perhaps its most trenchant strategic critic Andrew Bacevich has noted, didn’t raise taxes to fight a protracted war; instead it slashed them and borrowed the money, telling Americans to keep spending money they didn’t have as if this constituted a defiant response to the 9/11 attack. On Iraq, the dea, of course, was that like Liverpool Football Club or any other leveraged acquisition (acquired with borrowed money), the Iraqi occupation would pay for itself by the revenues it generated through the sail of oil. Well, that didn’t quite work out, eh?
And despite the massive investment in Iraq, Baghdad is no closer now than it was five years ago to accepting and implementing the U.S. vision of its future. In other words, the U.S. may be throwing good money after bad at a moment when it’s financial resources are suddenly under strain. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago,
The subtext [of moves to agree to a new international regime of financial regulation] is clear: the US can no longer shape the global financial system on its own terms, and it will be forced adopt international standards anathema to the conventional wisdom of post-Reagan Washington if it wants to keep playing the global financial game on which its economy depends.
And the erosion of the financial hegemony of the US will accelerate the decline of its geopolitical hegemony. One obvious example is Iran: unable to secure international backing for significant sanctions, the Bush Administration has aggressively used its dominant position in the international banking system to enforce sanctions simply by threatening foreign banks that do business with Iran with exclusion from the US financial system. It’s a safe bet that the effects of the meltdown will substantially trim the ability of Washington’s neocons to use that particular cudgel.
On an even grander scale, a bailout that already looks likely to cost a lot more in the end than the Iraq war will prompt the US to begin wrapping up a military commitment that may already have achieved as much as it’s going to achieve politically. The Iraqi government has demanded that the US begin scaling down its involvement next year and be gone by the end of 2011. Given the dire state of the US economy, Washington may oblige.
And the idea that drawing down troops in Iraq will free them for another unwinnable war in Afghanistan may not survive beyond the presidential election. A combination of the limits of military force and the growing financial burden of waging war are likely to force a new realism on Washington. Expect negotiations with Iran and, perhaps more covertly, with the Taliban.
I’d written earlier that the financial crisis would sharply accelerate the decline in U.S. hegemony that has been evident for the past couple of years:
Regardless of who wins in November, the next Administration’s priorities will be shaped by the financial crisis and the challenge of repairing and regrowing the economy. Military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan that cost close to $200 billion a year will begin to look prohibitive, and the US will be in no position to embark on new military adventures in Iran or anywhere else. Pax Americana has begun to crumble in the Middle East, Latin America and even Eastern Europe, and the financial collapse is likely only to accelerate the timeframe of the decline that Washington’s intelligence community is warning its politicians to expect.
Rebuilding confidence in the economy, and the economy itself; rebuilding a crumbling national infrastructure; simply getting out of a deep, deep recession, will consume much of America’s energies over the next decade. Even reintegrating the tens of thousands of young men, traumatised and often enraged by bitter combat experience in wars that will, inevitably, seem to have been pointless, into a society in which many will struggle to find employment and economic stability, will create its own challenges and traumas.
In charge of an increasingly indebted nation, whose leadership of the global financial system has suffered a crisis of credibility like the one suffered by its geopolitical leadership because of its failures in the Middle East, the next President will simply not have the option of adopting the arrogant unilateralism of the Bush administration’s first term. Internationally, it will have no choice but to adopt a more cooperative approach, on everything from Iran to global warming. But domestic challenges will consume most of its focus and energy.
For the rest of the world, it will no longer be possible simply to follow the US lead for better or worse, or reflexively resist it as a matter of course. Instead, the shrinking of the last superpower will force the leaders of Europe and Asia, the Middle East and Latin America to take more responsibility than ever for solving the problems of their regions, and of the world.
The pullout will not be precipitous: Instead, the U.S. will find itself forced to negotiate the terms of its withdrawal not only with the Iraqi leadership, but also with Iraq’s key neighbors, most important among them Iran. And it will be darkly amusing to watch the Black Knight neocons try to spin that as a victory.