Iraq: Why the End is in Sight


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.

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14 Responses to Iraq: Why the End is in Sight

  1. Y. Ben-David says:

    Although I generally disagree with almost everything you say, this was a pretty well-reasoned piece. The question is then what will happen when this scenario is played out. Will the Islamic extremists like Iran, HAMAS, HIZBULLAH and Al-Qaida feel they have won yet another victory, or will Iraq’s democratic choice away from US tutelage, be towards stability and independence from Iran and other extremist elements, showing that those elements did not get what they wanted there?

    The US survived its defeat in Vietnam, but the fall of South Vietnam did not bring quiet to the world. The USSR wrongly assumed that the victory of its client meant that the US was in decline around the world so they stepped up their involvement in places like Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and other places. This led them to becoming embroiled in various wars which bled them dry and ended up contributing to the collapse of the Communist system. Thus, the consequences of a US pull-out from Iraq, even under unfavorable circumstances are not necessarily clear.

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  3. Andy says:

    Tony, there are two broken links in the first paragraph.

  4. Matthew says:

    YBD: Since you addressed Tony in a respectful tone, I will return the favor. I doubt Tony–or anyone else–seriously believes that the world’s problems will be solved because American power declines. Instead, a better question might be: Is the world a better place because of American Unilateralism? Or: Would the world be better off with less American unilateralism? I would answer those questions, no and yes. Any nation who sets its own rules for international relations is going to create more strife than it alleviates. And a dminished American role will also require nations to solve their own problems, instead of hiding behind America–or blaming America for their own inaction.

    Finally, the world will never be “quiet.” Using that as a yardstick, seems to me, at least, an exercize in futility.

  5. Bernard Chazelle says:

    All highly plausible so I’ll just play the devil’s advocate. Our puppet, Maliki, takes his marching orders from Tehran, so a complete withdrawal would be a double victory for Iran. He won’t allow a Sunni revival (via the Awakening), hence no political reconciliation in sight. So, in that context, can Obama afford a complete withdrawal politically, given the geopolitical stakes (that Vietnam never had). Libs have trouble ending wars. (They’re usually better at starting them.) Finally, what’s a withdrawal? Leaving 30K troops? I suggest we define withdrawal as anything that makes the locals believe we’ve withdrawn, so 30K would not count as such.

  6. Tony says:

    Good points, Bernard — but that’s why I said at the end the withdrawal can’t be precipitous; it will need a deal with Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Iran, which will include some sort of codified balance of forces inside the country agreed between Iraqi leaders, and the Iranians, Syrians, the Arab League, the Turks etc. Iran, I’m pretty sure, doesn’t want to see a war between Sunni and Shia tear Iraq apart, so I’d imagine they’d counsel moderation on that front, particularly if in a context of U.S. withdrawal and direct engagement between Tehran and Washington….

  7. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Agree.

    Just curious how much of a residual force will stay (in Iraq proper or Kurdistan). The US lost its Saudi bases and won’t regain them, so a complete withdrawal would be hard to swallow for the Pentagon.

    Plus, we’ll have to keep 90K more Army/Marines troops busy somewhere since that’s by how much Obama wants to increase the size of the military.

    Since he’s never told us why we need them (presumably so he can fight all the wars he opposes), maybe it’s a trick to fight unemployment. Hey, why don’t we have the Pentagon hire all the unemployment? We can outsource payroll to the Chinese, while Paulson teaches them how communism *really* works…

  8. Bernard Chazelle says:

    all the unemployment -> all the unemployed

  9. ERIC COUFAL says:

    The current political crisis in the United States began with the fraudulent election of GWB, a nefarious attack to democratic principles, as endorsed by the US Supreme Court, so no wonder there is both a political and a financial crisis now.

    If the US government (at least the incoming administration soon after taking office) doesn’t incarcerate a significant number of white collar criminals in the US and impounds their assets (both from the private and the public sectors; entrepreneurs and politicians alike, at the highest levels, whether members of the Illuminati clan or not) who are to blame for unfair business practices, political corruption, insider trading, favoritism on juicy war and other public contracts, self demolition of buildings and institutions, abusive secrecy about relevant information and technology that should be made public for the advancement of mankind (i.e. the Disclosure Project), including all sorts of tax / financial simulation and manipulation schemes, which combined blatant crimes have led the US to this collapse, and whose conduct is legally sanctionable by law and in equity, so as to demonstrate that there are rooted solid principles in the US legal system, sufficiently strong and valuable to shelter those main street citizens who abide by decent standards of living, and to punish wrongdoers until they repair the damage, with punitive and decisive action, the conclusion is simple: NO MONETARY BAILOUT WILL EVER BE ENOUGH FOR THE US TO REGAIN CREDIBILITY, because it is conducted at the expense of innocents and for the shared benefit of criminals. That is abuse of power … pure and intolerable injustice. If the Judicial system remains a silent puppet, just as the two other branches of government have clearly become noisy ones, the free fall of this crisis will not end, because what is being done is simply immoral, no matter how it is labeled or justified.

    THE WORLD URGENTLY NEEDS A MORAL BAILOUT, and both the US Executive branch and the Legislature (composed of politicians mostly interested in their selfish careers, and not in the common good as public servants) don’t seem to have a clue of what that means or how to implement it, except with more of the same which wont solve the roots of the problem.

    It is the Judiciary (not composed of biased politicians but by persons of allegedly good moral character with standards of ethical behavior), through the Supreme Court, the branch of government that is constitutionally in charge of administering Justice, so IT IS ABOUT TIME FOR THE JUSTICES TO DO THEIR JOB and save us all from what is coming.

    Regardless of the merits, the US achieved international respect when President Nixon was impeached, which led to his removal from office after Watergate. During the last few administrations all kinds of lies and deceit by Presidents in the US have not been sanctioned and have not only been tolerated but continue to be even applauded, with a much worse component of dishonesty than the Nixon era, including shameless ridicule, so the outcome is exactly what we have and where we stand right now: economic, political and moral decay.

    If a country has the government it deserves … there’s no more time to waste and the US as a country should regain worldwide credibility, because further delays in taking effective action with a principled bailout will unfortunately turn over governmental leadership to others abroad, just to save those few liable criminals in-house (politicians and bankers), and that will be at the expense of freedom and international peace, let alone the continued bankruptcy trends of the US economy and its political system, fundamentally due to more than obvious moral insolvency from the top down.

    Eric Coufal, Esq.
    Attorney and Counsellor at Law
    admitted to practice in Mexico,
    and in the United States by the
    New York and New Jersey Bars

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  12. Garry says:

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  13. Frever t. says:

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  14. It is the Judiciary (not composed of biased politicians but by persons of allegedly good moral character with standards of ethical behavior), through the Supreme Court, the branch of government that is constitutionally in charge of administering Justice, so IT IS ABOUT TIME FOR THE JUSTICES TO DO THEIR JOB and save us all from what is coming.

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