U.S. Withdrawal and Defeat in Iraq

Commentary No. 316, Nov. 1, 2011

It is now official. All uniformed U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011. There are two major ways of describing this. One is by President Obama, who says that he is thereby keeping an electoral promise he made in 2008. The second is by the Republican presidential candidates, who have condemned Obama for not doing what they say the U.S. military wanted, which is to keep some U.S. troops there after Dec. 31 as “trainers” to the Iraqi military. According to Mitt Romney, Obama’s decision was either “the result of naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.”

Both statements are nonsense, and merely represent self-justifying arguments for the American electorate. Obama tried his hardest, and in total conjunction with the U.S. military commanders and the Pentagon, to keep U.S. troops there after Dec. 31. He failed, not because of ineptitude, but because the Iraqi political leaders forced the U.S. troops to leave. The withdrawal marks the culmination of the U.S. defeat in Iraq, one comparable to the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.

What really happened? For the last eighteen months at least, the U.S. authorities have been trying as hard as they could to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqis that would override the one signed by President George W. Bush to withdraw all troops by Dec. 31, 2011. They failed, but not for want to trying hard.

By any definition, the most pro-American groups are the Sunni groups led by Ayad Allawi, a man with notoriously close links with the CIA, and the party of Jalal Talebani, Kurdish president of Iraq. Both men in the end said, no doubt reluctantly, that it was better that U.S. troops leave.

The Iraqi leader who tried hardest to arrange for U.S. troops to remain was Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki. He obviously believed that the poor ability of the Iraqi military to maintain order would lead to new elections in which his own position would be gravely weakened, and he would probably cease to be prime minister.

The United States made concession after concession, reducing constantly the number of troops they would leave behind. The sticking point in the end was the insistence of the Pentagon on immunity for U.S. soldiers (and mercenaries) from Iraqi jurisdiction for any crimes of which they might be accused. Maliki was ready to agree to this, but no one else was. In particular, the Sadrists said they would withdraw their support for the government if Maliki agreed. And without their support, Maliki did not have the necessary majority in parliament.

Who won then? The withdrawal was a victory for Iraqi nationalism. And the person who has come to incarnate Iraqi nationalism is none other than Muqtada al-Sadr. It is true that al-Sadr leads a Shi’ite movement that has historically been violently anti-Baathist, which for his followers has usually meant being anti-Sunni Muslims. But al-Sadr has long since moved beyond this initial position to make himself and his movement the champion of U.S. withdrawal. He has reached out to Sunni leaders and to Kurdish leaders in the hope of creating a pan-Iraqi nationalist front, centered on the restoration of full Iraqi autonomy. He has won.

Of course, al-Sadr, like Maliki and many other Shi’ite politicians, has spent much of his life in exile in Iran. Is therefore al-Sadr’s victory a victory for Iran? No doubt Iran has improved its credibility inside Iraq. But it would be a major analytical error to believe that what has happened is that Iran has somehow replaced the United States in dominating the Iraqi scene.

There are fundamental strains between Iranian Shi’ites and Iraqi Shi’ites. For one thing, the Iraqis have always considered Iraq and not Iran to be the spiritual center of the Shi’ite religious world. It is true that, in the last half-century, the transformations on the geopolitical scene have allowed the ayatollahs in Iran to appear to dominate the Shi’ite religious world.

But this is akin to what happened to the relationship between the United States and western Europe after 1945. The geopolitical strength of the United States forced a shift in the cultural relationship of the two sides. Western Europeans had to accept the new cultural as well as political dominance of the United States. They went along, but western Europeans never liked it. And they are seeking now to regain their top dog cultural position. So it is with Iran/Iraq. In the last half century, the Iraqi Shi’ites had to accept Iranian cultural dominance, but they never liked it. And they will work now to regain their top dog cultural position.

Despite their public statements, both Obama and the Republicans know that the United States has been defeated. The only Americans who don’t really believe this is that small fringe of U.S. leftists who somehow cannot accept that the United States doesn’t always win out everywhere geopolitically. This small and diminishing fringe is just too invested in denouncing the United States to tolerate the reality that the United States is in serious decline.

This fringe group is arguing that nothing has changed because the United States has simply shifted its key player in Iraq from the Pentagon to the State Department, which is doing two things: bringing in more Marines to provide security for the U.S. embassy; and hiring trainers for the Iraqi police forces. But bringing in more Marines is a sign of weakness, not strength. It means that even the well-guarded U.S. embassy is not safe enough from attacks. The United States has cancelled plans to open more consulates for the very same reason.

As for the trainers, it turns out that we are talking about 115 police advisors who need to be “protected” by thousands of private security guards. I would warrant that the police advisors are going to be very cautious about ever leaving the Embassy grounds and that it going to be difficult to hire enough private security guards, given that they will no longer have immunity.

No one should be surprised if, after the next Iraqi elections, the prime minister will be Muqtada al-Sadr. Neither the United States nor Iran will be overjoyed.