- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
The New York Times reports that the United States is planning to beef up its security ties in the Gulf, in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Iraq. On the one hand, this makes sense given global dependence on stable oil exports from the Gulf region and the damage that the war in Iraq has done to the strategic balance there. On the other hand, a large ground or air force presence in the region is precisely the sort of thing that invites accusations of Western "imperialism," and puts the United States in a close embrace with regimes like the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain. One could argue that this is one of those places where strategic necessity requires us to compromise the idealistic commitment to democracy, human rights, and other desirable things like that.
There is little question that the idiotic decision to invade Iraq in 2003 weakened our strategic position and bolstered Iran’s. As the Times story makes clear, some hardliners now complain that Obama’s decision to cut our (considerable) losses in Iraq will undermine U.S. interests even more. That’s what I’d expect them to say, but there are good reasons to question that judgment (and not just because these same hardliners have been wrong so often in the past). In fact, withdrawal from Iraq could actually bolster our strategic position in other ways, mostly by encouraging greater frictions between Iraq and Iran.
Ever since 2003, the U.S. presence in Iraq has reinforced cooperation between Iran and some significant portions of Iraq’s Shiite community, and especially those elements (such as Muktada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army) who really wanted the United States to get out. But once we withdraw, then it is far from obvious that the bulk of Iraqis — including most Iraqi leaders — will want to become a satrap for Iran. It’s true that the Sunni-Shiite divide provides Iran with some avenues of influence in Iraq society, but there’s also the enduring division between Arabs and Persians and Iraq’s overriding interest in not allowing Iran to become a hegemonic power in the Gulf region. Let’s not forget that the two countries fought a brutal and costly war for most of the 1980s, and plenty of Iraqi and Iranian Shiites killed each other during that conflict.
The Indochina war offers an obvious historical analogy. One of the reasons the United States fought there for so long was the familiar domino theory — the dubious idea that a communist victory in Vietnam would trigger a cascade of falling dominos and undermine the entire US position in Asia (and possibly elsewhere). But when the United States finally got out, the exact opposite thing happened: none of our other Asian allies abandoned us and China and Vietnam had a rapid falling-out that led to war between the two communist states in 1979. And over time, of course, China abandoned Maoism and Vietnam grew more and more interested in better relations with America. And let’s not forget that fourteen years after Saigon fell, it was the Soviet Union that ended up on the ash-heap of history. Once we stopped pouring troops and bombs into Indochina, in short, our strategic position began to improve and we could focus on the more serious aspects of Cold War competition.
In short, if you really think Iran is a threat to dominate the Gulf region, and if you also believe that states tend to balance against threatening powers instead of band-wagoning with them, then you should also expect the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to encourage more regional powers–including Iraq–to take actions to limit Iranian power and influence. And that might also include being a bit more favorably inclined toward the United States, despite all the other things we do that tick off people in that part of the world. That could be why we’re getting a positive response to these new initiatives, and that’s why getting out of Iraq may actually bolster our overall strategic position.