Terms of Engagement

The Hawks’ New Flight Pattern

Neocons blew off concerns about Iranian influence in Iraq in 2003. Why are they so obsessed with it now?


Who lost Iraq? Why, Barack Obama, of course. Obama’s critics have seized on his announcement that all American troops would be leaving Iraq by the end of this year to blame him for losing the war, and squandering eight years’ worth of blood and treasure. "Iran has just defeated the United States in Iraq," Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan wrote in the Los Angeles Times. The decision was "a tragedy, not a triumph," lamented the Wall Street Journal‘s Max Boot. "The Iranians are already hailing it as a great victory and, for once, they’re right," harrumphed Sen. John McCain.

This is preposterous. First, and most obviously, it was George W. Bush who made a mess of Iraq, and then dumped the mess on his successor. And the Obama administration’s failure to persuade the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to permit a residual U.S. force to remain beyond 2011 may be a misfortune, but it’s hardly a calamity. If 700,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers can’t defend Iraq from Iranian ambitions and from the country’s own internal divisions, than neither can a few thousand, or even 10,000, American troops. The United States never had as much leverage in Iraq as it thought it did; the Iraqis want to make their own choices, and their own mistakes, and the Americans now have no alternative but to let them do so.

The claim that Obama could have produced a different outcome if he had wanted to is very tenuous. It’s true that the president and his senior aides have been disingenuous in claiming to be content with the situation in which they now find themselves. The White House wanted a small force to remain behind to train Iraqi soldiers, to deter terrorist attacks, and perhaps to help keep the peace along the internal border between northern Iraq and Kurdistan; many Iraqis wanted this as well. But the Obama administration was never going to permit troops to remain without an offical pledge of legal immunity from Iraqi courts, and Iraq’s leadership was unanimous in refusing to grant that right. The Iraqis wanted their sovereignty back more than they wanted that extra layer of protection. "It became increasingly clear to us that the politics were not going to allow Iraq to get to that point," a senior White House official said to me. "They made it crystal clear that they wanted a clean break with the past; the so-called occupation was over."

It’s also true that Obama steadily whittled down the number of troops to remain beyond 2011, from the 15,000 or so his commanders wanted to only 3,000 to 5,000. Boot claims that Iraq’s leaders might have defied "the domestic backlash" they would face over granting immunity in order to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq, but not for the modest contingent Obama finally settled on; but there’s little evidence for that claim. Others, including Foreign Policy, have insisted that the troops could have been, in effect, re-hatted as State Department employees and granted diplomatic immunity. The White House official I spoke to said, "Our lawyers looked at this left, right, and upside-down. There was no legal theory to support it without accepting significant risk to our troops. The president was not willing to accept that risk." It may be true that Obama would have tried harder if he hadn’t also wanted to honor the campaign pledge he made to withdraw the troops from Iraq. But with the American people almost as sick of Iraq as the Iraqis are of the United States, Obama would have had no support at home for raising the stakes.

So Obama is almost certainly not at fault — but that still doesn’t tell us how bad the consequences of the American withdrawal will be. Of course, that depends on what we’re worried about. Iraqi leaders have failed almost completely to confront the issues that still divide Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, among them oil revenues, internal boundaries, and the distribution of political power, which remains overwhelmingly concentrated in Shiite hands. This virtually assures that dangerous levels of sectarian tension will continue, and with them the possibility of growing violence. But these are political problems that a much larger contingent of American troops has done nothing to abate over the last eight years. American diplomats, who will remain behind in large numbers, can accomplish as much, or as little, simply by serving as honest brokers.

More importantly, the fear that sectarian violence will rise to the level of civil war has subsided as Iraq’s own security forces have improved. It is widely recognized that, as a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes, "Iraq’s military has the ability to contain internal violence with limited help from" the United States. Iraq’s political institutions have also matured, if haltingly. As Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution recently wrote, Iraq’s "young democracy has been characterized by a good deal of political brinksmanship to date, but in general they have pulled back from the brink so far."

That leaves Iran, which plainly would like to serve as the kingmaker of a Shiite-ruled Iraq — and an enfeebled one as well. Iran has succeeded in promoting a sympathetic regime in Baghdad and fostering proxy militias inside the country. But is Iraq really so helpless before Iran, or so bewitched by it? As the Iran expert Ray Takeyh wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, Iran’s cynical combination of diplomacy and brutal subversion in Iraq has "done much to alienate the Iraqi government and a populace eager to put the burdens of conflict behind it." Iraq’s jealousy of its sovereignty includes Iran as well as the United States; Prime minister Maliki has been prepared to move against the Shiite militias which serve as Iranian proxies. He did so, forcefully, in Basra in the summer of 2008.

Iran’s radical ideology, its regional ambitions, and its drive to gain at least the capacity to produce nuclear weapons make it a clear threat both to its neighbors and to the United States. And Iran’s leaders certainly see themselves as the chief beneficiaries of American withdrawal from the region. But Iran is not 10 feet tall. It has been weakened by an increasingly bitter internal power struggle; Syria, its great ally in the region, has plunged into chaos; and its maladroit diplomacy has alienated Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two of its chief rivals for regional supremacy, to whom the Iraqis may increasingly turn for support. The United States thus might be best served not by confrontation, but rather by some combination of patient containment of Iran and respectful attention to the needs of Iraq. Once having made good on its promise to withdraw from Iraq, the United States might even be able to return with the same sort of program of military training and assistance that it has established with other Middle East allies.

There is something fishy about the right-wing obsession with the Iranian threat to Iraq. Today’s sabre-rattlers are, of course, the same folk who urged President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime, and to prevent Saddam from joining forces with the Sunni extremists of al Qaeda. None of the hawks warned then that toppling Saddam could embolden Iran, and yet Iran has turned out to be the greatest beneficiary of that massively botched undertaking. Now the war’s biggest boosters are blaming Obama for a problem created by Bush, and magnifying Obama’s alleged failure with whatever rhetorical tools may be available. It’s a switcheroo of breathtaking proportions.

The dire warnings over Iran are part of a larger pattern. Obama came to office under suspicion that he would be "soft on terrorism." But the killing of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, the absence of terrorist attacks on American soil, and the administration’s willingness to leave intact much of Bush’s counterterrorism architecture have armored Obama against those claims. The exhaustion of the American people with ambitious foreign undertakings has likewise taken the sting out of attacks on his conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In order to demonstrate the president’s supposed fecklessness — and perhaps also in order to turn the tide in the growing debate over cutting the defense budget — critics on the right have had to look elsewhere: to the threat from aggressive autocratic states, chiefly China, Russia, and Iran. Obama, they claim, is coddling America’s enemies. Those countries, and a few others, certainly are our competitors and rivals, and perhaps even our enemies. But they are not our equals, and it does not serve our interests to exaggerate the danger they represent.

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