Would a strategic overwatch force in Iraq come in handy about now?

Would a strategic overwatch force in Iraq come in handy about now?

The Obama administration confronts a particularly daunting set of challenges in what might be called the "greater Persian Gulf" or "north Middle East region": Iran, Iraq, and Syria.  There is a special urgency to the Iranian nuclear challenge, the unraveling of Iraqi security and therefore Iraqi politics, and the growing civil war in Syria.  These problems irresistibly draw the administration’s strategic attention back to a region the president quite clearly would prefer to pivot away from.

Each of the challenges has its own complicated history, but in policy terms there is a common challenge for the United States: how to maximize our leverage so as to influence the development of the situation in a direction more conducive to U.S. interests.  Even with maximum leverage, we are not in a position to dictate events exactly to our liking — perhaps our capacity to influence is limited even under optimal conditions. Yet, it is also likely that with more leverage we have a better chance of shaping events, whereas with less leverage we are more likely to be hostage to the agendas of others.

So the question suggests itself: What might increase our strategic leverage in the region beyond its current level? I can think of one: If the United States had a sizable residual force in the region for the purposes of strategic overwatch, it seems to me our leverage over each of these challenges would be greater.

With a residual strategic overwatch force, we could:

  • Have more coercive military options vis-a-vis Iran without the need to trumpet them.  The complicated diplomatic signaling that the Obama administration has been struggling to send to Iran — "we are serious, but not that serious, and we are determined, but not so determined as to act right now and we sure hope Israel isn’t so determined as to act without us, but if they do, know that we tried to persuade them not to…" — involves a lot of bluster and double talk. President Obama likes to invoke Teddy Roosevelt’s "speak softly and carry a big stick." Wouldn’t a residual strategic overwatch force in Iraq have given him a bigger stick, allowing him to speak a bit more softly?
  • Have what the Cold War experience demonstrated was the predicate for successful containment and extended deterrence: forces in theater. There is a lot of loose talk about  containing and deterring Iran, and some of the loosest treats those as relatively easy assignments, given how the United States was able to contain and deter the Soviet Union. Very rarely do containment enthusiasts address the awkward fact that the Cold War success involved the costly deployment of a substantial tripwire.
  • Have greater reassurance for our Iraqi partners who are still struggling to forge an enduring political order.
  • Have a richer menu of more options, and at a lower cost, for confronting Syria. At a minimum, to the extent that coercive diplomacy might influence Assad’s actions, having the ground forces there would bolster those efforts. At a maximum, the more daunting scenarios of securing Syria’s WMD would seem a tad less daunting if the U.S. had substantial forces in theater.

Such a residual strategic overwatch force was always part of the plan, as Tom Ricks recently reminded us. No, the plan was not for "permanent bases" — a partisan bogeyman well-tailored to clouding strategic thinking — but rather to a longer term presence dictated by conditions on the ground rather than by the American electoral calendar. The Obama administration, to their credit, tried to implement that plan but ultimately failed and then tried to spin their failure as a great success.

That spin makes me curious: wouldn’t conditions on the ground seem to dictate the desirability of such a strategic overwatch force? Of course, there are also downsides that would weigh in the balance: the financial costs of the deployment; the vulnerability to a Khobar-style terror attack; the possibility that the deployment would fuel local resentments; etc. Moreover, as Obama spinners are quick to point out, much of the blame for the failure to achieve a stay-behind agreement belongs on the Iraqi shoulders. Perhaps the downsides outweigh the upsides, but if so, it is a far closer call than the administration would like to admit.

Voters are going to hear a lot about how President Obama kept his promise to "end" the Iraq war and bring all of the troops home. Then he may go on to describe how he is addressing other key challenges in the region. What he likely won’t say is that the way he ended the Iraq war has weakened his hand for all of these other problems.