It probably shouldn’t be surprising to see the Republican presidential candidates piling on President Obama in the wake of his announcement that all American troops are coming home from Iraq at year’s end, save a few hundred for routine embassy security and the like. After all, they want his job and can’t very well praise his stewardship, even on matters beyond the water’s edge. And given the nature of American politics these days, nobody should be startled at the tone of their rhetoric—Mitt Romney suggesting, for example, that the decision betokened either “naked political calculation” or else “sheer ineptitude in negotiations” (because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki couldn’t be persuaded to accept an ongoing U.S. troop deployment); and Herman Cain dismissing the decision as “dumb” (this from a man who hasn’t managed to articulate a coherent framework of thought on foreign policy since he emerged as a player in the early nomination maneuverings).
More interesting, though hardly more surprising, is the reaction of the neoconservative commentators. An effort to parse their expressions offers a revealing window on this influential contingent of thought leaders. Max Boot, probably the most stark-minded advocate of U.S. imperialism in post-9/11 America, called the decision “a shameful failure of American foreign policy” because it “risks undoing all the gains” of the American occupation and extended troop deployment. He adds that the Iranian Quds Force “must be licking its chops” at the prospect of a defenseless Iraq in the post-U.S. days ahead.
Further, says Boot, America’s signal martial victories all were attended by troop deployments that lasted decades, while the failures emerged when the United States left the theater of war too quickly—World War II, Korea and the Philippines, for example, vs. World War I, Vietnam and the American Civil War (I’m not making up that last one).
Based on Boot, then, the three central neocon points seem to be: the likely undoing of what has been accomplished; the threat to Iraq from Iran; and the historical necessity of long troop deployments in successful foreign interventions. Those arguments were echoed by the Weekly Standard’ s Stephen Hayes and columnist Charles Krauthammer on the Fox cable channel Friday evening. The Wall Street Journal weighed in similarly on Saturday morning, adding a nod to Romney’s suggestion that Obama lacked negotiating skill in dealing with al-Maliki.
So let’s assess these arguments against a backdrop of history and geopolitical reality. First, the threat of growing Iranian dominance over Iraq. This is real. But if it was a genuine neocon concern, these people should have considered it before they beat the drums for an Iraq invasion that would inevitably upend the centuries-long balance of power between the Persians and the Mesopotamians. When the Ottoman Turks arrived in the sixteenth century and emerged as overlords in Mesopotamia, they feared the power of Shi’ite Persia on their eastern border and the Shi’ite tribesmen in their own countryside. So they turned to the one element in society they could trust—the Sunnis of the cities between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They relied on these cities, particularly Baghdad, to hold the desert Arabs in check. Thus, the old Sunni families held all the major administrative positions, staffed the bureaucracy and dominated the Sunni religious ulama, the establishment of clerical wise men.
When the British arrived after World War I and created an artificial nation out of three Ottoman regions, they quickly perceived a need to embrace the same system of stability, however undemocratic. British rule was replaced by a British-selected royalty, again Sunni. Then came a series of dictators, all Sunni, down to Saddam Hussein. When George H.W. Bush waged the first Gulf war to expel Saddam from Kuwait, he carefully avoided actions that would upend this system of power balance and stability that had obtained in the region for five centuries.
Then came George W. Bush, with the neocons braying at his heels. Without any apparent thought given to the consequences of destroying this centuries-long balance of power, they bestowed upon Iran the greatest gift it could have hoped for—a democratic Iraq, meaning one that will be dominated by Shi’ites, hence one that will accept ever greater Iranian influence into its politics.
That’s what we’re seeing now, and it’s not good. But the idea that this can be checked with 5,000 American troops—the top deployment under discussion at the time of Obama’s decision to pull out—borders on the ludicrous. Not even 18,000 troops, the number initially desired by U.S. military leaders before pressures induced them to reduce their request to 10,000, could have reversed this fundamental reality of the Gulf power balance.
But Max Boot doesn’t care about balance of power because he wants America to exercise complete dominance over the region, to give it, as he wrote just before the Iraq war, “effective imperial oversight” and to inject “the powerful antibiotic known as democracy…into the diseased environment of the Middle East” in order to “transform the region for the better.” Lest anyone miss his true intent, he spelled it out by saying the region needs from America “the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” He called for American dominance over not just Iraq but also Iran, Syria and even Saudi Arabia.
Thus does the true neocon position become clear. It wasn’t about whether 5,000 U.S. troops should go or stay. It was about keeping those 5,000 troops in Iraq as a tripwire for much larger future troop deployments in future crises so America can replace the old balance of power with regional hegemony. Absent this understanding, the neocons’ emotional argument over a mere 5,000 troops doesn’t make sense.
Of course, that also is why these neocons put forth the argument that true victory in war requires ongoing troop deployments for decades. As they see it (no doubt correctly), not until the American people become comfortable with this concept can the country don the requisite jodhpurs and pith helmets and then venture forth to dominate troubled regions of the world. But the American people clearly aren’t comfortable with such a concept, as reflected in polls since 2006 showing large majorities opposing the Iraq war or calling it a mistake or saying it hadn’t been going well.
What about the argument that the gains of the U.S. policy in Iraq will now, without those last 5,000 troops on the ground, be lost? That poses a corollary question: What gains? What George W. Bush unleashed in Iraq, aside from upending the regional balance of power, is best captured in a word that served as Sandra Mackey’s title for her book on Iraq, a “reckoning.” The country, she explained, presents a mix not just of ethnic groups or religious doctrines or geographic sensibilities or cultural sensibilities—but all of these. They will all have to be sorted out and balanced in the post-Saddam, post-U.S. future. One can hope that this process won’t be too bloody, but that is probably a hope against hope. And certainly the retention of 5,000 U.S. troops in the country wasn’t going to negate this inevitable process.
Finally, there is the question of Obama’s failure to negotiate an ongoing troop presence with al-Maliki. The Iraqi leader, a Shi’ite, is the man who must manage that reckoning, which will involve all the forces and pressures unleashed by George W. Bush when he destroyed the old system. This includes dealing with Moqtada Sadr, the anti-U.S. cleric with close ties to Iran, who had threatened to unleash his Mehdi Army if U.S. troops remained beyond the previously negotiated December 31 deadline. That could have proved highly destabilizing. It is a flight of fancy to suggest blithely that Obama could have employed American blandishments or threats to get al-Maliki to ignore the very real and dangerous forces and passions coursing through his polity. He’s the man who is going to have to deal with those forces and passions, and America’s lingering presence wasn’t likely to help him handle them effectively.
Thus, the neocon arguments unleashed in the wake of the Obama decision are weak at best, disingenuous at worst. It’s unfortunate that G. W. Bush, with full-throated neocon backing, created the unstable situation we see now in Iraq and the Gulf region. But it’s difficult to see how keeping 5,000 troops in that troubled land is going to make any real difference in dealing with the resulting muddle.