Commentary

Washington Should Leave Iraq to the Iraqis

The U.S. is supposed to be leaving Iraq. But the Obama administration is desperately lobbying Baghdad to keep American troops in place, which would turn Iraq into yet another costly U.S. military dependent.

Advocates of promiscuous military intervention angrily reject the claim that America is an “empire.” Granted, the U.S. doesn’t directly rule its client states. But Washington insists on directing internal policies and maintaining a military presence in as many countries as possible — even when doing so does not advance American security.

There may be no better example than the administration’s attempt to pressure the Iraqi government into “inviting” the U.S. to stay. Rather than requiring Baghdad to demonstrate why it is in America’s interest to remain, Washington has been begging the Iraqis for permission to stick around. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said: “I hope they figure out a way to ask.” His successor, Leon Panetta, recently blurted out: “dammit, make a decision.”

However, Washington should make the decision. To bring home America’s troops.

The U.S. continues to garrison Europe, Japan, and South Korea decades after American forces first arrived. All of these allies have become international welfare queens, permanently on America’s defense dole even though they are capable of defending themselves.

Unfortunately, Washington continues to accumulate new client states. Despite President Bill Clinton’s promise that American troops would spend just a year occupying the Balkans, an area of minimal interest to the U.S., some troops remain to this day. And uber-hawks talk about maintaining a permanent presence in Afghanistan, as distant from conventional U.S. defense interests as any nation on the planet.

The U.S. is supposed to withdraw its forces from Iraq by year-end. But not if Washington can help it. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the top military spokesman in Iraq, said the U.S. “has committed to an enduring partnership with Iraq.” However, he added, it would be easier if the Iraqis spoke up “while we have troops here and infrastructure here.”

Why would any rational American policymaker want U.S. forces to stay in Iraq?

From start to (almost) finish the Iraqi operation has been a tragic fiasco. Washington invaded to seize non-existent WMDs. American forces destroyed the country’s system of ordered tyranny, turning the country into a bloody charnel house, killing hundreds of thousands and forcing millions to flee.

The war served as a potent recruiting tool for terrorists, leading to creation of an al-Qaeda off-shoot in Iraq. Washington’s occupation transferred the forms of democracy without the larger culture necessary for liberal democracy; today repression and torture thrive alongside elections. U.S. intervention empowered Iran while destroying Baghdad’s ability to control its own borders. Heck uva’ job, Georgie Bush!

Yet President Obama wants American forces to stick around in Iraq, meddling in Baghdad’s domestic affairs and defending it in foreign matters. Neither is a good idea.

A continued troop presence would give the illusion of political influence. But if Washington’s wishes mattered to Iraqis Baghdad would have a different prime minister, political culture, and ruling ethos. Not to mention an enthusiastic endorsement for a permanent garrison.

Naturally, Marisa Cochrane Sullivan of the Institute for the Study of War blamed the latter failure on the Obama administration — for being “dangerously disengaged.” Yet the U.S. has no way to impose its will.

Washington’s influence was limited even when Washington formally occupied Iraq and did most of the fighting. Foolish plans to anoint expatriate Ahmed Chalabi as president and later to organize caucuses instead of elections were derailed by Iraqi opposition. Despite contrary U.S. advice, the Iraqi authorities were soft on corruption and sectarian violence. Nouri al-Maliki was not America’s first choice to run Iraq’s government.

Whatever leverage Washington still might have had has been lost after U.S. officials demonstrated that they more fervently desired to maintain an American presence than did Iraqi officials. Not that even a permanent garrison has ever given Washington extra clout in Europe, Japan, or South Korea, which frequently ignored American wishes on defense as well as economic issues. How could it be otherwise when Washington is virtually never willing to remove troops from anywhere — the threat to do so being the main source of potential leverage — after so desperately working to put them every where?

In fact, keeping U.S. troops on station would inflame the already bitter debate within Iraq over Baghdad’s relationship with Washington. Even Prime Minister Maliki referred to the end of American combat operations as Iraq’s “liberation.” Those allied with Moktada al-Sadr vehemently, and probably violently, oppose a continued U.S. presence.

American forces, which remain active against Iraqi insurgents on the ground and in the air despite last year’s formalities, have suffered increasing attacks. Stuart W. Bowen, Jr., the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, recently warnedthat “Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work,” less safe for Americans than a year ago.

The administration has blamed the Iranians, without offering much evidence, for arming Iraqi radicals. If true, such action should surprise no one. After all, the U.S. invaded Tehran’s neighbor, sought permanent bases for express use against Iran, and continues to threaten military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. Although Secretary Panetta declared that “we cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue,” Tehran would be foolish not to intervene in Iraqi affairs.

In any case, hatred of America comes naturally to many Iraqis. Iran need only stoke already raging fires. Moreover, Sadr’s movement has splintered, spawning dozens of what amount to criminal gangs beyond his control. If U.S. troops remain, assaults are likely to intensify. However benign American officialdom views Washington’s military role, that perspective is not shared by all Iraqis.

A U.S. garrison, it also is argued, could help defend Iraq in a dangerous part of the world. Of course, by wrecking the Iraqi state, disbanding the Iraq military, and triggering widespread civil conflict, Washington’s invasion did impair Baghdad’s ability to defend itself. However, Iraq is building up its forces, including buying sophisticated weapons, such as F-16 aircraft. And no neighbor is threatening to invade.

Syria’s government is weak and under siege. Turkey could strike, but is interested only in Kurdish guerrillas operating in semi-autonomous Kurdistan. Kuwait, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have limited military capabilities and no territorial ambitions.

Those hoping to turn Iraq into a permanent American dependent point to Iran, but Tehran would gain nothing by attacking a nation with which it shares sizable religious, cultural, economic, and political ties. War is the one action Iran could take which would guarantee a ruptured relationship.

Anyway, Iran enjoys significant influence in Iraq without firing one bullet, shell, or missile. Tehran’s influence comes from factors other than military threats and cannot be extinguished by Washington confronting what does not exist.

Some advocates of preserving the U.S. military presence still see it as the only way to contain Iran’s role in Iraq. For instance, the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl worries whether “Iraq will be forced by a full U.S. pullout to become an Iranian satellite.” However, Tehran suffers from manifold internal weaknesses and Iraqi nationalism remains strong.

While most Iraqis in and out of government value their relationship with Iran, they evidence no desire to be swallowed by their larger neighbor. Baghdad will act on its interests, including preserving Iraq’s independence, whether or not U.S. troops are on Iraqi soil. Indeed, if American forces stay, they, not Iran, will remain the focus of nationalist ire.

The fall-back position for many, including, it seems, Prime Minister Maliki, is to keep a more limited number of American forces to train Iraqi personnel. Other possible roles include combating terrorism and gathering intelligence. However, a large U.S. military presence is not required to render such assistance.

For most training, Iraq could directly hire, without involving Washington, civilian contractors, who would receive neither protection under a status of forces agreement nor authority to conduct combat operations. Or Baghdad could look for help from allied European states which do not pose such a big terrorist target in the Middle East. Other objectives require few personnel on the ground and most duties could be handled by civilians, whether CIA or other. Instead of filling its Vatican-sized embassy in Baghdad, the U.S. should shrink America’s footprint in Iraq.

Although Iraqi approval is a necessary precondition for any American presence, Iraqi desire for U.S. protection is not a sufficient justification. Washington should focus on the interest of the American people. And that requires bringing troops home.

Iraq is ending like most wars — far more costly in blood and treasure and far worse in geopolitical effects than expected. The U.S. should not have invaded Iraq. President Obama can’t undo the ill effects of the war, but he can avoid the costs of a permanent occupation.

America’s job in Mesopotamia is done. The U.S. should stop collecting increasingly dangerous imperial dependents and leave Iraq to the Iraqis. Washington should withdraw its 46,000 troops by the end of the year, bringing Washington’s misbegotten Iraqi adventure to a close.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He also is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance and the Senior Fellow in International Religious Persecution at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. He served as a Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.