PARIS — April 10, 2011 – According to the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, everything was so much simpler in 2006; the problem then was “Iraq, Iraq, Iraq”; now it’s “Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Japan, the budget.”
Today, Iraq barely makes the headlines. The violence is down; the government is as stable as it will ever be; the mission has finally been accomplished. This opinion is shared even by those who opposed the war, indeed especially by them.
The passage of years may have diminished the attention we pay to Iraq, but it has not diminished its strategic importance in the Middle East. Though the Obama Administration may disagree, I will not hesitate to say that our presence in Iraq is even more important than our presence in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is important for the U.S. because the U.S. is there; it is more important for countries such as Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. Iraq, on the other hand, is surrounded by six countries of which four (Jordan, Kuwait, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) are allies and two (Iran and Syria) are enemies; nothing that happens there can fail to have an effect on the Middle East as a whole. If the Middle East is a wheel, Iraq is its spoke.
By now, we should have no doubts as to which country poses the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East. It is Iran, and if we are aware of that, then we must also be aware that the dividing line between Iran’s influence and Sunni influence runs somewhere through the middle of Bagdad. That line is maintained by a balance between the two forces, sealed by an Iraqi government, which too reflects that balance through its mixed composition of Sunni and Shia.
Insofar as the United States guarantees the security of that government, it is guaranteeing a balance of power not only in Iraq but in the entire Middle East. By pulling out of Iraq, we are adjusting that balance and putting at risk a fragile peace.
The question of what we do in Iraq goes to the very heart of American policy in the Middle East. What is to be our role in the region? Is it to withdraw ourselves, reduce our reliance on Middle Eastern oil, and leave that unhappy region to fend for itself? Those who advocate this option do so with the best of intentions, but their argument is based on at least two false assumptions.
The first is that the United States can coordinate its withdrawal from the Middle East to coincide with its independence from Middle Eastern oil. To believe that one can control two separate policies and time their evolution perfectly is a sign of extreme hubris, even by American standards.
But say that we succeed. Can we truly ignore the nuclearization of Iran? Can we simply forget about our allies in the region after having supported them for fifty years? None of these problems will go away simply because we choose not to look at them.
I see the American role in the Middle East in two parts. First, we play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of power in that region, and with this balance in place, we secure a steady flow of oil from the Middle East into the world economy. This is an awesome responsibility, one we dare not relinquish, for if we do, the world as a whole, and we no less, will suffer; and who, then, will step into our shoes and occupy the space vacated by us? The Chinese perhaps? Will we, then, relinquish to China with our own hand the hegemony which is still ours?
It is about time that we decide, as a nation, whether or not we are ready and willing to maintain a presence in this crucial region and preserve a balance there between weak and strong. If we are unwilling to assume that responsibility, we must have no illusions about the consequences of abdication, which I hope the preceding lines have illuminated. If we are willing, as I hope we are, to assume that responsibility, then we must have no illusions about the sacrifices that it requires. Among those sacrifices, an American guarantee in Iraq figures among the most prominent.
I do not believe that a balance of power can be maintained in the Middle East, over the long term, without a stable Iraq as the spoke of the Middle Eastern wheel. Over the last eight years, the Iraqis have achieved a semblance of stability under a democratic government. They have achieved it, not we. We have contributed to it in the only way we could – by providing for security.
Can the flimsy structure that has been created survive the American withdrawal? I rather prefer not to find out. If we withdraw completely, we are risking all that has been achieved over the last eight years at the cost of a great many lives, both American, European, and Iraqi. I am not saying that the worst-case scenario will materialize; I am saying it would be a great error to take the risk that it will materialize.
The sacrifice needed to secure Iraq is much smaller than the calamity we risk by leaving it. If we maintain our presence there, who knows? We may see the formation of a government that is both democratic and stable. We may see the rise of a vigorous economy, a beacon for the Middle East. Then and only then can we say, with confidence, that we came to do good, and in the end we did good.
Benjamin Ra is a graduate student in International Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. American foreign policy is his main interest. Read more of Benjamin’s writing in A Word on the National Interest in the Communities at the Washington Times.
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