The trajectory of strategic blindness will come at a huge cost
A troubling milestone arrived on Thursday when the US withdrew its final combat brigade from Iraq. The remaining 50,000 US forces are charged with advising and training the Iraqi military. US President Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw them as well by the end of next year.
When US- led allied forces invaded Iraq seven years ago, their action raised the hopes and incited the dreams of millions throughout the region and throughout the world. Operation Iraqi Freedom promised to bring the light of liberty to a corner of the world that had known none. By doing so, it would inspire and enable men and women throughout the region to believe that they too could be free.
But as the last US combat brigade departed on Thursday, the Iraq they left behind was not an Arab shining city on an Iraqi hill. The Iraq they withdrew from has no government. The post-March 7 elections coalition talks are hopelessly deadlocked. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has agreed to serve as the head of a caretaker government for now and take no major decisions about Iraq's future. In a word, Iraq suffers from governmental paralysis.
Then there is the US-trained and armed Iraqi military. Recently, Iraq's most senior general, Lt. Gen. Babakir Zebari acknowledged that Iraqi forces will be unable to defend the country from domestic and foreign aggression until 2020. Zebari asserted that the reason the withdrawal of US combat forces was proceeding well was "because they [the US forces] are still here."
This week's suicide bombing at the military recruitment office in Baghdad in which some 61 people were murdered is part of a growing trend in Iraq. As the US withdraws, the forces the US fought throughout the past seven years are on the rise. Al Qaida is reportedly behind much of the recent violence as it seeks to convince Iraq's uneasy Sunnis to rejoin its ranks in a continuing war against the Shiites. And as to the Shiites, their leaders remain alternatively and often simultaneously dependent on and threatened by Iran. As outgoing US commander in Iraq Gen. Ray Odierno acknowledged last month, Iran remains the largest sponsor of sectarian violence in the country.
And so, despite the US investment of more than a trillion dollars in Iraq, and despite the more than 4,400 US servicemen and women who lost their lives in the country, the future of Iraq remains uncertain at best. Certainly a coherent, moderate, US-allied, and democratic Iraq remains an elusive goal.
The US blames Iran for Iraq's political deadlock. It is right to do so. The election results gave a narrow two-seat lead to former prime minister Ayad Alawi's's Sunni-backed Iraqiya party over Maliki's State of Law Shiite coalition. And yet, rather than accept the results, Iranian-allied Shiite politicians led by Ahmed Chalabi sued to have six members of Alawi's party denied the right to assume office due to their past ties to Saddam's Baathist party. Although their lawsuit was defeated in May, the sides continue to be unable to come to an agreement that would enable the Iraqi Parliament to come into office or a government to be formed.
Iran's hand is everywhere in this chaos. As George Friedman wrote in a recent Straffor Intelligence Bulletin, it is true that today, with fifty thousand US forces still deployed in Iraq, "the Iranians do not have the ability to impose a government on Iraq. However, they do have the ability to prevent the formation of a government or to destabilize one that is formed. Iranian intelligence has sufficient allies and resources in Iraq to guarantee the failure of any stabilization attempt that doesn't please Tehran."
As Friedman notes, for Iran, keeping Iraq in an ongoing state of instability with sporadic periods of outright chaos is a low-cost, high-return investment. It denies Iraq the ability to reconstitute itself to its traditional role as a regional counterweight balancing Iranian power in the Persian Gulf. It also denies the US victory, erodes its will to fight and saps it of its determination to defend the Persian Gulf from Iranian ascendance.
As Friedman sees it, "The Iranian strategy seems to be to make the United States sufficiently uncomfortable to see withdrawal as attractive but not to be so threatening as to deter the withdrawal. As clever as that strategy is, however, it does not hide the fact that Iran would dominate the Persian Gulf region after the withdrawal. Thus, the United States has nothing but unpleasant choices in Iraq. It can stay in perpetuity and remain vulnerable to violence. It can withdraw and hand the region over to Iran. It can go to war with yet another Islamic country. Or it can negotiate with a government that it despises - and which despises it right back."
There are two frustrating aspects to Friedman's analysis and what it tells us about the prospects for the region going forward.
The first frustrating aspect of Friedman's diagnosis of the situation in Iraq today is just how similar it is to the situation in Lebanon. As in Iraq, anti-Iranian political forces won the Lebanese elections last year. But as is the case today in Iraq, Iran's proxies in Lebanon gridlocked coalition negotiations and so coerced the anti-Iranian March 14 movement candidates led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri to agree to forge a unity government with Hizbullah. Moreover, they forced Hariri to accept effective Hizbullah — that is, Iranian — control over his government. This they did by demanding that Hizbullah receive enough votes in the cabinet to give it veto power over all governmental decisions.
Hizbullah's dominant position in Lebanon was depressingly and tragically demonstrated last week when Hariri called on the UN to investigate Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah's allegations that Israel was behind his father's assassination in 2005. Former prime minister Rafiq Hariri's murder in February 2005 was carried out by Hizbullah and Syria and his son knows this.
That he would bow to his father's murderer is a hair raising example of how the ruthless Iranian power game works. Lebanon's hapless prime minister rightly fears Hizbullah, Syria and Iran more than he trusts the US. And so he remains Prime Minster in name only and serves at their pleasure — the effective slave of his father's killers.
On a military level, the US's inconclusive campaign in Iraq bears striking similarities to Israel's departure from southern Lebanon ten years ago. In Lebanon as in Iraq, Iran and its proxies made it impossible for Israel and its allies in the South Lebanese Army to bring stability to the south. Hizbullah's constant, but low key assaults on Israel and IDF forces, punctuated by sporadic escalations eroded the Israeli ruling class's will to fight. So too, the elusive character of the asymmetric enemy made it easy for the same elites to ignore the nature of the adversarial forces arrayed against Israel and so paved the way for Israel's retreat. This in turn fomented Hizbullah's triumphant takeover of the south, and in due course, its takeover of the whole of Lebanon.
The second frustrating aspect of the state of Iraq today is what it says about the US's ability to acknowledge the realities of the region and fashion successful strategies for contending with its challenges. For the past seven years, advocates of the Iraq war and opponents of the war, Republicans and Democrats alike has consistently refused to understand the nature of the battlefield and what that meant about their prospects in Iraq and the region.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations wrongly characterized Iraq as a stand-alone war. But the fact is Iraq has always been a battleground of a regional war. And the main enemy in Iraq, the main obstacle to stability and victory is Iran. Just as Israel was unable to beat Iran in Lebanon, and so lost to its proxy Hizbullah, so the US has been and will remain unable to defeat Iran in Iraq. And if it maintains its current strategy, it will be defeated by Iran's proxies.
The only way to safeguard Iraq is to overthrow the regime in Iran. The only way to get the likes of Hariri out from under the jackboots of Hizbullah and the Iranian-proxy regime in Damascus is to overthrow the regime in Iran.
If it were just a question of Iraq's wellbeing as a country, it would arguably make sense for the US to avoid escalation of the war and refuse to challenge the regime in Teheran. But Iran is not only fighting for Iraq and it is not only fighting in Iraq. Through its proxies, Iran is also fighting in Lebanon and is using its proxies to increase its influence throughout the Persian Gulf, the Levant and beyond. And with the regime just a short step or two away from nuclear capabilities it is clear that the US strategy in Iraq was wrong all along. It was wrong and dangerous.
The US strategy was to bring democracy to Iraq and by doing so, inspire democratic revolutions throughout the Arab world. Although inspiring, it was wrong first and foremost because it was predicated on ignoring one of the basic dictates of strategy. It failed to recognize that there were other forces in the region.
It failed to anticipate that every US move would be countered by an Iranian move. And in failing to recognize this basic strategic truth — even though it has been staring them in the face — the Americans aggressively pursued a strategy that became more and more irrelevant as time went by.
As the actions of the Hariris of Lebanon and their counterparts in Iraq show clearly, Iran's countermoves have always been more forthright and compelling than the US's moves have been.
In the September issue of Commentary, Arthur Herman depressingly sets out the Obama administration's declared plans and early moves to gut the US military. It is obvious that regardless of Obama's political position after the mid-term elections in November, he will not revisit the US's current Middle East strategy which is predicated on ignoring the Iranian nuclear elephant in the middle of the room. He will not work to overthrow the regime or support any forces that would overthrow the regime.
It is true that in the short term, the prospects for the region hinge on whether or not Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has the courage to order the IDF to attack Iran's nuclear installations. And it is also true that if an Israeli strike is sufficiently successful, it would empower many positive forces throughout the region — from Teheran Kurdistan to Ankara, Damascus and Beirut.
But in the medium and long-term, nothing can replace America. And as long as the US continues on its trajectory of strategic blindness, the Iraqis will be far from alone in their suffering.