I started writing this post quite some time ago and just found it in my “drafts” folder, so while it’s a little dated with respect to the news cycle, I still think it makes a useful point (not unrelated to this one) about how to assess the end of the Iraq War. So, enjoy.
So American troops are out of Iraq—a campaign promise has been fulfilled, soldiers are reunited with their families, and an unpopular war has been brought to a pretty anticlimactic close. It may have ended with a whimper militarily, but politically we’re already seeing a struggle over how to define the narrative, however popular ending the American presence in Iraq is with the majority of the voting public. Predictably, we’re seeing some accusations that the US has now “lost” Iraq, especially as the Shiite Prime Minister has ordered the arrest of a Sunni Vice President who’s now hiding out Kurdish territory.
Iraq, the story goes, might erupt into civil war, making it and the region worse off than they were before the invasion of 2003. Ergo, the US shouldn’t have withdrawn just yet. It shouldn’t surprise you that I’m going to call this a less-than-convincing argument. Presumably, by this line of thinking, the American presence might have prevented the current political crisis. (This, of course, ignores two facts: (a) the US and Iraq couldn’t reach an agreement on the retention of American troops in-country, and (b) the United States is honoring a commitment to withdraw when it is.) Still, traveling yesterday [I started writing this on December 29th – Ed.], I made the mistake of acknowledging what I do for a living and ended up in a conversation with some other delayed passengers about this very issue: has the US, by withdrawing now, somehow “lost” Iraq?
You can see where this is heading, but I did what any good academic should do: I disappointed by fellow travelers. By withdrawing now, I’m not inclined to say that the US has either “lost” nor “won” Iraq. In fact, the timing of the withdrawal may have very, very little to do with the answer to that question. Why? Because I’ve yet to see a convincing argument linking a lengthier American presence to something that would change the basic facts on the ground—the underlying issues in Iraq’s governing coalition—that have sparked the current political crisis and potential civil war. In short, remaining in Iraq wouldn’t have prevented the crisis; it would likely just delay it.
Yes, the United States’ presence might have made al-Maliki’s move of trying to imprison a Vice President impractical, preventing it from happening while American troops remained in the country. As soon as American troops left, then, al-Maliki might have moved against his rival because it was easier to do so. Fine, but it’s not clear to me that a similar move wouldn’t have been made following a US withdrawal that would occur at a later date. The issues at the heart of keeping Iraq together—Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds all trying to credibly promise not to exploit one another for advantage, the interference of neighbors like Iran and Turkey, etc.—would still be present whenever the US might choose to leave (at least, I’ve yet to be convinced otherwise). If that’s the case, then something like the current crisis would’ve happened if the US withdrew in 2010 or if it were to wait until sometime in 2012 or 2013.
What could the US have done in a further-extended occupation apart from delay the (somewhat) inevitable? I’m not sure, to be honest, because cajoling and lecturing and threatening weren’t going to do it. An Iraq with a pluralist government will have to deal with these issues as soon as it has to figure out how to govern itself as a sovereign country again. If that’s the case—if Iraqis were going to have to figure these things out whenever the United States left—then it’s hard to attribute anything but the timing of this political crisis (and, sure, potential civil war) to the American withdrawal. The US, at this point, couldn’t have forced a new regime on the country, nor could it have promised to guarantee peaceful power-sharing deals between these groups in light of an inevitable future withdrawal. If the basic issue here is groups in Iraq having trouble promising not to exploit one another when in power, then that’s just not something an extended American presence is likely to change.
And that, to me, is the key here: unless staying in Iraq could’ve solved the basic commitment problem at the heart of the current political crisis, ensuring that it wouldn’t pop up following withdrawal, then the simple timing of the final withdrawal really has nothing to say about whether we “won” or “lost” in Iraq. Sadly, the current issues might have just been inevitable.