With a Whimper, Not a Bang

Today's announcement by the president that the United States would be withdrawing all of its combat troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011 per the original terms of the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement of 2008 was little more than an anti-climax. The writing had been on the wall for all to see for months to come. Unilaterally, the administration decided to offer only 10,000 troops as a residual force when negotiations began in earnest over the summer. This was well below the 20,000-30,000 troops that military experts believed optimum. Just a few weeks ago, the administration then unilaterally decided to cut that number down to about 3,000. There was nothing that 3,000 troops were usefully going to do in Iraq. No mission they could adequately perform from among the long list of critical tasks they have been undertaking until the present. At most, they would be a symbolic force, that might give Tehran some pause before trying to push around the Iraqi government. However, even playing that role would have been hard for so small a force since they would have had tremendous difficulty defending themselves from the mostly-Shi'ah (these days), Iranian-backed terrorists who continue to attack American troops and bases wherever they can.

At that point, it had become almost unimaginable that any Iraqi political leader would champion the cause of a residual American military presence in the face of popular resentment and ferocious Iranian opposition. What Iraqi would publicly demand that Iraq accommodate the highly unpopular American demands for immunity for U.S. troops when Washington was going to leave behind a force incapable of doing anything to preserve Iraq's fragile and increasingly strained peace? Why take the heat for a fig leaf?

Of course, the truth was that the Iraqi government itself had already become deeply ambivalent, if not downright hostile to a residual American military presence. Although it was useful to the Prime Minister to have some American troops there as a signal to Iran that it shouldn't act too overbearing lest Baghdad ask Washington to beef up its presence, he and his cohorts probably believe that they can secure the same advantages from American arms sales and training missions. The flip side to that was that the American military presence had become increasingly burdensome to the government—challenging its interpretation of events, preventing it from acting as it saw fit, hindering their consolidation of power, insisting that Iraqi officials adhered to rule of law, and acting unilaterally against criminals and terrorists the government would have preferred to overlook. All of this had become deeply inconvenient for the government.

Unfortunately, it is the willingness of the government to act in extra- or unconstitutional fashion, to ignore the misdeeds of its political allies, and to employ the power of the state (sometimes illegally) against its political rivals that creates the compelling need for an ongoing American military presence that has now evaporated. The worst elements among the Shi'ah are using their ties to the regime to employ violence for political and economic gain, or simply out of vengeance or fear. Among the Sunnis, more and more talk about the need to re-arm to protect themselves and their communities since the government clearly won't—and is increasingly part of the problem, not the solution. Meanwhile the Kurds see the re-emerging tensions south of the trigger line and ponder whether secession might finally be possible, prudent, even necessary.

Is Iraq doomed to another round of horrific civil war? Not necessarily. Nothing is inevitable. Iraqis might recognize that they are headed for the falls and make the selfless, heroic efforts necessary to turn their ship around. But the history is pessimistic and the trends are worrisome. Nothing they have done so far suggests that they will. America's troops in Iraq—disliked, misunderstood and resented though they were—were Iraq's best shot at achieving a stable, pluralistic, prosperous future. Without them, Iraq is not yet condemned to darkness, but its chance for redemption has dimmed perceptibly.