Are We Stuck in Iraq?

George W. Bush and John Kerry hardly agree on anything, except that leaving Iraq quickly would be a bad idea.

Both the president and Kerry appear to believe that the United States can’t pull out quickly because of a moral imperative (“You broke it, you fix it”) and because of fears that an early American withdrawal would not only leave behind an unstable Iraq, but also embolden militant groups everywhere.

Those are sensible reasons, but we haven’t had a real national debate about whether the fears are exaggerated, whether the negatives of staying outweigh the positives—and whether Americans can live with the consequences of staying put.

Even more important, though, our current debate hasn’t fully addressed how broader American goals in the region will affect the decision about how long we must stay in Iraq. Those goals have historically included securing a steady supply of crude oil at reasonable prices and keeping a regional balance of power, which is also mainly about oil—keeping it flowing our way and out of the hands of our enemies. Those goals have also included protecting Israel.

The truth is that, if we stick with our traditional assumptions about how to accomplish those goals, we will inevitably have to remain in Iraq for many years. But it’s not at all clear that those assumptions still hold true—or were ever true. Now would be a good time to rethink them and our policies about energy, Israel and the war on terror, before we put in place policies that commit America for years to come. If not, we may be destined to repeat the past, when we pursued strategies in the Middle East that solved immediate problems only by creating bigger future problems.

First, let’s consider oil. Although the suspicion in the Middle East and in much of the world is that the Iraq war was above all for oil, that was probably not the main factor in the American decision. Nonetheless, now that we’re in Iraq, the desire to keep influence over its oil will surely affect how our leaders behave. Complicating matters, the war in Iraq has left next-door Iran the uncontested regional power, which is sure to raise fears that Iran could gain too much influence in Iraq and the rest of the gulf.

The topic of oil policy has been largely ignored in the Iraq debate so far. But it will be impossible to ignore it forever, especially as other foreign powers—notably China, whose appetite for oil is increasing exponentially—become more interested in the Persian Gulf region. Forecasts show that by the end of the decade, China will import 90 percent of its oil from the region.

World’s oil supply

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the gulf region is likely to be more important for the global oil market in the next two decades than it was in the previous two. The math is simple. The gulf region accounts for about 60 percent of the world’s oil reserves, and is currently pumping only about one-quarter of the world’s supply. It is only a matter of time before other producers begin running out and the Middle East accounts for a greater share of the world’s supply.

In the past, the United States has used such arguments to bolster the case that it needed troops in the gulf. But is that true? Certainly there is much to suggest that the flow of oil to the West historically has been much more a function of market supply and demand than of political and military control, with some episodic exceptions such as the Arab oil embargo of 1973.

In fact, even in the days of the Cold War, oil producers sold to those who needed it most, regardless of politics or alliances. Europeans, Japanese and others who have a high dependence on the region’s oil have always operated under the assumption that they do not need military or political control to have access to oil. Even pricing is mostly a function of market: If oil is priced too high, incentives to spend on alternate energy sources (as Kerry is proposing) increase, undermining the interests of the oil suppliers.

Those facts would argue against the need to maintain a military presence in Iraq, but historically, the United States has also been hugely concerned about the possibility that the region—and so much of the world’s oil—could fall into the hands of U.S. enemies.

In fact, the Truman administration put in place a secret policy intended to deny the possibility of Soviet control of Middle East oil. The doctrine stipulated that in case of an imminent Soviet takeover of the region, the United States would blow up the oil fields to deny the Soviets the power that would come with control of the oil. In the 1950s the Eisenhower administration, concerned by the rise of regional powers such as that of Egyptian-Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, extended this “oil-denial policy” to include “hostile regimes” in the region.

That raises the question of how worried U.S. leaders are about the increased power of a hostile Iran that could allow it to gain more influence over regional politics—and oil policy.

Balance of power

U.S. policy for decades aimed to prevent any single regional power from dominating and had thus aimed at maintaining a degree of balance between the region’s two strongest states, Iran and Iraq.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the United States sought to support the government of the shah of Iran to balance the regional power of Iraq, which was then backed by the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, the United States watched while both Iran and Iraq were weakening each other through a war that lasted for most of the decade.

In the 1990s, after Iraq emerged as a victor in the war with Iran and then invaded Kuwait, the United States waged a war that significantly weakened Iraq’s army and improved Iran’s position in the gulf. For much of the rest of the decade, the United States followed a policy called “dual containment,” primarily aimed at imposing sanctions to weaken Iran in order not to allow it to benefit strategically from Iraq’s weakness.

One of the most important outcomes of the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government and of the decision to dismantle the Iraqi army (which was not seriously debated within the Bush administration despite the huge consequences) has been the emergence of Iran as the dominant regional power. Even aside from the important issue of nuclear proliferation that now frames the debate about our relations with Iran, the main question is whether U.S. leaders will accept Iran’s dominance and pursue a conciliatory strategy toward that country or whether they will decide they need to come up with new ways to contain it.

This latter question is likely to focus on two options: an aggressive strategy to weaken Iran, including through sanctions and other measures, or a more passive strategy of containment that would envision an extended American military presence in the region in the absence of a regional ally capable of balancing Iran. Even if the United States opts for containment, that would argue for keeping troops in the gulf region for an indefinite period of time. The question then will be whether the United States can achieve the mission by keeping troops elsewhere in the gulf instead of in Iraq, even though some in Washington originally thought they could easily move bases there from Saudi Arabia.

None of those issues has been adequately discussed so far, but they will probably emerge as central issues in the debate after the election. Even the oft-stated reasons for staying in Iraq—fulfilling our responsibility and maintaining our credibility—could use some discussion.

For now, many Iraqis, including those who view the United States as an occupying power, appear to fear the greater anarchy that may result if American troops leave without someone else filling the vacuum. But we have seen Iraqi opinion shift over the past year and a half with larger numbers wishing for an American withdrawal. If the trend continues, we will have to ask ourselves whether the sense of obligation to stay will be replaced by an obligation to respond to popular Iraqi wishes.

Fighting militancy

That leaves the most tangible argument against early withdrawal: its consequences for empowering militancy. Certainly one of the worst scenarios is that Iraq would become a haven for international terrorist groups such as Al-Qaida, and that militants would interpret the U.S. withdrawal as a victory and use it to recruit others.

In the end this may be a winning argument. In addition, the implications of withdrawal for Israeli security will inevitably enter the American assessment. But staying as a way to discourage militancy should not be taken at face value without a debate: Which would be a greater rallying issue, the sense that America occupies Muslim lands, or the sense that America withdraws without victory?

Beyond that, history suggests that pulling out before “winning” might not always put the country that withdrew in greater danger. America’s enemies, including the Soviets, did not attack the United States once we abandoned Saigon and bared our defeat. And Israelis are to this day divided about whether their unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 was a good thing (it has in fact significantly reduced Israeli costs on that front) or a bad thing (some argue that it has led others, including Palestinians, to believe that the way to force Israel to withdraw is by militant means).

What is clear in all this is that no decision can be made about the future of American forces in Iraq without a strategic plan that fits into a coherent U.S. foreign policy toward allies, oil, Israel and America’s global priorities. What happens in Iraq is important for its own sake, but the strategic consequences are far too important to ignore. Accepting old thinking about policy in the region may simply doom the United States and the Middle East into repeating costly mistakes.