BY NEW Year’s Day, the US military presence in Iraq will be history. President Obama has made it official, announcing last week the fulfillment of his campaign pledge to end the Iraq war and bring the troops home. Senior American commanders in Iraq had recommended keeping up to 18,000 servicemen there , and even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wanted around 4,000 to remain. But Obama, whose meteoric rise to power was fueled by opposition to the war, overruled them. “The rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year,’’ he told reporters. “After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.’’
And what happens then?
The president asserts that American soldiers will “cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success’’ and that the US withdrawal will “strengthen American leadership around the world.’’ But that’s only bluster. Obama has never shown much interest in the fate of Iraq after American forces leave. As a candidate for president he insisted that even preventing a potential genocide wasn’t a good enough reason to keep US forces in Iraq, and long after it was clear that President Bush’s “surge’’ had led to dramatic progress in the war, Obama continued to claim that it was making the situation worse .
In fairness, elections have consequences. Obama has never made a secret of his determination to pull American troops out of Iraq; certainly he has been more passionate on that subject than on the importance of securing Iraq’s long-term viability as a stable, pro-American oasis in the Arab world. As a matter of short-term political calculus, presidents rarely go wrong when they “bring the boys home for Christmas.’’ Indeed, a New York Times/CBS poll taken immediately after Obama’s announcement found a significant upward bump in his approval rating on Iraq .
But what is good for the Obama reelection effort may be calamitous for Iraq and for US interests in the Middle East.
Retired Army General John Keane, an architect of the 2007 surge and former adviser to General David Petraeus when he served as US commander in Iraq, describes the year-end withdrawal deadline as “an absolute disaster.’’ Iraq’s fractious, fragile democracy is still little more than a multitude of factions capable of backsliding into violence without an American presence to keep the peace. Right next door is Iran, which already operates terror squads in the country and will now intensify its bid to dominate Iraq and use it as a base to spread Islamist theocracy to the Persian Gulf. And after such a hard-won victory over Al Qaeda in Iraq - a victory that cost so much blood and treasure - America’s departure throws open the door to a return of the jihadists beginning in 2012.
“We won the war in Iraq,’’ Keane told The Washington Times , “and we’re now losing the peace.’’
A similar sense of foreboding comes from John Burns , the highly regarded New York Times correspondent who spent more than five years covering Iraq. “I have very little confidence that the center can hold there without the tripwire that American troops represent,’’ Burns said in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt. “When they’re gone, I think all bets are off. . . . A lot of groups of ill intent have been waiting for the Americans to go.’’
Perhaps everything will turn out fine. Perhaps Iraq’s constitutional system will prove more durable than Keane and Burns fear. Perhaps, as the president tells us, quitting Iraq will in some way actually “strengthen American leadership around the world.’’
That isn’t what history suggests, however.
To this day, the United States maintains a substantial military presence in Italy (approximately 11,000 active-duty personnel), South Korea ( 28,500 ), Japan (40,000), and Germany (54,000). When US forces settle in for the long haul after fighting and winning bloody wars, the results have generally been decades of peace and progress. But when the United States bugs out - as it did in Vietnam in the ‘70s , or in Germany at the end of World War I - the results have been disastrous, both for the nations we walked away from and for American influence worldwide.
In pulling the US military out of Iraq, the president is doing what he said he would do. If it all works out, he will be able to trumpet his success in safely bringing the troops back. But if he turns out to have squandered the peace after so many sacrificed so much to win the war, there won’t be much doubt about who lost Iraq.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.