Why the U.S. couldn’t stay in Iraq

By Christopher Hill
October 24, 2011

By Christopher R. Hill
The opinions expressed are his own.

So be it. In a perfect world, the United States and Iraq would have worked out an arrangement by which some U.S. forces would have remained – probably considerably less than 10,000 – to continue to train Iraqi units, to cooperate with Iraqis on anti-terrorism operations, and to provide the necessary signal to all the neighbors – and not just Iran – to keep their hands off Iraq. But this isn’t a perfect world.

Why the deal didn’t happen had little to do with the so-called immunity issues that the U.S. insisted on, protections that our troops have when deployed to many other far-flung countries in the world. The reason was very simple: even Iraqis who benefitted enormously from the security provided by our troops, and for whom the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was the happiest moment of their lives, could not, in the end, support a continuation of foreign troops in their country. Call it visceral. Call it cultural. The fact is, no one likes to be invaded and occupied, and for eight years, told what to do and how to behave. To extend the stay of even just a few U.S. troops was to extend what many Iraqis, mindful of their country’s history, considered another occupation. In the end, Prime Minister Maliki got very little support from any other Iraqi political identity. The Sunnis opposed the extension. So did the Shia. The Kurds, the third element in Iraq’s body politic, may have supported an extension, but they could not carry the day without the Iraqi Arabs.

What happens next, of course, is what everyone wants to know. President Obama talked positively about counting the days until Christmas when the troops will be home. But for many Iraqis, there has been a longstanding, deep-seated view that somehow the Americans, like the many previous foreigners in their lands, would never leave voluntarily. Those Iraqis, many of whom are on the violent fringes of Iraq’s politics, are about to learn something new about these latest “occupiers.”

Much has been made about Iran’s intentions. No doubt, it has been a good few days in Tehran as the Iranians celebrate the departure of U.S. troops from their border. But those Iranians, like the skeptical Iraqis, will keep their fruit juice on ice until the Americans actually leave, because many of them also do not believe that we will leave voluntarily.

Iran has interests in Iraq, but there are definite limits to its influence. Iraq’s Shia don’t need a pep talk about the dangers posed by the Persian Shia. It is instructive to recall that the hated Saddam fought an eight-year brutal and bloody war of attrition against Iran with an army that was 80 percent Arab Shia. True, the Iraqis would like a peaceful relationship with their Iranian neighbor. But they have no interest in falling under their influence. They know the Iranians very well.

But even less understood in the rest of the world is that most Iraqis also have no interest in seeing their Sunni Arab neighbors try to increase their influence in the country. Iraq remains the only Shia-led Arab state. Its transition, at the hands of the US-led invasion, from a Sunni minority-led government to Shia majority rule has never gone over well in the rest of the Arab world. For some Sunnis, the U.S. somehow dumbly handed Iraq to Iran. But for many others, for whom the Shia including in their own countries is not their favorite team, the American departure may be a time to influence events and to bring Iraq back to the Sunni fold.

Preventing such a “great game” over Iraq, between Arab Sunni states and Iran’s Shia-led state (with perhaps even Turkey thrown into the mixas still another element) is probably the issue that should concern our Iraq foreign policy team most in the coming months and years. But now, the U.S. will have to influence the situation the old fashioned way: through deft diplomacy. Size matters, as the old Godzilla movie ads used to say.

Certainly, Secretary Clinton will continue to support and work with Congress to sustain the largest U.S. diplomatic presence in the world. But size alone will not carry the day. Iraq and its problems with its neighbors will need quality time from senior policy makers in Washington as well. Iraq is certainly not a success story yet. But no one should believe the sacrifice of our troops was in vain because Iraq, perhaps with a little less help from its friends, has enormous potential to be a success.

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