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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İf the USA ever had a clue when they invaded,they seem to have none whatsoever now…

But oh! Then they had lots of money….and now…? Money makes a lot of difference…

Posted by arslansoma | Report as abusive

OK, Mr. Hill,

The Iraquis see America as “occupiers”. They either do not understand or simply refuse to recognize the inconvenient truth that these “occupiers” paid in advance in blood and many, many dollars for their freedom to hate us.

I’m sure, as good Muslims, they will rush to place their moral obligation to pay the U.S. back in dollars or in petroleum the financial cost of their “freedom”.

In your DREAMS!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

[...] Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill wrote this weekend that “Prime Minister Maliki got very little support from any other Iraqi political [bloc].” The government also opposed immunity from Iraqi law for [...]

[...] Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill wrote this weekend that “Prime Minister Maliki got very little support from any other Iraqi political [bloc].” The government also opposed immunity from Iraqi law for [...]

Mr. Hill writes: “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.” Yes, that 80 percent was perfectly able, if it felt so inclined, to refuse S. Hussein’s respectful request to ask them to fight against Iran.

Posted by GlibFighter | Report as abusive

What Mr Hill, Bush and no American ever seems to grasp is that the presence of the US military is the greatest divisive and provocative factor in Iraq. The unjust and stupid invasion…wrongness of the war…doesn’t seem to mean anything to these analysts. Since we can not justify being there in the first place how can we can we justify remaining? The US presence is just a focal point for all disparate interests in the country. Bush was fond of saying that if we left there would be a great spike in bloodshed (as if it wasn’t already out of control in 2003-2008). As soon as Obama announced the plan to leave the violence largely subsided and has remained so. If plans are made now to continue the presence that will spike the violence once again and any political party or person with the US stamp of approval on their forehead will be a target and a loser. The sooner we leave 100%…the better. It will never be pretty but it will be better.

Posted by Anonymousource | Report as abusive

The simple matter of fact here is that nobody commenting here has the slightest idea what will happen … Another simple fact is that no amount of hand-wringing about the “rightness” of the war or the stupidity of the leaders we had who got us into it will get us anywhere. The thing to take from this, I believe is that we can no longer use force of arms to effect the sorts of change we hoped to accomplish in a part of the world that lacks any concept of the values or traditions we in the west have. “Nation building” and “promoting democracy” in a part of the world where the concepts are completely esoteric is the height of hubris on our parts. We will never see liberal democracies in that part of the world as the culture and predominant religion would allow for it. The best we can hope for is to build a detente with the Islamic world and simply leave them to their own devices. Winston Churchill once said that the biggest mistake he ever made was to put an army in Mesopotamia.. May our time there be the last time a western army ever attempts that pointless exercise again.

Posted by TboltAQ2 | Report as abusive

This reminds me of the strategic chess game between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the cold war. If any American thinks that the game is over, they are sadly mistaken…

GW Bush invaded Iraq to finish what his father started in Gulf war I, the removal of Saddam. And when the pro-war lobby recaptures the White house, they will launch round three….again to take care of some unfinished business…the invasion of Iran. Add to this the Strategic plan by Cheneys Partnership for the New American Century, and the capture of prime Iranian oil reserves and conversion back to petro-dollars and you can see where we are heading.

Mitt Romney is backed by the same NeoCon faction that helped to elect GW Bush…and just like Bush, Mitt Romney will reward his campaingn financiers with war and prosperity for their benefactors…

Posted by BushRomney | Report as abusive