A troubling milestone arrived on Thursday when the US withdrew its final combat
brigade from Iraq. The remaining 50,000 US forces are charged with advising and
training the Iraqi military. President Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw them
as well by the end of next year.
When US-led allied forces invaded Iraq
seven years ago, their action raised the hopes and incited the dreams of
millions throughout the region and throughout the world.
Freedom promised to bring the light of liberty to a corner of the world that had
known none. By doing so, it would inspire and enable men and women throughout
the region to believe that they too could be free.
But as the last US
combat brigade departed on Thursday, the Iraq they left behind was not an Arab
shining city on an Iraqi hill. The Iraq they withdrew from has no
The post-March 7 elections coalition talks are hopelessly
deadlocked. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has agreed to serve as the head of a
caretaker government for now and take no major decisions about Iraq’s future. In
a word, Iraq suffers from governmental paralysis.
Then there is the
US-trained and -armed Iraqi military. Recently, Iraq’s most senior general,
Lt.-Gen. Babakir Zebari, acknowledged that Iraqi forces will be unable to defend
the country from domestic and foreign aggression until 2020. Zebari asserted
that the reason the withdrawal of US combat forces was proceeding well was
“because they [the US forces] are still here.”
This week’s suicide
bombing at the military recruitment office in Baghdad in which some 61 people
were murdered is part of a growing trend in Iraq. As the US withdraws, the
forces the US fought throughout the past seven years are on the rise. Al-Qaida
is reportedly behind much of the recent violence as it seeks to convince Iraq’s
uneasy Sunnis to rejoin its ranks in a continuing war against the Shi’ites. And
as for the Shi’ites, their leaders remain alternatively and often simultaneously
dependent on and threatened by Iran.
As outgoing US commander in Iraq
Gen. Ray Odierno acknowledged last month, Iran remains the largest sponsor of
sectarian violence in the country.
And so, despite the US investment of
more than a trillion dollars in Iraq, and despite the more than 4,400 US
servicemen and women who lost their lives in the country, the future of Iraq
remains uncertain at best. Certainly a coherent, moderate, US-allied and
democratic Iraq remains an elusive goal.
The US blames Iran for Iraq’s
It is right to do so. The election results gave a
narrow two-seat lead to former prime minister Ayad Alawi’s Sunni-backed Iraqiya
party over Maliki’s State of Law Shi’ite coalition.
And yet, rather than
accept the results, Iranian-allied Shi’ite politicians led by Ahmed Chalabi sued
to have six members of Alawi’s party denied the right to assume office due to
their past ties to Saddam’s Ba’athist party.
Although the lawsuit was
defeated in May, the sides continue to be unable to come to an agreement that
would enable the Iraqi parliament to come into office or a government to be
Iran’s hand is everywhere in this chaos. As George Friedman wrote
in a recent Straffor Intelligence Bulletin, it is true that today, with 50,000
US forces still deployed in Iraq, “the Iranians do not have the ability to
impose a government on Iraq. However, they do have the ability to prevent the
formation of a government or to destabilize one that is formed.
intelligence has sufficient allies and resources in Iraq to guarantee the
failure of any stabilization attempt that doesn't please Tehran.”
Friedman notes, for Iran, keeping Iraq in an ongoing state of instability, with
sporadic periods of outright chaos, is a low-cost, highreturn investment. It
denies Iraq the ability to reconstitute itself to play its traditional role as a
regional counterweight balancing Iranian power in the Persian Gulf. It also
denies the US victory, erodes its will to fight and saps it of its determination
to defend the Persian Gulf from Iranian ascendance.
As Friedman sees it,
“The Iranian strategy seems to be to make the United States sufficiently
uncomfortable to see withdrawal as attractive but not to be so threatening as to
deter the withdrawal.
“As clever as that strategy is, however, it does
not hide the fact that Iran would dominate the Persian Gulf region after the
Thus, the United States has nothing but unpleasant choices in
Iraq. It can stay in perpetuity and remain vulnerable to violence.
withdraw and hand the region over to Iran. It can go to war with yet another
Islamic country. Or it can negotiate with a government that it despises – and
which despises it right back.”
There are two frustrating aspects to
Friedman’s analysis and what it tells us about the prospects for the region
THE FIRST frustrating aspect of Friedman’s diagnosis of
the situation in Iraq today is just how similar it is to the situation in
As in Iraq, anti-Iranian political forces won the Lebanese
elections last year. And as is the case today in Iraq, Iran’s proxies in Lebanon
gridlocked coalition negotiations, and so coerced the anti-Iranian March 14
movement candidates led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri to agree to forge a unity
government with Hizbullah. Moreover, they forced Hariri to accept effective
Hizbullah – that is, Iranian – control over his government. This they did by
demanding that Hizbullah receive enough votes in the cabinet to give it a veto
over all governmental decisions.
Hizbullah’s dominant position in Lebanon
was depressingly and tragically demonstrated last week, when Hariri called on
the UN to investigate Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s allegations that
Israel was behind his father’s assassination in 2005. Former prime minister
Rafik Hariri’s murder in February 2005 was carried out by Hizbullah and Syria,
and his son knows this.
That he would bow to his father’s murderer is a
hair raising example of how the ruthless Iranian power game works. Lebanon’s
hapless prime minister rightly fears Hizbullah, Syria and Iran more than he
trusts the US. And so he remains prime minister in name only and serves at their
pleasure – the effective slave of his father’s killers.
On a military
level, the US’s inconclusive campaign in Iraq bears striking similarities to
Israel’s departure from southern Lebanon 10 years ago. In Lebanon, as in Iraq
for the US, Iran and its proxies made it impossible for Israel and its allies in
the South Lebanese Army to bring stability to the south. Hizbullah’s constant
but low-key assaults on Israel and IDF forces, punctuated by sporadic
escalations, eroded the Israeli ruling class’s will to fight. So, too, the
elusive character of the asymmetric enemy made it easy for the same elites to
ignore the nature of the adversarial forces arrayed against Israel and so paved
the way for Israel’s retreat. This in turn fomented Hizbullah’s triumphant
takeover of the south, and in due course, its takeover of the whole of
THE SECOND frustrating aspect of the state of Iraq today is what
it says about the US’s ability to acknowledge the realities of the region and
fashion successful strategies for contending with its challenges.
past seven years, advocates of the Iraq war and opponents of the war,
Republicans and Democrats alike, have consistently refused to understand the
nature of the battlefield and what that meant about their prospects in Iraq and
Both the Bush and Obama administrations wrongly characterized
Iraq as a stand-alone war. But the fact is that Iraq has always been a
battleground of a regional war. And the main enemy in Iraq, the main obstacle to
stability and victory, is Iran. Just as Israel was unable to beat Iran in
Lebanon, and so lost to its proxy Hizbullah, so the US has been and will remain
unable to defeat Iran in Iraq. And if it maintains its current strategy, it will
be defeated by Iran’s proxies.
The only way to safeguard Iraq is to
overthrow the regime in Iran. The only way to get the likes of Hariri out from
under the jackboots of Hizbullah and the Iranian-proxy regime in Damascus is to
overthrow the regime in Iran.
If it were just a question of Iraq’s
well-being as a country, it would arguably make sense for the US to avoid
escalation of the war and refuse to challenge the regime in Teheran.
Iran is not only fighting for Iraq and it is not only fighting in Iraq. Through
its proxies, Iran is also fighting in Lebanon and is using its proxies to
increase its influence throughout the Persian Gulf, the Levant and
And with the regime just a short step or two away from nuclear
capabilities it is clear that the US strategy in Iraq was wrong all along. It
was wrong and dangerous.
The US strategy was to bring democracy to Iraq
and by doing so, inspire democratic revolutions throughout the Arab
Although inspiring, it was wrong first and foremost because it was
predicated on ignoring one of the basic dictates of strategy. It failed to
recognize that there were other forces in the region.
It failed to
anticipate that every US move would be countered by an Iranian move. And in
failing to recognize this basic strategic truth – even though it has been
staring them in the face – the Americans aggressively pursued a strategy that
became more and more irrelevant as time went by.
As the actions of the
Hariris of Lebanon and their counterparts in Iraq show clearly, Iran’s
countermoves have always been more forthright and compelling than the US’s moves
In the September issue of Commentary, Arthur Herman
depressingly sets out the Obama administration’s declared plans and early moves
to gut the US military. It is obvious that regardless of Obama’s political
position after the mid-term elections in November, he will not revisit the US’s
current Middle East strategy, which is predicated on ignoring the Iranian
nuclear elephant in the middle of the room. He will not work to overthrow the
regime or support any forces that would overthrow the regime.
It is true
that in the short term, the prospects for the region hinge on whether or
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has the courage to order the IDF to
Iran’s nuclear installations. And it is also true that if an Israeli
sufficiently successful, it would empower many positive forces
region – from Teheran and Kurdistan to Ankara, Damascus and Beirut.
in the medium and long term, nothing can replace America. And as long as
continues on its trajectory of strategic blindness, the Iraqis will be
alone in their suffering.