Disengaging From Iraq: New Stakes as the U.S. Heads for the Exits
WASHINGTON -- Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a formal end to the American combat role in Iraq. Although a very substantial military presence of around 50,000 troops will remain for training and more limited counterterrorism operations, the shift in mission marks a turning point in the almost eight-year-long U.S. engagement. As America heads for the exits, its international partners will retain a heavy stake in the end game and the future of Iraq. The potential consequences encompass transatlantic relations as well as regional stability. Obama’s long-anticipated announcement is a good moment to take stock of the implications.
First, a progressive disengagement from Iraq is a political as well as a strategic imperative for the Obama administration. With very difficult mid-term elections looming, and an economy delicately poised between recovery and renewed recession, the opportunity to take at least one external problem off the agenda is welcome. Not that the disengagement can be accomplished overnight – far from it. But as a matter for political debate, Iraq is a waning issue. Having inherited an unpopular conflict, the current administration can at least claim that it has done no further harm to American interests or regional security. The prospects for a “least harm” exit in Afghanistan, and a reconfiguration of the NATO efforts there for counter-terrorism more narrowly defined, may also be influenced by the perceived success or failure of the end game in Iraq.
Second, disengagement from an active combat role in Iraq will have implications for American policy vis-à-vis the two central policy challenges in the Middle East—Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Iran, the administration faces the unwelcome possibility of a nuclear break-out that may demand a military response. More likely, the United States may be compelled to engineer a new, long-term strategy of containment in the Gulf. Operationally, and politically, this will require a clearing of the decks, shedding the baggage from the Iraq War that has hobbled American policy for almost a decade. How will this be seen from Tehran? The Iraq War swept away Iran’s leading geopolitical competitor and security concern. It is most unlikely that Iraq itself will pose any direct threat to Iranian security for decades to come. On the other hand, competition with Iraq historically provided a leading spur to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. (Tehran almost certainly shared the international misjudgments about Iraq’s WMD capabilities.) It is entirely possible that Iran’s progress toward a deliverable nuclear arsenal might have been more rapid if Saddam Hussein had remained in place. In this respect, among others, the United States and transatlantic partners are only beginning to reckon with the longer-term geopolitical consequences, positive and negative, of a weak and unsettled Iraq.
Given the long history of disappointments in the peace process, it is hard to be optimistic about the recent resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But it is an important step, and some observers argue convincingly that circumstances this time might just be propitious for a comprehensive settlement—the ultimate diplomatic prize for any American administration. Relative stability in Iraq will allow key regional actors, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to take risks for peace that might seem unacceptable against a backdrop of chaos or renewed violence on their borders. More generally, a smaller U.S. military footprint in Iraq will offer fewer targets for extremists and may lower the pressure for radicalization across the board. All of which will affect security on Israel’s borders and the climate for negotiation.
Third, the disengagement from Iraq will touch directly on Turkish interests, and will be central to the future of a troubled U.S.-Turkish relationship. Many Turks are convinced that U.S. strategy in the Middle East has worked against their country’s security interests. Public perceptions on this score are well documented in leading opinion surveys, including GMF’s Transatlantic Trends (the 2010 findings, to be released Wednesday, are especially revealing. See www.transatlantictrends.org on Wednesday). Conditions in Northern Iraq and cross-border attacks by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) are at the heart of Turkish concerns. Ankara needs continued American assistance—intelligence and equipment—to support its operations against the PKK. At the same time, the United States needs access to Turkish ports and Incirlik Airbase to facilitate the removal of heavy equipment from Iraq. If Turkish cooperation is not forthcoming, there are logistical alternatives. But, as in 2003, the consequences for bilateral relations can be significant, especially against a backdrop of highly visible Turkish-U.S. differences over Iran and Israel. Fortunately, there is every sign that Washington and Ankara are on the same page when it comes to cooperation in the Iraq endgame. It will be a key test of strategic coordination for the two transatlantic allies with the most direct stakes in the future of postwar Iraq. Finally, beyond the ongoing challenge of Afghanistan, a concerted approach to the disengagement phase in Iraq will send a strong signal that NATO allies can work together on other contingencies outside the European space. Missions of exactly this kind are likely to feature more prominently in NATO’s new strategic concept to be announced at the Lisbon summit in November.
Ian Lesser is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.