Iraq 2012

If you’re interested in what a non-alarmist view of American withdrawal from Iraq might look like, click through and read Dr. F. Gregory Gause’s testimony (.pdf) from last Thursday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing titled, “Iraq 2012: What Can It Look Like, How Do We Get There?” Gause, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, offered his analysis as part of the committee’s lineup of hearings meant to put next week’s Petraeus/Crocker appearances into a broader strategic context.

While he acknowledged that withdrawal would result in Iraqi violence, both sectarian and factional, he argued that even if it results in all-out civil war (not necessarily inevitable) the chances of a worst-case scenario (regional destabilization, armed intervention of neighboring states and a resurgent al-Qaida) are not as great as proponents of an extended American military presence suggest.

Gause discounts the likelihood of armed intervention of neighboring states leading to a regional conflagration, for the simple reason that Iraq’s neighbors either don’t need to (Iran), don’t want to (Turkey) or don’t have the ability to (Saudi Arabia) invade the country in the event of an all-out civil war:

The Iranians already have what they want in Iraq — substantial influence both with the Baghdad government and with major actors in border regions to the south and the north. The Turks do not want to occupy Iraqi Kurdistan or annex it. The Saudi army is hardly capable of serious cross-border operations. Foreigners will play in Iraqi politics as long as Iraq is weak and Iraqi parties seek foreign support. They are doing it now, with the American military there. They will continue to do it. But they do not appear to have the desire (in some cases, like Turkey and Iran) or the means (Saudi Arabia) to intervene in a direct, sustained military way that could lead to a wider regional war. (p. 7)

In other words, the American military presence creates moral hazard not only for Iraqi factions, but for outside powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia) as well, who can meddle in Iraq’s domestic affairs knowing that U.S. forces are there to contain the fallout.

As for the possibility that American withdrawal would embolden al-Qaida, Gause’s reasoning is pretty compeling:

Undoubtedly, al-Qaeda will claim victory with an American withdrawal. But making that fact, over which we have no control, the reason to maintain our presence in Iraq gives Usama bin Laden a veto over American policy. . . Bin Laden can claim what he wants; people in the region will see the results on the ground. (p. 7)

But if a worst-case scenario is far from a foregone conclusion, so too is an optimistic one, since any long-term stabilization of Iraq can only take place in the context of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry. According to Gause, the Saudis consider the Maliki government an Iranian client state (something to consider next time the question of air support for the ISF comes up), and are convinced that grouping the southern Shiite provinces into a regional government along the lines of the Kurdish KRG would be the first step towards the eventual dissolution of Iraq. Significantly, the creation of a southern “Shia-stan” — supported by Maliki ally, ISCI — is strongly opposed by the nationalist Sadrist faction (something else to consider next time the question of air support for the ISF comes up).

Gause also identifies an indirect consequence of the Anbar Awakening that I’ve yet to see mentioned elsewhere, namely that by re-directing the Sunni insurgency away from American forces, the Awakening has resulted in the creation of Sunni clients that the Saudis can support without jeopardizing Saudi-U.S. bi-lateral relations. The Sunni groups can’t be considered Saudi proxies, since Riyadh doesn’t exert any control over them. But by providing the Saudis with the political cover necessary for financing and supplying Iraq’s Sunni tribes, the Awakening strategy has created one of the pre-conditions for the kind of Saudi-Iranian proxy war that figures prominently in so many doomsday scenarios of the impact of an American withdrawal.

Finally, Gause points out that we can’t broker a resolution of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry so long as we are participants in it. Which is why he believes that a U.S.-Iranian bi-lateral engagement, if not a pre-requisite for a regional approach, will dramatically increase its chance of success.

Carole O’Leary’s testimony is also worth a read for the way in which it illustrates how, by reducing the narrative of Iraq’s internal faultlines to broad regional, ethnic and sectarian identities, we impoverish our ability to find creative solutions to the political problems of Iraqi reconstruction. As an example, in talking about a federalist solution, she observes that based on her research, “. . .Arab Iraqis who are open to federalism are without doubt more likely to think in terms of at least five federal regions, not three.” In particular, O’Leary believes we should take advantage of tribal identity, which in many cases straddles sectarian and ethnic divides, as a way to foster a federal model along the lines of the United Arab Emirates:

. . .[A]n Arab state which espoused federalism as a model for governance precisely because it offered a pathway toward holding the country together and distributing the oil resources fairly in a tribal context. The UAE is an example of a pluralistic society in which the pluralism stems from tribalism, not ethnicity. This of course is an important point for Arab Iraqis who reject what they see as a Kurdish insistence on ethnic federalism. (pp. 5-6).

The media narrative on Iraq is increasingly reduced to the Surge, with an emphasis on the tactical metrics (casualty figures and “political benchmarks”) that were formulated to justify it. So hats off to Joe Biden for getting this kind of context into the Congressional record. It would be nice if the press paid some attention to it. But at least it’s there for people who are interested.