"Iraq: Consequences of Withdrawal"
Op-Ed, Human Events
March 21, 2007
Author: Chuck Freilich, Senior Fellow, International Security Program
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
With the current partisan debate on Iraq raging in Congress, it is time to consider the reality there and consequent United States' options as they truly are, not as many wish. In broad terms, the U.S. has three options:
- Staying the course, i.e. more of the same, with only limited changes in U.S. strategy. This option leads to inexorable defeat and to a pointless loss of lives. It is not clear that the President's "surge" is sufficient to avoid this.
- Withdrawal, on the assumption that the U.S. has done what it could, but should now cut its losses. The harsh reality, however, is that the U.S. can not really disengage from Iraq and the Middle East, no matter how much it may want to, because the region's deep seated and violent ills will follow it back home. The Jihadis' and other "crazies'" hatred of the U.S. did not begin with the invasion of Iraq and will not end if it leaves.
- Staying for the long haul, but with realistic objectives, recognizing that failure to achieve even a minimalist, bare bones, definition of "success" (a unified, stable and peaceful Iraq, no more), may lead to severe ramifications for the region and U.S. This approach would require a comprehensive strategy and for the Bush administration to tell it as it is: that the U.S. will have to remain in Iraq for the long haul, because the alternatives are even worse.
If the U.S. withdraws without achieving even this minimalist definition of "success", Iraq will deteriorate into ever worsening violence and may splinter into its component parts. Turkey may then invade Kurdistan, whose possible independence it views as a threat to its own territorial integrity. Iran will become not only a primary player in Iraq, but the primary one, possibly even annexing Shiite areas outright. The Saudis, already threatened by rising Shiite influence in the region, petrified by a possible Iranian presence right on their border, may similarly choose to preempt this by grabbing parts of Iraq. Jordan, with an Iranian controlled Iraq on its border, might collapse. For Israel, the consequences will be severe.
If the U.S. can be driven out, the Islamist fundamentalists, Jihadis, insurgents and other dark forces in the region, will have won. There will simply be no one to prevent them from using terror, WMD, subversion and religious fanaticism to pursue their aims. No one. The radicals of the Moslem world will be triumphant — Iran, al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizballah and more.
Iran will end up the big victor, the regional hegemon, whose ambitions and nuclear program, will become unstoppable. As things look, there is a very real possibility that Iran will announce, within a few years, that it has achieved an operational nuclear capability, threaten to destroy Israel and to rain fire and destruction on other U.S. interests and allies in the region.
A nuclear Iran is a dire threat for nearly all countries in the region. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others already feel threatened and have announced their intentions to begin "civil" nuclear programs, which, as we all know, tend to "morph" into military ones. It is unclear that the U.S. can effectively cope with a nuclear Iran, but far worse, a multi-nuclear Middle East now looms. The U.S.-Soviet nuclear rivalry may pale in combustibility.
Is the U.S. — are you — willing to have the entire Middle East, the world's primary source of energy, under the threat of Iranian nukes? Not a "biggie," just the future of the western economy and way of life. Think about it the next time you take a drive, or turn up the heat.
In the even more radicalized Middle East that will follow a U.S. failure in Iraq, we can abandon any hopes for reform in the region and for any change in the root causes of its ills. The existing regimes will heighten oppression to retain power, the radical camp will be emboldened, the prospects for the "peace process" even dimmer than now. If the Middle East looks bad today, it will look wonderful in comparison and it will again engulf the U.S., no matter how much it wishes to disengage.
The administration has it right when it contends that failure in Iraq entails unacceptable risks. The question, however, is not whether 21,500 more troops are needed, or some other figure, but what the overall goals are and what strategy is needed to achieve them. A minimalist success — a unified, stable and peaceful Iraq — would require:
• A U.S. commitment to stay for the long haul and to deploy sufficient military force to make the difference on the ground. The administration will have to recognize that transfer of authority to the Iraqi government and forces is largely an illusion, for a long time. People divided by ethnic hatreds and biding their time in anticipation of a U.S. withdrawal, do not constitute an effective military force, or responsible government. A U.S. commitment for the long haul could provide the reassurance and stability necessary for political and economic reconstruction.
• Massive economic aid, not the token $1 billion announced. The U.S. spends over $500 billion a year on defense: a 1% cut could yield $5 billion in economic aid annually, 2% $10 billion. The bureaucracy has yet to be established that can not tolerate a 1–2% cut, no matter how stretched.
• Real political reform, with clear benchmarks for the Maliki government, coupled with a harsh warning that if it fails to deliver, the U.S. will not pack up and go home, but send the Iraqi regime packing and impose a new political process of U.S. choosing.
It is not clear that this, or any other strategy, can achieve even the minimalist "success" outlined above. Only one thing is certain: Getting out before this happens guarantees failure and many, if not all, of the ramifications, presented above.
Dr. Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
Full text of this publication is available at:
For Academic Citation: