Reflections on Iraq and the American Grand Strategy
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
On Tuesday, the number of uniformed U.S. military personnel in Iraq officially dropped below 50,000 for the first time since the opening days of the 2003 American-led invasion. But despite a relatively peaceful drawdown over the course of 2010 — ongoing militant attacks across the country notwithstanding — the situation in Iraq remains extraordinarily tenuous and the American position in the wider region remains uncertain. A brief examination of the events that led to this point can be instructive. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan to disrupt al Qaeda and prevent follow-on attacks. While the invasion was ultimately successful, the White House saw the rapid fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan late that year (in which the Taliban was never defeated, but rather refused to fight on American terms and declined combat) as insufficient to fundamentally alter the behavior of regimes across the Muslim world. The White House essentially feared that merely knocking off an isolated regime in a distant corner of the world and waging a limited counterterrorism effort in the Hindu Kush would ultimately resonate more as a trumped-up cruise missile strike — which was the American response in 1998 when its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, and that utterly failed to manage the threat of al Qaeda — than the unequivocal and awe-inspiring demonstration of American resolve and military power Washington considered necessary. (For more on this, we recommend Dr. George Friedman's "America's Secret War.") So instead, the United States sought to press its advantage, invade Iraq and install a stable, pro-American government in Baghdad. In so doing, Washington hoped to fundamentally reshape the power dynamics in the region, and in particular to compel Saudi Arabia to genuinely engage in counterterrorism efforts (rather than the grudging and ineffective cooperation the United States felt it was receiving, especially on jihadist networks inside the Kingdom), and put the rest of the region on notice. While the intermediate military objective of seizing Baghdad was achieved, the ultimate political objective was not. This is the point at which American political goals, rationale and tools of national power dedicated to the problem diverged. As STRATFOR argued in 2003, the weapons of mass destruction justification for the Iraq War was disingenuous and would ultimately come back to haunt both President George W. Bush's administration and the war effort. (One of the failings of the Vietnam War was that its rationale was never compellingly sold to the American people.) The invasion of Iraq itself was a military problem. While the estimates of troop requirements reflected in long-standing and regularly updated war plans were thrown out entirely, and significant risks of brutal house-to-house fighting existed, the military objectives of destroying what remained of Saddam Hussein's military and seizing Baghdad were achievable by force of arms. But the installation of a stable, pro-American government in Baghdad was not a military objective, and certainly not something achievable by force of arms — at least not democratically. The deeply factionalized nature of Iraqi society and the significance of the lid kept on that factionalization by Saddam's ruthless internal security apparatus was not accounted for by Washington. Meanwhile, the troops that proved sufficient to seize Baghdad were woefully insufficient to impose security upon it — much less to manage a blossoming insurgency. The implementation of de-Baathification policies — effectively stripping members of the former regime of both their livelihood and their ability to work in government — further exacerbated ethnosectarian tensions in the country. A lack of planning and adequate preparation for following through with non-military means to ensure the desired political outcome meant that while the intermediate military objective of seizing Baghdad was achieved, the ultimate political objective was not. That desired outcome must be understood in the context of three key regional balances of power. The United States has long relied on managing and manipulating the Israeli-Arab, the Persian-Arab (the now-wildly off-kilter Iraqi-Iranian balance) and Indo-Pakistani rivalries to ensure its interests in the Muslim world from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush. The United States gambled on the Iraqi-Iranian balance of power in the hopes of establishing a stalwart ally in the region, thereby shifting the balance heavily in its favor. But Washington lost the gamble it made on Iraq's post-invasion fate. Seven years on, the United States is now struggling to prevent the opposite outcome from what was originally intended, to limit the extent of Iranian influence with the regime in Baghdad. The implications of failing to install a stable, pro-American government in Baghdad — or even the now much-tempered and as of yet unconsolidated goal of establishing a relatively self-sufficient and neutral regime — are only now beginning to play out. The single most powerful American hedge against Iranian influence in the region since the invasion has been the U.S. military presence in Iraq, which is currently set to draw to a complete close in 16 months' time. And present-day Iraq, even if it manages to avoid Iranian domination, is ill-prepared and ill-suited to serve as a counterbalance to a resurgent and emboldened Persia anytime soon.