President Obama’s deadline for American combat operations to end in Iraq will expire at the end of this month, with the number of troops being reduced to 50,000 in preparation for an eventual withdrawal by the end of 2011. Despite the number of troops being cut by nearly two-thirds from their peak, the level of violence in Iraq remains relatively low.
According to the monitoring organisation Iraq Body Count, civilian causalities in the 12 months to the end of June were less than a seventh of those during the same period three years ago. Even the inability of the major political parties to form a new governing coalition, although serious, is being resolved through political negotiation, rather than sectarian violence and civil war.
It would be tempting therefore to believe that Obama’s withdrawal policy has been successful—albeit largely because of the very policies he opposed while in the Senate. Pundits from the neocon Max Boot to the internationalist Marc Lynch have praised him.
There are, however, clouds on the horizon. The withdrawal of US forces has emboldened neighbouring countries to challenge Iraq’s territorial integrity by troop incursions into northern Iraq (Kurdistan), in the case of Turkey, and disputed oilfields in the south of the country, by Iran. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that since American foot patrols ended under the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) last summer, low-level insurgent activity has begun to increase again.
Having failed in their attempts to indirectly dislodge America by supporting insurgents, Iran could still emerge victorious by filling the vacuum left by departing American troops. Without American troops, it would be easy for Iran to find a pretext to launch military action. A repeat of the Iran-Iraq war—this time with Iran as the aggressor—could lead to a huge number of civilian deaths. America would then have a moral duty to become involved, which would come at a much higher price in both blood and treasure, than those of a permanent US presence. While such a nightmare scenario may seem far-fetched, President Obama admits that the Iranian regime is “not making a simple cost benefit analysis” on foreign policy issues.
US diplomatic history has been littered with examples of premature disengagements proving more costly in the long run.…