American troops are, finally, out of Iraq. The war is technically over. Our men and women in uniform will be home for the holidays. This is all good news, and is worth celebrating by a nation weary of decade-long wars.
As with everything to do with Iraq, the end of the war isn't without its own controversy. Voices from the left ominously warn that with thousands of security contractors remaining behind, the war isn't really over. Voices from the right ominously warn that the war is being "lost" even though most Americans are beyond caring how they're exactly defining a win or a loss at this advanced date.
I'm going to set these arguments to one side, however, since I don't think either one is immediately resolvable at this point (more time will be needed to see whose predictions come true, to put it another way). I'm also going to set aside the emotional question of whether Iraq was "worth it" or not (which is highly subjective, depending on how you personally define "worth it"). Instead, to mark the milestone of the last American troops to leave Iraq, I'd like to take a wider view and look at the entire region, post-Saddam and post-Arab Spring.
America has long struggled with what our foreign policy goals in the region should be. Oil is predominant in any calculation of goals, of course. In fact, it is so universal and continuous a goal that it can be discounted -- just take as a given that high on America's list of priorities when dealing with any country in the region is that they sell us cheap oil, if they happen to have it beneath their country. This goal is unchanging across all our dealings with the region, and so only needs to be mentioned in passing, since it is completely unaffected by the rest of this diplomatic calculation.
There are four or five main variables in the calculation of how America should treat each country in the region. America has no blanket policy for which of these should be highest on our list. This is why we're having problems figuring out the new era in not only Iraq but also such places as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Yemen (as well as all the other myriad countries in the neighborhood).
The first two of these variables have historically been the highest considerations for American foreign policy: loyalty and stability. Back in the Cold War, loyalty was paramount. Being on "our side" in the global struggle with the Soviet Union was the major consideration from World War II onward. This could mean a country which refused to sell oil to the Soviets, one who bought our weapons rather than Soviet weapons, one who agreed to base American troops, or one who would accept the state of Israel. With the Soviet Union gone, loyalty is still important, but has become a lesser factor to some extent as well.
Stability meant not causing regional wars with their neighbors -- unless we wanted them to. Stability also meant America would politely look the other way at dictators using brutality and all the tools of totalitarianism to keep their own population in check. Such things were the price everyone had to pay to keep the cheap oil flowing, after all. Call this the "he may be a bastard, but he's our bastard" school of diplomatic thinking.
Next down on the list of American diplomatic goals was promoting secular governments. The "separation of mosque and state" was something we encouraged, always pointing to Turkey as the model of governmental behavior in the region. But this was always a secondary concern, as evidenced with our great enduring friendship with probably the most "Islamist" country in the area -- Saudi Arabia. Even post-revolution Iran has less of a theocratic government than the Saudis. We simply don't care, because (1.) they are sitting on an absolute ocean of oil, and (2.) they've been staunch U.S. allies for so long.
Far below all three of these on our scale of diplomatic criteria were such frivolities as democracy and human rights. Such luxuries were not possible (ran this line of thinking), given the priorities of the main two diplomatic goals. Oh, sure, we'd occasionally give some lip service to high ideals and aspirations, but we certainly wouldn't lift a finger to help any of the oppressed people in the region.
That was all before the world changed on 9/11. When the United States invaded Iraq, George W. Bush made the case that the peoples of the region were ready for democracy (even if it had to be imposed by the barrel of a gun). To his credit, he repeated in several speeches that the concept that these people were "not ready" for democracy was no longer correct, and that democracy should be allowed to flourish in the region, with Iraq's new government to be the shining new example others could follow.
Nowadays, the same people who were cheering Bush on at the time are the ones darkly muttering about what's going on in Egypt and Libya -- how democracy could mean people they don't personally approve of gaining power. But if having an Islamist government is so bad, then one wonders why these same people are not out on the streets demonstrating in front of the Saudi embassy, over their system of Sharia law.
What's going on all over the region is a reshuffling of the criteria America considers important. Due to both Bush's invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring, democracy has been bumped up the list of things America favors in its allies in the region. Loyalty is still very high up there, likely in first place among our priorities. But the concept of stability has changed. In the first place, stability now can be defined mostly as "not harboring or funding terrorism." Stability also now includes wishing for post-revolutionary stability in government in many countries in the region. While many countries are unstable now -- still in the process of writing new constitutions and setting up elections and the framework for new governmental structures -- they appear to be working towards some future stability. Some will succeed in this better than others, but while America can cheer such efforts on from the sidelines, until this stabilization happens we have forever changed our blind support for dictators simply because strongmen were easier to deal with than parliaments. Human rights, once virtually ignored in our dealings with the region, have also gained quite a bit more prominence as we deal with the shameful fact that we propped up a lot of the worst human rights abusers in the region for decades. It's a delicate subject, in other words, and one America is now being forced to pay a lot more than lip service towards.
Our real clash of diplomatic criteria, though, is now happening between the concept of promoting democracy and promoting secular government. To put this another way: which is more important -- a stable, representative democratic government, or a stable government that disrespects women's rights and runs the country as a theocracy?
While the answer to that question seems obvious -- we'd prefer the first, of course -- the reality we're going to have to deal with may not be to our liking. This is the nature of democracy. The people get to choose, and if they choose a theocratic form to govern themselves what, exactly, should we do about it? Remember Saudi Arabia, after all, proves that an ultra-Islamic government can indeed be a staunch ally (as we define "ally"). Iran is one extreme on the Islamist sliding scale, but Saudi Arabia is not Iran.
Which is what America may soon have to decide -- where along that scale is acceptable for our allies? We are first going to have to confront this problem in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen -- but that certainly won't be the end of it. This may be the real legacy of Iraq -- forever changing the face of the entire region.
Even Iraq is showing some warning signs that Bush's dream of a Jeffersonian democracy as a shining example in the region was too optimistic. One day after the last American troops left, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki put out an arrest warrant for his Sunni vice president. This does not exactly bode well for Iraq's immediate future as a stable state. The other states setting up self-government have also had some serious stumbles along the way.
The Iraq War has complicated both the stability of the region and how America conducts its foreign policy there. There is no turning back from this -- the entire region is now a changed place. What happens next is anyone's guess. But America needs to get our own priorities straight if we're going to actively engage the region effectively in the future. So far, we have not adequately even begun this conversation. Iraq was a long war, but it seems we're just as unprepared to deal with the aftermath now as we were when we first went in.
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