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What Happens Next in Iraq

10/23/2011 03:20 pm ET | Updated Dec 23, 2011
  • Dennis Jett Professor of International Affairs, Penn State University

Here is an article I wrote two and a half years ago that seems appropriate to repeat given the President's announcement on Friday regarding troop levels in Iraq. He should, but probably won't, take one additional step. As the troops leave, the State Department is left holding the bag. We should acknowledge that, whether it is soldiers or bureaucrats or contractors, we cannot engage in nation building when a substantial portion of the citizens of the country being built are interested in tearing it apart in order to increase their share of political power. We should end the civilian surge, bring most of them home and have an embassy that is an appropriate size for a country that is not all that important.

Why and When We Will Get Out of Iraq and What Happens Then
By Dennis Jett

From the Miami Herald, Thursday, March 05, 2009
Obama must withdraw carefully out of unjust war
BY DENNIS JETT

It seems everyone in Washington has a firmly held opinion about President Barack Obama's plan to draw down the number of American troops in Iraq. Some praise it; others hate it. One thing most of those views have in common is they have little to do with reality.

There are three things the politicians and pundits often fail to consider when opining about Iraq.

• The withdrawal will be driven more by Iraqi domestic politics than by what happens in Washington.
• Considerable violence will follow the departure of U.S. troops regardless of when they go.
• The violence won't matter all that much other than adding to the debate over whether the war was worth the effort or was the biggest mistake of a failed presidency.

President George W. Bush left his successor a mess at home and abroad, but he did do him one favor. The status of forces agreement signed with the Iraqi government could not be clearer. It says all U.S. forces have to leave all Iraqi territory by Dec. 31, 2011.

Those who oppose the war complain that the Obama plan to end the U.S. combat role by Aug. 31 of next year is too slow and that the force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops left after that is too large. They argue that his suggestion of a 16-month timetable during the campaign should be strictly adhered to.

But Obama knows the Pottery Barn rule now applies to him as much as it did to his predecessor. Due to his faith-based decision making, Bush was unconcerned by the fact that if he broke Iraq, he would own it. Obama knows that the best case is not the only possible scenario and that he must withdraw carefully as he owns the outcome if things go wrong.

If Iraq remains peaceful, the supporters of the war will take credit for it. If major violence returns following the American departure, they will insist it was caused by too rapid a drawdown. They assert the current relative calm proves the wisdom of Bush's decisions to invade. For them, America embarked on a noble mission rather than being lied into an unnecessary and unjust war. They ignore the $2 trillion price tag and refuse to contemplate that more innocent Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the war than Saddam Hussein killed on purpose during his dictatorship.

The Iraqis have not forgotten the war's cost, however, and most of them resent the presence of U.S. troops because of it. Getting all the Americans out will be a dominant theme as Iraq's new democracy develops, and those analysts who predict that U.S. troops will stay for many years are wrong. No Iraqi politician is going to run for election on a platform of continuing the American occupation. Even if Obama could ignore his campaign promises and the status of forces agreement, the political pressure in Iraq will ensure that the troops are all out by the end of 2011.

After that, violence will inevitably return. New democracies are rarely consolidated without conflict as the political actors vie for power. One common feature of political campaigns under such circumstances is appeals to the worst kind of nationalism and populism. There is no reason to think that efforts to tap into bigotry, ignorance and xenophobia will be used by Iraqi politicians any less than they are by right wing radio in this country.

A perfect recipe for such political strife becoming bloody is such appeals being made in a country that has a history of violence, a dominant ethnic majority that cares little about the rights of minorities, a government that derives most of its income from the export of a single commodity and potentially unhelpful neighbors. In other words, Iraq.

The cheerleaders for the invasion claimed establishing democracy in Iraq was going to be easy and that it would spread throughout the region. After that was demonstrated to be absurd, they argued for staying because leaving Iraq would create chaos that would spread throughout the region. Both domino theories are nonsense as instability is not likely to spread to other countries any more than stability. The only positive aspect of Iraq's continuing tragedy is that it will be largely confined to Iraq.

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Iraq War Wire