December 11, 2006
The US Cannot Leave Iraq
By James Lewis

It looks like the United States has ended up acting like a Charlie Chaplin restaurant waiter, carrying a gigantic pile of dinner plates all piled on top of each other. Like Chaplin in the comedy stunt, the US has been dancing around trying to keep all the plates from crashing down. The consequences of failure would be disastrous for the region and the world.

An American pullout would create the space for a Shiite Caliphate controlled by Tehran, with Iraq's oil added on. That scares the daylights out of the Saudis, who hold the jewels of Islam, Mecca and Medina. Iran has fundamentalist Shiite reasons to want to control those top two holy cities. With Iranian nukes and missiles, Tehran would be within easy range of Riyadh and the Saudi oil fields.

When the US overthrew Saddam, a case could be made for a secular solution. Iraqis have had several generations of secularization. But the Iran-Al Qaeda strategy of horrific bombings of civilians and mosques has caused people who previously voted for a parliamentary government to flee to the relative safety of their religious and tribal connections. But those connections create a fundamental imbalance: The Sunnis have no natural resources and are a minority; the Shiites live in the oil provinces and are a majority; and the Kurds have created their own autonomous region. In a sane world, those interests could be reconciled, but as long as car-bombers inspired by Iran and Al Qaeda have the population terrorized, the politics of Iraq will be ethnic-religious.

In the worst case, the Shiites will split off and make common cause with Iran, the Sunnis would be impoverished and out of power, and the Kurds will stand by and slowly try to create a separate state. Tehran would win a big victory.

For that reason, a US boots-on-the-ground presence will be needed way beyond 2008, to keep the pile of dinner plates from crashing to the ground. It is conceivable that some other military force would do the job. The Saudis might pay for Egyptian troops to provide the balance in Iraq, for example. Or NATO might be of some help. But those are probably wishful thoughts. The US military is the only serious and trustworthy intervention force in the world. Blue helmets don't fight.

Oddly enough, in the long term America's getting entangled in Iraq may turn out to be a force for good. Yes, it's a pain in so many ways - taking casualties, a drain on our resources and treasure, seeing the nightly horrors on TV. But Iraq provides the United States with a strategic position in the Gulf, the major source of oil that keeps the world alive. Afghanistan and Iraq both border Iran, and Saudi Arabia is fifty miles across the Gulf. As the Iranian "second revolution" invigorates the imperialist tendencies of the Khomeini cult, a geo-strategic case can be made that this is where we should be. If the US does not want the responsibilities of a superpower, it can walk away. But we cannot be the guarantor of world peace, free trade, a steady oil supply, and a slow movement toward greater sanity without paying a price.

I have previously argued that the United States won the Cold War because it was willing to show immense patience and persistence in Vietnam; we lost the battle but won the strategic war, exhausted the Soviets and saw the crumbling of the Evil Empire. Nobody wanted all the sacrifice the United States had to endure, but in the end we did it.

Iraq is similar. It looks like we miscalculated in overthrowing Saddam ---- not unreasonably, but without understanding that Al Qaeda and Iran would kill thousands of innocent civilians to bring Iraq back to an even more brutal past. Iraq has now become a proxy war for two world conflicts: The modern world against the primitives of throwback Islam; and the Shiite and Sunni divisions within Islam. The long term strategy therefore becomes power-balance: Keeping the Shiite and Sunni sides from fully winning the battle. Today, that means facing down the threat from Iran. Strategically, it puts US forces and allies on all of Iran's borders.

This is a new version of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy to divide China and the USSR, which worked very successfully. The cost: A long-term US presence in Iraq, just like the US presence in Germany to keep the Soviets from invading. Seventy years after WWII, we still have tripwire garrisons in Korea, Japan and Europe. They all serve to keep the peace. Iraq seems destined to become another one.

It is a high cost, but the alternative is much, much worse.