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The World Aflame
What If We Had Stayed in Iraq?

Embattled Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki agreed to step aside in Baghdad yesterday in favor of rival Haider al-Abadi. The move shows that Iraq’s political system may still be able to function, at least to some extent.

When Maliki deployed troops and vowed to hold on to power at all costs on Sunday, it looked like the beginning of a coup. But after a four-day standoff, the Prime Minister was shuffled out by persuasion and pressure rather than bullets.

Iraq’s politics are far from settled, and ISIS remains an imminent threat, but the pressure brought to bear indicates that Iraq’s political and social institutions, particularly among the Shi’a, are not so broken as has been reported. Despite another week of chaos, the Iraqis still managed to accomplish a peaceful transfer of power.

All of this makes us wonder what would have happened had the Obama administration been able to complete a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and keep American troops in Iraq after 2011. America’s most successful nation-building exercises—the occupation of Germany and Japan after the second World War—were prolonged and a lot messier than most people think. What might have happened had the U.S. had stayed engaged in Iraq?

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  • Andrew Allison

    It’s far from clear that US troops could have prevented the sectarian divisions which Maliki engineered. They would likely simply have been a trip-wire for the ISIS incursion. Would that have been a good thing?

    • B-Sabre

      Well, there are other things that would have entailed from having a larger military footprint. Our human intelligence network was pretty much dismantled when the troops pulled out, and if we still had them, we might have had better intelligence about Sunni dissatisfaction and impending action. Same way, we would have had a direct pipeline to the “Awakening” militias, and they could have told us what was going on.

      Likewise, if the USAF was there providing air sovereignty support to Iraq, Iran would not have been able to use Iraqi airspace to move men and weapons into Syria.

      The point that regularly gets missed is how central Iraq is in the region. If the US had had a presence there, we would have been part of a “strategic” flanking of two of the main “bad actors” in the region – Iran and Syria.

  • Fat_Man

    You should add South Korea to that list. BTW, the US still has bases in of those countries.

    • LivingRock

      Bosnia, Kosovo, and Panama?

      Expensive and long and something that should be well thought out, nation building that is.

      • B-Sabre

        We have about 1500 in Kosovo as of 2009. There were about 250 in Bosnia in 2004, and may be none now. I couldn’t find any numbers for Panama, but there’s enough troops rotating through on temporary duty to make it confusing. We have a number of other, smaller detachments in South America doing different things.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    After spending so much blood and treasure planting the seed of Democracy in the middle of the backward Islamic cultures of the Middle-East. Obama’s desperate abandonment of the fragile new seedling, without even a small effort to negotiate a forces agreement, was a betrayal of every American and Iraqis as well. Had American forces still been in place, ISIS would never have taken control of sections of Iraq. And the murders of innocents must therefore be laid at Obama’s feet for his precipitous rout from Iraq.

    • Jmaci

      Excellent point. History won’t be kind to Obama.

    • Andrew Allison

      It’s a little more complicated than that. Attempting to plant the seed of democracy in a collection of tribal theocracies artificially turned into countries by the Ottoman carve-up. was a mistake made first by Bush in Iran (by overthrowing the despot keeping things under control and then by permitting Maliki to come to power), and compounded by Obama first in Libya and subsequently just about everywhere.

      • Suzyqpie

        It is very difficult for Americans to understand that in Islam, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafii, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar al-Assad is just as good as it gets. Any semblance of peace seems only achievable in the presence of a benevolent sometimes brutal dictator. The schism of Islam and the perpetual internecine tribal warfare, death, destruction, and mayhem as a way of life is accepted in Islam.

        • FriendlyGoat

          You may be one of the few people on either the right or the left who “get it” that the Islam problem is marinated into the “folks” of these lands more than it is marinated into the former dictators who were merely ruthless pragmatists.

          When Islamic people finally get to vote, we are seeing them vote for more Islam, not for the secularization we hoped we were planting with our “seed” efforts.

      • lukelea

        Agree with everything except the last sentence: Bush’s mistake does not pale in comparison.

  • gabrielsyme

    What would have happened had the Obama administration been able to complete a Status of Forces Agreement…?

    Obama insisted on a deal-killing and completely unnecessary ratification of a SOFA from the Iraqi Parliament. Obama was able to obtain a Status of Forces Agreement – he was simply unwilling to do so.

  • KrazyP

    Interesting that the writer refers to our troop presence in Germany and Japan. We have a total of almost 100,000 troops in those two countries and another 28,000 in South Korea as well as approximately 10,000 in the U.K and in Italy. Have those deployments been a success? What has the cost been over the period? The U.S. has made a significant investment in these locations. One would assume that our continuation of that investment suggests we would characterize that investment as successful. Does that suggest a similar investment strategy in other locations? If my history is correct, the first major battle between the Shia and the Sunni was the battle of Karbala in 680. That was over 1300 years ago. An admittedly surface analysis suggests that for almost 70 years the strategy of our troop deployments in Japan and Germany has “worked”. For South Korea it has “worked” for 60 years. Without pressing the point too much, I would suggest that: “You get what you pay for.”

  • Suzyqpie

    “If you really want to promote freedom in islamic countries, an immigration policy based on civil rights reciprocity would be a lot more effective and a lot less expensive than dispatching tens of thousands of troops to build sharia “democracies.” It would also protect Americans from people whose countries and cultures have not prepared them for the obligations of citizenship in a free society,” Quote Andrew C. McCarthy.

  • FriendlyGoat

    There might have been nothing wrong with keeping a big military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely, IF we had announced that intention at the time of our invasions.

    Oh, but that would not have been an easy sell to the Islamic countries, to the world community, or even to the American people. No, it wouldn’t have been. So we didn’t even tell ourselves the truth that Islamic places tend to go nuts and need permanent policing, much less tell anyone else.

    But, you have to admit, that IS what this thread is debating. We could have walked in and told the radicals to “forget” their strategy of waiting us out, because we are never leaving. Such blatant honesty might have even worked, except for the pesky international standards against such occupations.

  • Brian

    It’s entirely true that the US, by cutting and running, lost a great deal:

    1) Credibility. We hung a lot of people out to dry. Who will trust our word now, when eventually their reward might well be having their throats slit because we abandoned them?

    2) Bases for acquiring intelligence: from drones, elint, and perhaps most importantly, from humans.

    3) We sent a message that we are not in this for the long haul . . . that we lack resolve to act in our own interests. Other bad actors have taken note, and will try risky things believing (correctly?) that the US will respond only with pious sermons.

    4) Bases to launch Quick Reaction Forces to deal with whatever mole pokes its head up, including ISIS/ISIL.

    5) Perhaps most important, the military and diplomatic corps were a very effective buffer between the various sectarian groups, many given to “violence first.” On more than one occasion, they restrained Maliki from his sectarian impulses, thus promoting trust in the Sunni minority and a more tranquil country.

    We, and others of the world, are so screwed . . .

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