A Dissenting Note on the Iraqi Troop Withdrawal

A long-time reader writes:

I disagree with John’s view on President Obama’s decision to exit Iraq. John argues that “the U.S. has done everything reasonably possible to give Iraqis a chance. At this point, the future is up to them.”

It’s difficult to argue with this sentiment, but I view the situation in more pragmatic terms. For me, the relevant question is whether a U.S. withdrawal appreciably increases the likelihood of very bad outcomes in Iraq. I believe the answer is yes. And if, for example, our withdrawal leads to a substantial deterioration in Iraq’s security and/or a significant increase in Iran’s ability to control events there, then it will not be true that the U.S. did everything reasonably possible to give Iraqis a chance. Rather, the U.S. will have eschewed a relatively low cost way of helping Iraq secure its future.

But the main point I want to make about Iraq is one with which I believe John agrees – U.S. intervention has, as things stand now, conferred enormous benefits on Iraq. The most obvious benefit was the early removal of Saddam Hussein. Even most critics of the war were willing to acknowledge this benefit to Iraq (though in many cases, they denied that this was a benefit to the U.S.). But some argued that the benefit to Iraq was offset by the large amount of Iraqi bloodshed that occurred when that country seemed headed towards civil war a few years after Saddam’s ouster.

These critics overlooked the fact that Iraq would eventually have had a civil war in the absence of U.S. intervention. It was simply unrealistic to assume that Saddam and his heirs could perpetuate indefinitely an oppressive Sunni rule over Iraq’s Shiite majority. And it was equally unrealistic to assume that they would relinquish that rule without a bloody fight or that a bloody fight would not ensue once they lost control.

The U.S. intervention affected this reality in two ways. First, it hastened the day when the house of Saddam lost control. Second, and more importantly for purposes of this argument, it provided a potential, and ultimately decisive, moderating influence on the inevitable violence that accompanied that loss of control. Without our intervention, when the day came for a major uprising against Saddam or his successors, Iraq almost certainly would have experienced “the mother” of all Middle East civil wars. With our intervention, it avoided true civil war though it did suffer significant bloodshed in fighting that, for a short time, approached that status. Imagine the levels of violence that would have occurred had we not served as a brake.

It was easy for many to miss this point in 2006, but it is unmistakable now, following the Arab Spring of 2011. No good faith observer can doubt that the wave sweeping across the Arab world would eventually have precipitated a massive and bloody uprising in Iraq, had that uprising not already occurred. It was Iraq’s great fortune that the U.S., having made an uprising possible, stuck around to moderate it.

Unfortunately, Obama’s decision to withdraw increases the prospect for a reversal of some of that good fortune.

JOHN adds: I do agree that our intervention, on balance, has conferred great benefits on Iraq, and I think our reader’s point that absent our intervention there would eventually–like now, probably–have been a much worse conflict is an excellent one.

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