By Teresa Welsh |
The Obama administration's precipitous departure of U.S. military forces from Iraq jeopardizes American interests in the Middle East and beyond. Our military engagement with Iraq dates not from the March 2003 incursion but from the 1991 counterattack against Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait. In the Persian Gulf War's wake came U.S.-enforced no-fly zones, airstrikes, and WMD searches, plus American soldiers and CIA agents stationed in northern Iraq's Kurdistan. George H.W. Bush initiated this armed diplomacy and his successor Bill Clinton stepped it up. The U.S., British, and for a time French air power checked Hussein and midwifed a flourishing economy and democracy-in-the-making order within Kurdistan, an achievement reminiscent of postwar U.S. successes in the allied Germany, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. In Iraq, a 20-year defensive involvement was thus snapped by the United States this past December when its last troops left without a similar consolidation of democracy or alliance.
The power vacuum will be filled by Iran's hegemonic ambitions for the Persian Gulf and its export of Shiite revivalism abroad. Tehran is already replicating groups like Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon, among militant Shiites within Iraq. Saudi Arabia and the Sunni emirates in the Gulf are countering Iranian machinations. They are arming to the teeth. Qatar is backing the Syrian opposition against the Bashar al-Assad regime, a friend of Iran. Nearby, Turkey, a U.S. ally and a NATO member, bristles at Iranian encroachments in Syria and Iraq. This cold war could give way to a hot conflict, endangering Western access to oil and perhaps opening spaces for terrorist groups to take root. Pulling the covers over our eyes and leaving the region to its fate amounts to a hope for tranquility, not a thought-through strategy.
To salvage its hasty withdrawal from Iraq proper, Washington should deploy military units, including special forces, to Kurdistan, where they long enjoyed relative safety. The Kurds would happily welcome our return. A small U.S. armed presence in the semi-autonomous enclave provides several benefits. The terms for this security footprint include no Kurdish independence from Iraq's central government, which would lessen Baghdad's anxiety about the Kurds' creeping sovereignty. If Iraq fragments, then we will be ensconced inside a grateful island. Additionally, Washington should make it plain to the Kurds that they must rein in their kinsmen from waging terrorism within Turkey for separatist ends, promoting regional stability. A U.S. base would afford us operational land-based capabilities closer to the action against terrorist networks and Iranian intrigues, as Pakistan pulls away from Washington. Mostly, it would symbolize a U.S. face, not its back, to the Middle East, as it pivots toward Asia.
About Thomas Henriksen Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and at the U.S. Joint Special Operations University
Daniel J. Gallington Senior Policy and Program Adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute