Sunday, September 5, 2010

What, If Anything, Has Changed in Iraq?

By Barry Rubin

George Packer, a writer on Iraq who rather likes President Barack Obama, gave a devastating critique of the chief executive's claim that the U.S. troops had now ended their combat mission. This was, Packer said:

“A meaningless milestone, constructed almost entirely out of thin air,” since the remaining 50,000 troops are still combat troops “in everything but name.” Packer agreed that Obama had kept his word by declaring on the designated date what he had said he would.

What’s most important of all, however, is the political mess in Iraq. Packer explains:

“”Almost six months after national elections, the country’s politicians remain unable to compromise and cut a deal….In the vacuum, Sunni extremists are showing just how much—and how little—Iraqi security forces are going to be capable of in the post-American-combat-mission era. It’s not a very encouraging picture,” especially when one adds in the ongoing violence, lack of security, plus shortages of electricity and water.

Who is at fault is not my concern, though I'm on record as favoring a withdrawal as early as 2005. What is essential is that Iran and Syria are now likely to take advantage of the situation by simultaneously pushing their local proxies, aiding the terrorist insurgents, and proclaiming that the withdrawal proves that America is weak and an unreliable ally.

Of course, the Iraqi government can and should be able to defend itself, that is why a withdrawal is the right thing to do. But coupled with a weak U.S. stance and a lack of credibility, the withdrawal is much more of a potential strategic problem.

Combined with the growing Iran-Syria-Hizballah control over Lebanon, Hamas’s escape from heavy sanctions, the shift of Turkey’s regime toward Tehran, and Iran’s steady advance toward nuclear weapons, the tide is shifting against the West in the region. The Obama Administration not only has no answers for these problems, in many cases it doesn’t know that these defeats and dangers exist.

Of course, it is aware that Iran’s getting nuclear weapons is dangerous and the increase of sanctions has been significant—more than I had predicted—though this still falls far short in extent and implementation to be effective. But the threat posed by Syria, the Turkish regime, events in Lebanon, and by Hamas, along with the other issues mentioned above is simply not comprehended in Washington.

The congratulations over Iraq may well be accompanied by a worsening situation in Iraq and the Gulf. I'm not saying that Iraq will collapse or be taken over by Iran. Not at all. I'm just saying that this is one more element adding to the instability mix in the area and things could go wrong.

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