Max Boot thinks there is a possibility the United States may “lose” Iraq in the near future, and the blame for this failure comes from the current lack of attention paid to it by American policymakers:
In a way, Iraq has been a victim of its own success. Because it seems to be doing relatively well, policymakers have shifted their attention to more urgent concerns. But there is a danger that our present inattention could undo the progress that so many have struggled so hard to attain.
Iraq has made impressive gains since 2006, when it was on the brink of all-out civil war. Violence is down more than 90% even as the number of U.S. troops has fallen to 50,000 from 170,000. The Iraqi political system continues to function with the recent inauguration of a new coalition government led by returning Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. And the economy is picking up steam, as contracts are signed with foreign companies that can tap the country’s vast oil reserves.
Is it true that policymakers are ignoring Iraq? Probably not. There has been a lack of attention paid to what was once America’s most important war by the media and public, but that comes, not from lack of conflict between Sunni and Shia, but more likely from a quieting of arms between Republicans and Democrats on the issue. The Obama administration is following a withdrawal plan based on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated by the Bush administration. Congressional Democrats and liberal pundits are unlikely to criticize the Obama administration. As Boot somewhat alludes to, conservative pundits and GOP lawmakers largely feel that the current status quo is proof of a hard fought victory that they are happy to credit themselves with—though they will likely pin the blame of the current administration if things begin to once again head south. It is very similar to the lack of attention paid to foreign policy in general during the midterm elections. As Dan Drezner discussed in a blog post prior to the election in November,
Democrats can’t rail against wars being prosecuted by a Democratic president. Not even nutjob ultra-conservative hacks can credibly claim that Obama has been a “Kenyan anti-colonialist” on the military front. Democrats can’t really run on a “see, we told you that Obama isn’t a war wimp!” message either. The GOP has little incentive to call for doubling down in these conflicts and can’t really pivot towards a “pro-peace” position either.
Even if “success” were the reason for America’s lack of attention, Boot has a funny idea of what defines it. By his own definition Iraq is a “volcano” on the verge of erupting:
More than 250 Iraqis died in terrorist attacks in January, up from 151 in December, with most of those attacks attributed to Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group whose obituary has been written more than once. Roughly as many civilians died in Iraq last year as in Afghanistan — about 2,400. Remind me again which country is at peace?
The political situation remains as uncertain as the security situation; indeed, the two are closely connected. The formation of a new government occurred only after an agonizing nine-month deadlock in 2010. Iyad Allawi, who won the most votes, lost the prime minister’s office and accepted as a consolation prize leadership of a new strategic policy council with undefined powers. His primarily Sunni Muslim backers remain convinced they will be frozen out of power by the Shiite prime minister. Maliki, in turn, is deeply suspicious of Sunni groups such as the Sons of Iraq, as well as of his Shiite rivals in cleric Muqtada Sadr‘s movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Shiites and Sunnis are united chiefly by their desire to curb Kurdish autonomy, a prospect that fills the Kurds with understandable dread.
The problems in Iraq don’t exist because of any supposed lack of attention by American policymakers. The problems there have existed all along despite Boot and his neocon fellow travelers selling a Surge-provided “victory” there. Boot’s main point is not about why there has been a lack of focus on Iraq as of late—it’s what the consequences of that inattention may be. He feels that if the scheduled troop withdrawal negotiated as part of the 2008 SOFA takes place, it will remove the only effective “cap” on the Iraqi “volcano.”
The reduction in violence that has taken place since President Bush announced the Surge in early 2007 is a good thing, and there is no doubt that the increase in American troop levels contributed to that improved environment. But solely crediting the Surge ignores the other, numerous factors that contributed to this state of affairs—including Sunni insurgents turning against al Qaeda-in-Iraq (AQI), the unilateral cease-fire imposed by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on his Madhi Army militia, and the “cleansing” of Sunni and Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad that divided the two factions.
The “breathing room” provided by the Surge—and the factors mentioned above—was supposed to allow for political reconciliation between the competing factions. Sunnis still feel alienated from the political process, while all factions compete for control over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and the once more raised from the dead AQI is wreaking havoc—if this is success, failure must be really bad.
Boot’s prescription for this problem: perpetual occupation by U.S. troops. He, of course, trots out the usual examples of America’s post-World War II occupations in Germany and Japan to justify this approach. But Iraq is not Germany, Japan, South Korea, or any other post-World War II/Cold War U.S. client state. Iraq’s Shiite majority—and elected government—both have deep ties to America’s enemy numero uno in the region: Iran. Both Germany and Japan shared America’s fear of Soviet expansionism following World War II. The closest common enemy United States and the Iraqi government share are Sunni extremists in the form of AQI, and it will remain in the interest of Iraq’s Shia majority to prevent their rise to power whether U.S. troops remain or leave.
Boot is not worried that policymakers may be ignoring Iraq. He’s worried that America might actually be leaving. The position taken by Boot and others favoring an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq is contradictory: we’ve succeeded, therefore we must stay forever, but we’re failing so we must stay forever. The recommendation always remains the same though. Given the fiscal and strategic costs, as well as the 2008 SOFA, staying in Iraq forever is not an option, but that seems to be the only option Boot and the neocons can rally behind—no matter what happens.