Neither the Left nor the Right Gets the Iraq Withdrawal

News Abroad


Andrew Meyer is associate professor of history at Brooklyn College. He blogs at Madman of Chu.

Even before the last U.S. soldier has left Iraq, President Obama's order to withdraw forces is being filtered through distorting prisms on the left and right.  In these opposed descriptions Iraq itself appears as if reflected in an array of funhouse mirrors, unrecognizable as a single nation from one account to the next.  It would seem as if, whatever their ideological view, American observers are incapable of seeing Iraqi society as anything but a passive operand of U.S. power.

On the right, for example, Charles Krauthammer decries Obama's "unseriousness" in attempting to retain a mere 5,000 soldiers in Iraq rather than the 20,000 recommended by military commanders, demonstrating that "he simply wanted out."  "Years from now," prognosticates Krauthammer, "we will be asking not 'Who lost Iraq?'—that already is clear—but 'Why?'"

The view from the left, though inverted, is weirdly symmetrical.  Immanuel Wallerstein castigates the Obama administration for "trying as hard as they could to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqis that would override the one signed by President George W. Bush to withdraw all troops by Dec. 31, 2011."  The fact that they failed in this attempt spells defeat for the U.S. and "a victory for Iraqi nationalism."  "No one should be surprised," opines Wallerstein, "if, after the next Iraqi elections, the prime minister will be Muqtada al-Sadr."

The common fallacy of Krauthammer and Wallerstein resides in their shared rhetoric of American "victory" and "defeat."  It should be clear to anyone who has looked critically at events in Iraq for the past eight years that the situation there was not America's to "win" or "lose."  Since the fall of Saddam Huseein, Iraqi society has been evolving almost entirely under the impulses of its own people and culture.  Views like those of Krauthammer and Wallerstein demonstrate a complete failure to view Iraq authentically and on its own terms.

Krauthammer's insistence that 20,000 American troops will make the difference between triumph and disaster in Iraq is made most remarkable by his lack of interest in explaining the principles upon which this judgment is based.  He seems to assume that the logic of his case is self-evident, but it is only so if one ignores any portion of Iraq's past in which the U.S. did not play a role (and some others in which it did).  On the one hand, Krauthammer posits the "lost" 20,000 troops as an end unto themselves, declaring that the Obama administration has missed "the opportunity to establish a lasting strategic alliance with the Arab world’s second most important power."  But if garrisoning an Arab nation is of such vital strategic benefit, the U.S. deployment in Saudi Arabia prior to the invasion of Iraq arguably already fulfilled that role, much good that it did.  In like fashion, Krauthammer complains that a continued U.S. presence is necessary to forestall growing Iranian influence.  Not only does this ignore the historic tensions between Iraqis and Iranians, it overlooks the fact that if reducing Iranian influence in Iraq is the sine qua non of American victory, the U.S. could have won best by not invading Iraq in the first place, as Iranian influence was at its nadir under Saddam Hussein.

Wallerstein's view similarly ignores the particulars of Iraq's past and present.  Though Iraq is not and has never been wholly dependent upon or malleable to U.S. power, Iraqis are not and have never been homogeneously and reflexively anti-American.  To characte rize a "victory for Iraqi nationalism" as synonymous with "U.S. defeat" is to adopt an absurdly reductionist and one-dimensional model of both nations.  This is clearly illustrated by Wallerstein's "prediction" that Muqtada al-Sadr might become prime minister of Iraq.  Al-Sadr has been a consistently anti-American force, it is true, but to believe that this makes him the poster child for Iraqi nationalism in all precincts of the Iraqi community is to completely misunderstand his role in Iraqi culture and society.  There is no scenario in which Muqtada al-Sadr becomes prime minister of Iraq in which that nation is not plunged immediately into civil war.

The invasion of Iraq should provide no precedent for U.S. foreign policy moving forward.  That will only be guaranteed, however, if Americans can break the habit of viewing foreign nations as driven entirely by the shifting dispositions of U.S. power and interests, and come to appreciate that each nation has its own history, culture, and particular political dynamic.  This latter sort of perspective was expressed by one American observer in 2002, who warned "that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences."  How true that proved to be.

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