The U.S. occupation of Iraq has lasted four years with no lack of criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the "war." President Bush's decision to "surge" U.S. troops in Iraq has created a firestorm. Republicans like Sen. Chuck Hagel have parted company with the president and have joined the Democrats calling for an Iraq troop withdraw.
The "war" has been referred to as a "strategic blunder" and as a "recruiting poster for a re-energized al Qaeda." Critics fume that America's unilateralism in attacking Iraq has left us isolated and hated throughout the world. We are told that the war has strengthened Iran, squandered the "good will of the world" given to America after September 11, has stretched our military to the point of collapse, has limited our capability to defeat Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan and has weakened our international legitimacy.
The widespread criticism, however, ignores the potentially beneficial consequences of a chaotic Iraq. By removing Saddam Hussein and failing to stem the violence that convulses Iraq daily, the Bush administration has created a security nightmare for Iraq's neighbors. Under the right troop redeployment scheme, America could be better off than it was using Saddam as a counter weight to Iranian power.
While correct in attacking the administration's Iraq occupation policy, the critics are wrong about the negative consequences of a regional war involving Sunni Arab countries, Shi'ite Iran and their respective Iraqi proxies. Such a development could enhance American security interests by pitting Syria and Saudi Arabia against Iran, and impairing the development of a Shi'ite arc of power running from Tehran through Baghdad to Beirut.
Historically Islam has been a house divided and plagued by violent friction between contending political and sectarian groups. Islam's failure to impose its hegemony on the West during the early Middle Ages was a consequence of infighting between sectarian rivals. Divisions in the Muslim world have erupted in violence between contending armed factions as witnessed by rival Shi'ite and Sunni groups in Lebanon and by Hamas' violent ouster of Fatah in the Gaza Strip.
Today's Iraq is the latest and most violent manifestation of Islamic infighting. Why not pit the various factions against each other? The Reagan administration, for example, was not averse to pitting Iraq and Iran against each other in their eight year conflict in the 1980's which did not, despite 1 million war deaths, create any major disruptions of oil supply.
Mr. Bush's "surge" of U.S. troops has failed to stem sectarian killings, has resulted in more U.S. casualties, has strengthened the current Iranian and Syrian alliance and has weakened us. Pursuing this policy makes no sense and strengthens our adversaries in the region. Does this mean that a wholesale retreat from Iraq is in our national interests? Not at all.
Troop redeployment from Iraq where U.S. troops remain in Kurdish areas of the country and redeploy to Kuwait could have profound repercussions for our adversaries and offset the pitfalls associated with complete disengagement. The acceleration of sectarian conflict between Iraqi Sunni and Shi'ite groups is likely to break the current alliance between Damascus and Tehran, as each jockey for position by supporting their confessional constituencies. It is simply inconceivable that President Bashar al-Assad, who comes from the Alawite minority in Sunni-dominated Syria, would allow Sunni minorities to be slaughtered. Such a cavalier attitude would surely invite a rebellion in this country.
The bloodbath that surely will ensue with a U.S. disengagement will also result in large numbers of dead al Qaeda jihadists who will surely be brutalized by Shi'ite militias in retaliation for their barbaric terrorist campaign. When not dealing with Shi'ite and Kurdish militias, al Qaeda will find its authority eroded in Sunni enclaves as Saudi, Jordanian and Syrian support displaces al Qaeda aid for the oppressed Sunni minority. Such assistance would be contingent on Sunni militias severing links from al Qaeda whose long standing goal is the overthrow of Middle Eastern Sunni regimes. The rebellion of some Sunni militias against al Qaeda, wisely aided and abetted by U.S. forces, offers a bloody, promising and tantalizing presentiment.
Maintaining a substantial U.S. military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, moreover, is in the interests of Turkey and the Kurds, both of whom fear being drawn into a wider conflict. By remaining in Iraqi Kurdistan, U.S. forces could provide mutual security guarantees to both parties. Acting as a buffer force, the United States could broker an agreement that Iraqi Kurds will renounce their claims on Turkish territory in return for Turkish guarantees of non interference in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Under this scenario "losing Iraq" is a vital precondition for maximizing America's national security interests in the region. Such a "loss" could create conditions for escalated Shi'ite-Sunni violence where Iraq could be a battleground for radical Islamists intent on killing each other. Syria and Iran would find themselves mired in an Iraqi quagmire and Iranian power might find itself increasingly impaired by both Sunni Gulf nations and a continued U.S. military presence. The Shi'ite arc of power extending itself from Iran to Iraq to Lebanon could be increasingly strained. "Victory" through redeployment represents America's best hope of getting out of Iraq, weakening al Qaeda and containing Iranian power.
Anthony N. Celso is associate professor of government and history at Valley Forge Military College.