This post is part of an ongoing series preparing for the AEI/CNN/Heritage National Security & Foreign Policy GOP presidential debate on November 22nd. See the rest of the posts here.
President Obama’s decision to terminate negotiations extending the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq beyond the end of this year is a critical strategic inflection-point not only for Iraq, but for American national security and the global order. Its significance lies both in the important strategic victory it has handed to Iran and in the broad and unqualified statement of American retreatism and isolationism in which the president announced it to the world. This decision ensures that America’s next president will face significantly greater challenges in the tasks of protecting America’s interests in the Middle East and around the world, but will have fewer resources–both material and moral–with which to meet those challenges. Barack Obama appears to have indicated how he intends to respond to them in that statement. A central question for the Republican candidates for president must be: How will you respond, if elected, to the challenges emerging from this decision to retreat?
Many Americans are pleased at the prospect of “ending this war” that the president has promised, for the issue has always been framed in such isolation. Even pollsters generally frame their questions as if Iraq were disconnected from the rest of the world: “Do you think there are too many, too few, or just enough U.S. troops in Iraq? Do you think the U.S. can succeed/is succeeding in Iraq?” e.g. President Obama appears to have made policy decisions about Iraq in a similarly segmented fashion. The administration has never addressed, for instance, how it intends to maintain an intensified sanctions regime against Iran without having any support or assistance from the country that shares the longest land-border with the Islamic Republic.
But only Americans see Iraq as an isolated thing unto itself. Tehran has clearly seen Iraq as a larger part of a regional strategy whose aims include excluding the U.S. from the Middle East entirely and establishing Iran as the hegemon of the entire Persian Gulf and Mesopotamian area. Iran’s success in driving the U.S. out of Iraq opens new opportunities for the Islamic Republic in the region even as it causes America’s beleaguered allies there to lose confidence in the U.S. It undermines not only the sanctions regime, but also regional efforts to rein-in Iranian guerrilla and terrorist proxies such as Lebanese Hezbollah, which operates also in Iraq in conjunction with separate Iraqi-focused Shi’a militias.
Lest we imagine that those militias were of concern only while we were in Iraq, however, let us consider the key figure in the recently revealed plot by the Iranian Qods Force to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Abdul Reza Shahlai. This Qods Force senior officer, known more commonly as Haji Yousef, also directed Iranian support to the most virulent and effective Shi’a militia and terrorist groups in Iraq. His connections to those groups, as well as to Lebanese Hezbollah, which was heavily involved in supporting them, is deep. He has just attempted to make a further connection to Mexican drug cartels in order to export Iranian terrorism directly into the U.S. That plot was foiled, but the Qods Force leadership, including Haji Yousef, remains at large and undeterred. Other plots will surely follow, and they will be able to draw from an increasing pool of militants trained in and based out of Iraq, a country with which the Obama administration claims to seek a friendly and mutually supportive relationship.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have tried gamely to cover with words the enormous hole in any attempt to isolate Iran that this decision has created. The Iranians will not be deterred by their words in the face of our deeds, of course, but Tehran has additional reason to ignore their statements of defiance after the president enunciated a strategy of American withdrawal across the board. Why should Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, or Qods Force Commander Qassim Soleimani, believe statements of commitment by Panetta and Clinton when the president has declared his intention to withdraw our forces from commitments throughout the region as quickly as possible?
Iraq is almost certainly lost now. Already the tempo of purges of Sunnis and even Shi’a not loyal to Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki–or Iran–is accelerating. The prospects for renewed sectarian fighting are growing by the hour. Reports of Iranian efforts to consolidate their control of Iraq are piling up. It is impossible to know exactly what situation will face the president on January 20, 2013, but the questions any candidate must answer today are simply these:
Faced with the likelihood of spreading violence and Iranian influence in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, will you make the hard choices to confront those threats to American national security, or will you seek to remain aloof? Will you continue the process of ceding Iran hegemony in the Middle East or will you pursue a meaningful strategy of resisting or even pressing Iran, defeating or neutralizing its proxies, and re-creating space for America’s Arab partners and allies to join in that resistance? Will you have the stomach to pursue such a strategy even if Iran acquires nuclear weapons? Republican candidates have to answer these questions in debates. The president of the United States in 2013 will have to answer them in real life.