After failure in Iraq – what?

Interesting OpenDemocracy column by Paul Rogers…

The open discussion of possible military failure in Iraq can no longer be concealed (see Leslie Gelb, “Would defeat in Iraq be so bad?” Time, 15 October 2006). In this context, it is worth recalling that the wider purposes of US involvement in Iraq make a substantive withdrawal from the region unlikely in the extreme.

The last column in this series pointed to the aspiration that underlay the 2003 invasion – a free-market client state in Iraq, obedient to Washington’s interests and with a sufficient American presence at four permanent bases to maintain US influence and ensure the survival of an Iraqi government (see “New frontiers: from Iraq to outer space”, 19 October 2006).

This outcome in Iraq was considered all the more desirable because of the uncertainty surrounding the stability of the House of Saud and the presence of that notorious rogue state – Iran – across the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the fundamental importance of Gulf oil over the next three decades or more meant that securing Iraq (in view of its location between Saudi Arabia and Iran as well its own oil) was the key to US policy success in the region. The fact that nearly two-thirds of the world’s oil can be sourced to the Gulf area, and with China destined to be almost as thirsty as the United States for its oil in the coming period, made American military dominance in the region utterly essential.

From this starting-point, a situation in which Iraq went its own violent way (either as a new jihadi base or as effectively a client of Tehran) was, and is, unthinkable. It follows that with all the talk of diverse options, there are really only two choices for the United States in Iraq – and a fallback “plan C” possibility if catastrophe should ensue.

The first choice is to continue the present campaign, perhaps reinforcing US troops if resources permit, in the hope that the insurgency will eventually wither away. All the indications are that this hope will not be realised, and that the United States will pay a high cost in waiting for it to do so.

The second choice is to abandon Iraq’s cities and consolidate US forces in a handful of heavily fortified military bases. The assumption would be that some kind of political accommodation will emerge in Iraq – possibly involving an autocratic regime – which would be obliged to accept long-term US influence based on sheer military power.

In some Washington circles this may seem an attractive second-best strategy, even if a permanent US presence in Iraq would be a target of jihadi paramilitaries and al-Qaida leaders. But in any case it may not prove tenable, and this would put the third possibility on the table: wholesale US withdrawal.

In terms of the fundamental need to maintain control in the Persian Gulf region this would be a foreign policy and security disaster for the United States greater in scale than Vietnam. This does not affect the near-certainty that people in the inner reaches of the Pentagon are thinking hard about the US’s options after a retreat from Iraq.