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Iraq and the Illusion of Control

Reihan Salam does his best to make the case that U.S. forces should have remained in Iraq after 2011. He even invokes Scowcroft:

As Scowcroft explained to Voice of America News in January of 2012, just weeks after withdrawal was complete, Iraq’s political leadership still needed to learn to make compromises among various ethnic, sectarian, and ideological factions. And in his view, “those compromises are probably easier to make in the embrace of a U.S. presence.” The end of the U.S. presence meant that these compromises were less likely, and that a war of all against all was much more likely.

Scowcroft is often right, but in this case his argument doesn’t hold up very well. This suffers from the same flaw that mars the rest of Salam’s article, which is the expectation that an American military presence gives the U.S. the ability to “shape” political outcomes in a significant and constructive way. This overlooks the fact that the U.S. was remarkably unsuccessful in influencing Maliki’s behavior during the years when the U.S. was fully occupying the country. The assumption that an American presence would make it easier for different factions to compromise ignores that the eruption of sectarian bloodletting took place under U.S. supervision, and it also fails to take into account that opposing the U.S. presence served as a rallying point for both Shia militias and jihadist groups.

The U.S. is sometimes successful at installing its preferred leader in another country, but it has a very poor track record when it comes to influencing his decisions later on. We imagine that we have a degree of influence and even control in these arrangements that doesn’t exist. Does anyone seriously believe that Maliki would not have consolidated and abused his power if there were an additional ten or twenty thousand American soldiers in the country? I don’t think so. More to the point, wouldn’t Maliki have had an incentive to disregard U.S. advice in order to demonstrate that he wasn’t a puppet and wouldn’t be dictated to by Washington? Of course, it was politically impossible for an Iraqi government to agree to Washington’s terms for an extended U.S. military presence, but even if it hadn’t been there is no reason to think that the U.S. would have been able to stop Maliki from abusing his power or prevent the uprising that is now taking place. The only thing that a residual presence would have achieved would have been to keep the U.S. at war in Iraq with no end in sight.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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