Iraq Agreement Leaves U.S. Troops Powerless

Everyone knows it is foolish to give someone power without responsibility. It is even more foolish, however, to accept responsibility without power—and that is just what the Bush administration has done with the new Status of Forces agreement with Iraq. Don't get me wrong, it is good that there is an agreement. Letting the United Nations mandate expire with no clear idea of what would replace it was a recipe for a disaster. I am delighted too that the Iraqis feel they are ready to take over day-to-day security from June 2009. It is the following two and a half years that worries me. Between mid-2009 and late 2011, a large number of American soldiers will remain in Iraq, essentially confined to barracks, unless the Iraqi government calls for their help.

This is not a problem if you believe that the Iraq of 2008 is essentially West Germany circa 1948: That everything is under control and the Iraqis only need logistical and training support to keep things that way. Obviously, this is what we would all like to believe. Our track record of predicting events in Iraq even six months out, however, is rotten. Things may very well fall apart once more. What then? After June 2009, the United States will not take military action without an Iraqi request for help, and Iraq will likely delay asking until long after a minor scratch on the body politic has escalated into a raging infection—they are a proud people after all. Furthermore, it is not even clear that we would wish to take the side of the Iraqi government in all cases.

Consider the ways Iraq might fall apart. Suppose al Qaeda in Iraq revives and the Iraqi army needs extra muscle. In this case, at least we would know whose side we are on, and al Qaeda alone would not likely be a huge problem. In Iraq, al Qaeda has never been that big, and it caused serious difficulty only when it had significant Sunni support. Removing this support through the Anbar awakening is the surge's greatest success. It has been achieved, however, essentially by bribing the Sunni tribal leadership. What happens when the money dries up—especially if the promised integration of young Sunni militiamen into the Iraqi army does not materialize? (It has not yet.) Then the Iraqi army might find itself an essentially Shia outfit fighting the Sunnis. Al Qaeda will seek to bring this about, but if Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his colleagues misjudge how far they must reach out to keep the Sunnis on board, this clash might well happen without Jihadist intervention. Which side, if any, would the United States want to be on if it does ?

Then again, the control of Kirkuk and its oil remains unresolved. The Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga came close to a firefight a few months back. What happens without an American referee? If we are not referee, do we want to be on the pitch at all? Finally, Iraq's Shias may come to blows. Suppose Maliki's Dawa party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly SCIRI) decide to eliminate Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army; they send the Iraqi Army into Sadr City and a civilian bloodbath ensues. Do we just stand back and watch it on Al-Jazeera and CNN?

For as long as there are large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq, the world (and many Americans) will see the United States as being responsible for anything bad that happens there. Doing nothing would be deeply unappealing, but siding with the present Iraqi government might well be against U.S. interests, or morally indefensible, or both. Like it or not, we will have, at least, moral responsibility for the situation for as long as we have combat troops in Iraq. After June 2009, however, we will have little power to affect matters beyond mere persuasion. Maliki and his associates have shown themselves to be stubborn men. Two and a half years is simply too long to be in that situation.

President Barack Obama can rectify matters. All he has to do is tell the Iraqis that he was serious about getting out in 16 months and bring back the pullout date to early 2010. Chances are they will accept with alacrity. If not, some renegotiation will be in order. The principle the new administration must not compromise, however, is "we will not accept continued responsibility without power". As for suggestions from the Pentagon that we cannot pull out in less than three years, they are simply absurd. We do not have to recover every screw and nail.

Some people will respond that the Iraqi Army cannot survive without logistical support. Well, we will have over a year to fix that. In any case, it is not the Iraqi Army's lack of combat power, but rather the Iraqi leadership's lack of political will and judgment that is the real potential stumbling block. Regardless of how serious this problem proves to be, our troops cannot fix it as long as they hang around in their bases. With luck, it will not lead to disaster, but if we leave before it does, then it will be Iraq's problem, not America's. Which is as it should be.