For a moment let’s leave aside our already-made-up minds about Iraq.
Here’s the barest facts: the US has an occupying army there; 60% of the world’s oil is either in or within spitting distance of Iraq; radical Islam-both Sunni and Shia versions- is centered in or near Iraq and has openly stated designs on destroying and/or converting the West; and there is a many-sided civil war in Iraq, which is not over yet.
One can argue that the US invasion was massively destabilizing to the region and encouraged Islamic extremism; one can argue that invading caused the US to lose international support and legitimacy for all its actions, anywhere else in the world; one can argue that the invasion and occupation were badly executed, unnecessarily leading to an unstable Iraq; one can argue that democracy cannot work in the current middle east’s cultures until the basics of civil society evolve and become strong.
Yet these and many other similar arguments– even if all valid, as many of them may be– do not necessarily dictate that the US should leave Iraq. A premature or badly handled withdrawal might lead to any number of consequences far worse than the current state of affairs; and those consequences might still affect us all even if no US troops are within 7000 miles.
The different Shiite and Sunni factions of Iraqis, and external forces including al-Qaeda, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia all might be involved in continued fighting in Iraq. Like with Lebanon, once the genie of civil war is out of the bottle, all groups may switch sides and alliances, any number of foreign countries may be affected or may intervene, and there’s no telling who will wind up winning, if anyone.
Even a perfectly handled withdrawal and a stable, democratic Iraq might turn out to be worse than what we have now. The world’s increasing dependence on oil means that an Iraq incapable of exporting oil due to an escalated civil war would cause a crisis. But a confident and stable oil-exporting Iraq, working together with other OPEC countries, could hold the world hostage, as in the ’70s. Democratic elections seem likeliest to produce an Iraq aligned with Iran.
Iraq could fracture into three or more mini-states– Kurdish in the north, Sunni in the middle, Shia in the south. Whether it’s a separate state or not, Kurds could destabilize Turkey– already Turkish Kurd separatist groups seek shelter there, and an Iraq without a US army could result in a situation much like Albania-Kosovo (against Serbia) or Hezbollah against Israel. Similar forces could destabilize Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and even Jordan.
The US population increasingly doesn’t want to be in Iraq. The next president may feel the same– and may even be elected with a promise of leaving. But the larger realities may dictate a different course of action. The point is that there are, literally and figuratively, many sides to Iraq. What is likely to happen with any of the possible courses of action? What is the likely outcome for Iraqis, their neighbors, and the US? And what is BEST for all concerned?