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Robert Gates Is Right About Iraq

We've made progress—and we shouldn't remove all U.S. troops.

The U.S. war in Iraq has just been given an unexpected seal of approval. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in what he billed as his “last major policy speech in Washington,” has owned up to the gains in Iraq, to the surprise that Iraq has emerged as “the most advanced Arab democracy in the region.” It was messy, this Iraqi democratic experience, but Iraqis “weren’t in the streets shooting each other, the government wasn’t in the streets shooting its people,” Gates observed. The Americans and the Iraqis had not labored in vain; the upheaval of the Arab Spring has only underlined that a decent polity had emerged in the heart of the Arab world.

Robert Gates has not always been a friend of the Iraq war. He was a member in good standing, it should be recalled, of the Iraq Study Group, a panel of sages and foreign policy luminaries, co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, who had taken a jaundiced view of the entire undertaking in Iraq. Their report endorsed a staged retreat from the Iraq war and an accommodation with Syria and Iran. When Gates later joined the cabinet of George W. Bush, after the “thumping” meted out to the Republicans in the congressional elections of 2006, his appointment was taken as a sharp break with the legacy of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. It was an open secret that the outlook of the new taciturn man at the Department of Defense had no place in it for the spread of democracy in Arab lands. Over a long career, Secretary Gates had shared the philosophical approach of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, peers of his and foreign policy “realists” who took the world as it is. They had styled themselves as unillusioned men who had thought that the Iraq war, and George W. Bush’s entire diplomacy of freedom, were projects of folly—romantic, self deluding undertakings in the Arab world.

To the extent that these men thought of the Greater Middle East, they entered it through the gateway of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. The key to the American security dilemma in the region, they maintained, was an Arab-Israeli settlement that would drain the swamps of anti-Americanism and reconcile the Arab “moderates” to the Pax Americana. This was a central plank of the Iraq Study Group—the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian issue to the peace of the region, and to the American position in the lands of Islam.

Nor had Robert Gates made much of a secret of his reading of Iran. He and Zbigniew Brzezinski had been advocates of “engaging” the regime in Tehran—this was part of the creed of the “realists.” It was thus remarkable that, in his last policy speech, Gates acknowledged a potentially big payoff of the American labor in Iraq: a residual U.S. military presence in that country as a way of monitoring the Iranian regime next door.

Is Gates right about both the progress in Iraq and the U.S. future in the country? In short, yes. The Iraqis needn’t trumpet the obvious fact in broad daylight, but the balance of power in the Persian Gulf would be altered for the better by a security arrangement between the United States and the government in Baghdad. The Sadrists have already labeled a potential accord with the Americans as a deal with the devil, but the Sadrists have no veto over the big national decisions in Baghdad. If the past is any guide, Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki has fought and won a major battle with the Sadrists; he crushed them on the battlefield but made room for them in his coalition government, giving them access to spoils and patronage, but on his terms.

Democracy, it turns out, has its saving graces: Nuri Al Maliki need not shoulder alone the burden of sustaining a security accord with the Americans. He has already made it known that the decision to keep American forces in Iraq would depend on the approval of the major political blocs in the country, and that the Sadrists would have no choice but to accept the majority’s decision. The Sadrists would be left with the dubious honor of “resistance” to the Americans—but they would hold onto the privileges granted them by their access to state treasury and resources. Muqtada Al Sadr and the political functionaries around him know that life bereft of government patronage and the oil income of a centralized state is a journey into the wilderness.

There remains, of course, the pledge given by presidential candidate Barack Obama that a President Obama would liquidate the American military role in Iraq by the end of 2011. That pledge was one of the defining themes of his bid for the presidency, and it endeared him to the “progressives” within his own party, who had been so agitated and mobilized against the Iraq war. But Barack Obama is now the standard-bearer of America’s power. He has broken with the “progressives” over Afghanistan, the use of drones in Pakistan, Guantánamo, military tribunals, and a whole host of national security policies that have (nearly) blurred the line between his policies and those of his predecessor. The left has grumbled, but, in the main, it has bowed to political necessity. At any rate, the fury on the left that once surrounded the Iraq war has been spent; a residual American presence in Iraq would fly under the radar of the purists within the ranks of the Democratic Party. They will be under no obligation to give it their blessing. That burden would instead be left to the centrists—and to the Republicans.

It is perhaps safe to assume that Robert Gates is carrying water for the Obama administration—an outgoing official putting out some necessary if slightly unpalatable political truths. Gates is an intensely disciplined man; he has not been a free-lancer, but instead has forged a tight personal and political relationship with President Obama. His swan song in Washington is most likely his gift to those left with maintaining and defending the American position in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf.

It is a peculiarity of the American-Iraq relationship that it could yet be nurtured and upheld without fanfare or poetry. The Iraqis could make room for that residual American presence while still maintaining the fiction of their political purity and sovereignty. For their part, American officials could be discreet and measured; they needn’t heap praise on Iraq nor take back what they had once said about the war—and its costs and follies. Iraq’s neighbors would of course know what would come to pass. In Tehran, and in Arab capitals that once worried about an American security relationship with a Shia-led government in Baghdad, powers would have to make room for this American-Iraqi relationship. The Iranians in particular will know that their long border with Iraq is, for all practical purposes, a military frontier with American forces. It will be no consolation for them that this new reality so close to them is the work of their Shia kinsmen, who come to unexpected power in Baghdad.

The enemy will have a say on how things will play out for American forces in Iraq. Iran and its Iraqi proxies can be expected to do all they can to make the American presence as bloody and costly as possible. A long, leaky border separates Iran from Iraq; movement across it is quite easy for Iranian agents and saboteurs. They can come in as “pilgrims,” and there might be shades of Lebanon in the 1980s, big deeds of terror that target the American forces. The Iraqi government will be called upon to do a decent job of tracking and hunting down saboteurs and terrorists, as this kind of intelligence is not a task for American soldiers. This will take will and political courage on the part of Iraq’s rulers. They will have to speak well of the Americans and own up to the role that American forces are playing in the protection and defense of Iraq. They can’t wink at anti-Americanism or give it succor.

Even in the best of worlds, an American residual presence in Iraq will have its costs and heartbreak. But the United States will have to be prepared for and accept the losses and adversity that are an integral part of staying on, rightly, in so tangled and difficult a setting.

Fouad Ajami teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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