Obama's Iraq Withdrawal Will Strengthen Iran, Says John Bolton

Bush's former ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, on how Obama screwed up his predecessor’s handiwork in Iraq, the coming regional arms conflict—and what the president should say in his speech tonight about his decision to withdraw American troops.

A.J. Sisco, EPA / Landov

President Obama has an opportunity in Tuesday’s Oval Office address on Iraq to show that he has finally learned something about American security in the hard world of international geostrategy. Of course, if he did, it would mean abandoning much of what he advocated during his election campaign, reversing many of his most-prized policies since his inauguration, disappointing his leftist political base, and causing acute heartburn on Norway’s Nobel Peace Prize Committee. I’m not holding my breath. But if the president was blessed with a revelation during his summer vacation, perhaps he now understands what we have at stake in Iraq going forward.

The consequence of an Obama policy that continues the withdrawal of American forces down to zero in Iraq would unquestionably strengthen Iran.

One of the main criticisms of President Bush’s decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein was that the United States had attacked the wrong target. Iraq wasn’t the real threat, said these critics, it was Iran. In fact, they argued, by eliminating Saddam—who long advertised himself as the Arabs’ defender against the Persians—Bush had actually strengthened Iran, laying the foundation for Tehran to expand its influence throughout the Middle East.

Kenneth M. Pollack: How Obama Can Leave Iraq ResponsiblyThis criticism was always simplistic, since Iran’s bankrolling of international terrorism, its progress toward deliverable nuclear weapons, and its ambitions for hegemony inside the Muslim world long antedated U.S. military action. The Iran threat was always there, and metastasizing, no matter what the United States did about Saddam.

And Saddam’s threat was real. His regime had already used chemical weapons against its own people, and against Iran, committed aggression against Kuwait, threatened to do so against others, including Israel, and could easily do so again. Plainly, the United States, its friends, and its interests were threatened by both Iraq and Iran, and most imminently by an Iraq that was moving rapidly to break loose from United Nations sanctions and to rid itself of U.N. weapons inspectors. Once free, it was only a matter of time before Iraq would again produce weapons of mass destruction, and pose a threat to his neighbors and U.S. interests.

Iraq today is obviously no longer a regional predator, and it could potentially be a great success story, if Washington had the necessary patience and grand strategy. Ironically, the very critics who complained about the Bush administration’s “mistake” in going after the wrong threat are prominent among those who have been urging a faster pullout of the remaining U.S. military forces from Iraq.

In addition, they oppose any U.S. or Israeli military action against Iran’s steadily progressing nuclear weapons program, hoping instead that obviously inadequate economic sanctions or diplomacy will somehow frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Even worse, many fully understand that neither sanctions nor diplomacy will stop Iran. They believe instead that a nuclear Iran can be contained and deterred, and therefore there is no reason to keep trying to prevent it. That, in turn, will almost certainly guarantee a devastating regional arms race, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and perhaps others obtaining nuclear weapons to protect themselves against a belligerent and very nuclear Iran.

Thus, the consequence of an Obama policy that continues the withdrawal of American forces down to zero in Iraq would unquestionably strengthen Iran, both inside Iraq among its Shiite allies, and also in the broader Middle East. Combined with Obama’s unmodified pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan in mid-2011, the American retreat from Iran’s borders would be in full swing. Arab states around the Gulf are already concluding that American influence is fading, and they are seeking accommodations with Iran for their own safety’s sake.

Obama’s policy, and the one he is most likely to defend Tuesday night—withdrawing from Iraq—is exactly what the critics of Bush’s invasion of Iraq have long waited to hear. But it will achieve precisely the opposite of what they say they wanted—stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions—and will leave Iran the increasingly dominant player in an ever-more-dangerous region.

This is truly a lose-lose policy for the United States. But I will be surprised if that’s not exactly what we hear from President Obama.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, D.C.