What Iraq Costs Us

If the president sticks to his Iraq withdrawal timetable, this weekend's inspiring democratic elections could be the country's last. But how will he pay to keep U.S. troops there longer? Peter Beinart on his impossible choice.

Khalid Mohammed / AP Photo

This weekend’s Iraqi elections were inspiring—a testament to the fortitude of the Iraqi people, the weakness of al Qaeda, the adaptability of the American military, and yes, the troop surge pushed through by George W. Bush.

But we may never see their like again. Sure, America has midwifed a democracy in Iraq. Yet when British troops left their African, Middle Eastern, and Asian dominions, they left behind many embryonic democracies, too. Most soon collapsed. The crucial statistic about the future of Iraqi democracy is this: On Election Day 2010, Iraq hosted 90,000 American troops. By law, the next time Iraqis hold a national election that number will be zero.

Because the elections are only being held now, Iraq may be virtually government-less when U.S. troops head for the exits this summer.

Therein lies Barack Obama’s dilemma. He’s pledged to halve the U.S. troop presence in Iraq by September, and according to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed in 2008, all U.S. troops must be gone when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, 2011. The problem is that this timetable may be a virtual death sentence for Iraqi democracy. Although security has dramatically improved, Iraq’s leaders have resolved barely any of the conflicts that nearly tore the country apart a few years back. There’s been no agreement on how to distribute oil revenue, on the distribution of power between the federal government and Iraq’s regions, or on the city of Kirkuk, which Arabs and Kurds both claim as their own. Stephen Biddle, a Council of Foreign Relations defense analyst with close ties to General David Petraeus, thinks the potential for civil war remains high, as does former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. As the International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling recently put it, “Nothing” has “been solved in Iraq, fundamentally.”

The coming months could be particularly treacherous. Last time Iraq held a national election, it took parliament five months to approve a new government. As Thomas Ricks of the Center for a New American Security has pointed out, Obama drew up his withdrawal plan on the assumption that Iraq would hold elections in late 2009, and thus, that it would have a government in place by the time U.S. troops began leaving in droves. But because that election is only being held now, Iraq may be virtually government-less when U.S. troops head for the exits this summer. In such an environment, the potential for chaos is real. And the greater the prospect of chaos, the greater the potential for a coup, something Britain’s ambassador in Iraq recently warned about. Few Iraqi strongmen would attempt one with close to 100,000 U.S. troops peering over their shoulder. But the faster those numbers dwindle, the greater the danger becomes.

Matthew Frankel: Is Iraq the Next Iran?As a result, it’s a good bet that powerful people in the U.S. military will whisper in Obama’s ear that U.S. troops withdrawals must be slowed down, and that the SOFA must be reupholstered. Ricks, who like Biddle has close ties to the officer corps, says the U.S. will need 30,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq for a long time if it wants to avoid a civil war that drags in the entire region.

My guess is that Ricks’ view will prevail. The military has invested epic quantities of money and blood in Iraq, and U.S. commanders don’t want it to be in vain. Plus, an Iraqi civil war that sucked in its neighbors—as civil wars often do—would be horrendous. Although the Democratic base wants out of Iraq, the lesson of Afghanistan is that the military’s view matters more. “When push comes to shove,” notes Biddle, the Obama administration will “vote for not losing a war.”

It all sounds very sensible, until you remember that the United States is nearly bankrupt. Defense spending, which has grown 9 percent per year over the last decade, now comprises well over 50 percent of U.S. discretionary spending. Unless some president reins that in, there’s no real chance of getting U.S. debt under control, let alone making the domestic investments necessary to compete with China.

But curtailing defense spending in wartime is virtually impossible. (It’s no surprise that historically, it’s during wars that the U.S. has gone deepest into debt.) In January, Obama announced a three-year freeze on discretionary spending, but exempted defense altogether.

The American military is an astounding institution. Since 9/11, our leaders have given our troops missions that by any reasonable standard were impossible to carry out. And yet they are being carried out. With enough time and money, the American military may be able to save Iraq and Afghanistan from collapse. I just wonder who’s going to save the United States.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.