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There are few precedents for successful withdrawals from major military interventions. Pulling out quickly usually leads to big problems, while ensuring stability usually requires a long-term presence on the ground; it is no accident that U.S. troops remain in Europe, Japan, and Korea more than half a century following the ends of the wars there. Once the surge helped stabilize Iraq in 2007–8, therefore, Washington faced a classic game of geopolitical Jenga: how many props could it remove before the tower collapsed?
Consciously or unconsciously following the Nixon administration’s final course in Vietnam, the Obama administration chose something like a “decent interval” strategy, taking advantage of the post-surge calm to close out America’s direct military involvement smoothly while leaving Iraq largely to its own devices. That course provided benefits in the short term, but has led to problems over time, as poor leadership in Baghdad helped spur sectarian conflict and now open civil war.
Foreign Affairs has tracked these decisions and events in real time, and as the fate of Iraq and the region appears to hang in the balance once again, we offer this collection to put breaking events in their proper intellectual and historical context.
The surge of U.S. troops into Iraq helped decrease violence and set the stage for the eventual U.S. withdrawal. But the country still has a long way to go before it becomes sovereign and self-reliant. To stabilize itself and realize its democratic aspirations, Iraq needs Washington's continued support.
President Obama has declared that all remaining U.S. troops in Iraq will be "home for the holidays." The move may fulfill a campaign promise, but it endangers Baghdad's future and undermines U.S. interests in the region.
Weeks after the last U.S. soldier finally left the country, Iraq is on the road to becoming a failed state, with a deadlocked political system, an authoritarian leader, and a looming threat of disintegration. Baghdad can still pull itself together, but only if Washington starts applying the right kind of democratic pressure -- and fast.
Iraq is hardly the failed state that Ned Parker portrayed in these pages, argues Antony Blinken, the U.S. vice president’s national security adviser. Norman Ricklefs sees Iraq’s politics becoming more moderate and less sectarian. Parker replies that despite these improvements, Baghdad still violates human rights and ignores the rule of law.
Last month, tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to protest the government's poor treatment of Sunnis and, for the first time, to call for the overthrow of Prime Minister Maliki. Unless Baghdad starts making concessions, and soon, Sunni leaders could demand an independent region, spelling the end of a unified Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdistan has achieved new prosperity by exporting its own oil and gas to Turkey, against the objections of Iraq’s central government. By challenging Baghdad’s claims to exclusive control of Iraq’s natural resources, the Kurds are showing how economic cooperation can make Middle Eastern borders more porous.