Iraq's Descent

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

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.