IF THE Iraqi government formally requests that relatively small numbers of American troops stay beyond the end of the year, President Obama should agree to it as a means of countering the growing influence of Iran on its Iraqi neighbor. But if not, there are other ways the United States can and should help Iraq preserve its independence and its nascent democracy — not with troops, but with the police trainers, aid administrators, and diplomats in what will be the biggest US embassy anywhere in the world.
Iraq must decide in the next month if it wants to retain a small contingent of US troops beyond Dec. 31, the original deadline set by an agreement between Iraqi leaders and the Bush administration. Yet neither the United States nor Iraq expects that withdrawal to happen. The Obama administration insists it wants to respect Iraqi sovereignty and stick to the plan for a full withdrawal, yet Defense Secretary Robert Gates declares he would like Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to invite nearly half of the 45,000 American troops to stay on as trainers and advisers. And Maliki, who long vowed he would stick to the withdrawal agreement, is now maneuvering to round up enough political support to keep a contingent of American military trainers in Iraq.
If the pressure from pro-Iranian factions in Iraq is too great, and Maliki fails, the United States can maintain influence in other ways. Helpful as it may be to Iraq to have 20,000 US troops securing borders, protecting oil terminals, and training Iraqi forces, Iraq’s major challenges today stem from internal divisions and poor governance; a prolonged presence of American troops is as likely to aggravate as to resolve those problems. Should all US troops leave by the end of the year, however, a significant majority of people across the Iraqi political spectrum may still look to the United States as a crucial power balancer both in the region and in Iraq’s domestic conflicts.
Because Americans have long enjoyed close relations with the autonomous Kurdish region in the north of Iraq, US diplomats are uniquely positioned to help resolve the Arab-Kurdish dispute over the city of Kirkuk and control of its oil industry. This should be an American priority; success would go a long way toward securing a multiethnic, pluralistic Iraq.
Whether or not American troops leave this year, US diplomats should seize upon intrinsic advantages to counter Iran’s influence in Iraq. The United States has a wider circle of friends among the many Iraqi factions than Iran does. And it has far more to offer Iraq in the way of influence with neighboring Arab countries and in technology, development aid, and culture.