Paul Schroeder’s article on why we need to leave Iraq takes an annoying detrour through Habsburg policy in Italy in the mid-nineteenth century before returning to its extremely valuable point:
Why should retreat, indirection, and self-restraint help the U.S. concretely in the Middle East now? First, basic conditions favor it. It is clear that the potential dangers from the spread of war, ethnic-religious conflict, and terrorism beyond Iraq menace its neighbors and adjacent regions more directly and dangerously than they do the United States. While Iran now enjoys more security from and influence in Iraq than before, thanks to the American invasion, it would be seriously endangered by all-out civil war in Iraq, with the Shi’ites appealing to Iran for help and the Sunnis calling on other Sunni states and the U.S. to help stop them. Turkey has a similar problem with regard to the Kurds, shared to a degree by Iran and Syria. The immediate dangers of wider unrest and Islamic radicalism for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the U.A.E., Lebanon, and Jordan need no discussion. Even Israel and Egypt are menaced, along with the wider Arab and Muslim worlds and Europe. The very dangers that Bush and Co. claim require the U.S. to stay in Iraq could, if used wisely, pave the way for getting out and inducing others to help fight them.
Why should one suppose that they will? Because it is in their interest to do so and because, unlike Americans, they possess both the cultural links, ties, and skills to be effective at it and legitimate standing and authorization for intervening. A major reason that America’s appeals to other states in the region to do more to help fight terrorism and pacify Iraq have been ineffective is that the overwhelmingly unpopular American military presence in Iraq negates them. Any actions taken under U.S. control automatically become illegitimate in the eyes of the Arab street and many governments.
Right. As you can see from the fact that the United States invaded Iraq, it’s certainly possible for countries to decide to act in an utterly atavistic way that’s completely contrary to their national interests. Nevertheless, it’s noteworthy that the more dire gloom-and-doom scenarios for an American departure from Iraq seem to assume that this is what will happen — even though every single one of Iraq’s neighbors has an interest in Iraq being stable and, failing that, has an interest in containing the chaos, we’re supposed to believe that they would all act incredibly irresponsibly and disaster would strike. But while that could happen (anything’s possible) there’s no reason to regard it as likely.
For a lot of the proponents (and yes this includes Democrats, too) of perpetual military engagement in Iraq, I think the real risk isn’t that there will be a regional conflagration but that there won’t be one, and that this will damage their notions of America as the “indispensable nation.” Meanwhile, neither Syria nor Iran can very well afford to play a constructive role in Iraq as long as US policy continues to be to try to use Iraq as a lever for toppling the regimes in Damascus and Iran.