After Iraq, a New Pragmatism

Over the past year, US foreign policy has caught up with a new reality: Troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, American commanders refused to take sole leadership in Libya. Iraq has illustrated that America’s unipolar moment is finally over.

Just after midnight on Sunday, December 18, a final convoy of U.S. forces began the 280km drive from Camp Adder in Iraq to Camp Virginia in Kuwait. When the soldiers, members of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Brigade, crossed the border just before dawn, they smiled, waved, and took pictures. The nearly nine-year conflict was over.

Several days later Iraq appeared on the brink of the kind of sectarian conflict not seen since the dark days of 2006-2007. A wave of bombings aimed at mostly civilian targets left scores dead in Baghdad, just as the year-old, American-backed power-sharing government threatened to succumb to devastating sectarianism. Throughout the week U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made calls to Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders, trying to stave off further escalation of the crisis. And yet despite the potential for a political meltdown in Baghdad, and fierce partisan recriminations for the design and implementation of the U.S. exit from Iraq, the Obama administration’s bottom line has not moved. In the words of one senior White House official, “there is not a great deal of appetite for re-engagement. We are not going to reinvade Iraq.”

This is the most recent example of a significant shift in the way U.S. strategic aims are being pursued abroad. The unilateral, military-led nation-building of the George W. Bush era is being replaced with a more pragmatic approach to U.S. security. Over the last year the Obama administration has avoided large land conflicts in favor of airstrikes and special forces operations backed by better cooperation with allies and better intelligence. This shift is welcome news. Only by learning the painful lessons from Iraq will the United States be able to successfully adapt to the realities of a swiftly changing world.

President Obama formally outlined this strategy in the January 5 defense review, which calls for 450 billion dollars in cuts over the next decade in order to create a “smaller and leaner” US military. The goal will be to “turn the page” on a lost decade of war in Iraq, a conflict which distracted U.S. attention from the more pressing mission in Afghanistan, empowered the Islamic Republic of Iran, likely delayed the spread of political reform in the Middle East, and proved immensely costly to the United States in terms of its blood, treasure, and image abroad.

The trademarks of this policy were already seen in many of the major security operations of 2011. During the Libyan war the United States provided the initial punch to knock out Colonel Qaddafi’s air defenses, but then allowed NATO allies to shoulder much of the military burden for the duration of the conflict. In the May 1 Abbottabad raid a redoubled focus on intelligence-gathering enabled an elite unit of U.S. Navy SEALS to quickly locate and kill Osama bin Laden. The United States pulled the remainder of its combat troops out of Iraq despite the risks, and appears set to treat further unrest in the country in the same way it would other diplomatic crises abroad, without a major military intervention. Finally, in Afghanistan, senior U.S. commander General John Allen last month announced plans to move towards an “increased advisory role” for NATO forces in the country, as part of an accelerated effort to turn responsibility for Afghan security over to local personnel.

This has already proved promising in terms of reducing casualties and cutting costs. The United States lost 4,484 of the 4,803 coalition soldiers killed in the Iraq war, along with 32,200 wounded. In terms of financial costs, the United States sunk $806 billion into the sands of Iraq, and will spend at least another $500 billion in veterans’ health care and disability costs in the years ahead. Libya, on the other hand, cost the United States $1.1 billion and zero U.S. or allied lives lost.

The shift also employs a more calculated consideration of real U.S. strategic interests. The Asia-Pacific region will see an increased U.S. military presence going forward, while troop levels in Europe could fall by as much as half. In choosing which fights to fight, benefits will have to clearly outweigh the costs. Last spring the United States intervened militarily in Libya where the operation to help rebels oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi appeared likely to succeed, and yet so far has not in Syria where the risk of sinking into an Iraq-style quagmire has hugely outweighed any potential gains. In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, president Obama has repeatedly sought to build coalitions with Europeans and other partners to put pressure on Tehran, preferring economic sanctions to military action.

Perhaps most importantly, this emerging strategy represents a realignment of sorts with the reality that U.S. military and economic policies since 9/11 have tended to accelerate: the end of America’s unipolar moment and the beginnings of a new more multipolar world order. According to the National Intelligence Council’s upcoming “Global Trends 2030” report, which sets out to examine the likely U.S. strategic position in the year 2030, the United States faces an almost certain future as a smaller player in a less stable world. 1580 is said to be the year King Philip II of Spain decided not to attempt expand his empire by conquering China. The Iraq War in its own way has forced U.S. policymakers to think more strategically about what might, and might not work in the future.

Read more in this debate: Richard Gowan, Joost Hiltermann.

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