Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What would an Obama presidency mean for the Middle East?

Obama will pull out all troops from Iraq by 16 months. There, I said it.

If America begins to wallow in a recession, then Barack Obama may have to take the most important domestic decision of his presidency: to pull all troops out of Iraq.

There’ll be very little else that Obama would be able to do to meet the lofty expectations he has set for his era. He can’t bend to the will of a left-leaning congressional Democratic leadership because that may just scare off business and prolong a recession, meaning that he can’t deliver on all the plans he had envisioned. Simply put, there will be fewer rich people to tax, and more poor people with greater wants.

So much for ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’—Obama’s trademarks.

But not all is lost: Obama can deliver on one of the grand promises he’s made and that would be getting the hell out of Iraq. And I’m not talking about the “responsible withdrawal” that Obama’s been suggesting: he needs a dramatic and clean break with Bush’s legacy and no other issue can offer him that except Iraq.

Some may jump in and say that Obama will never sacrifice America’s sacrifices for Iraq. These folks discount Obama’s cynicism: this is not something that he will run by his brain trust of 300 foreign policy experts and other ‘experts’; this will not be Richard Danzig’s call, this is David Axelrod’s to make.

Iraq can be sold as a money saver: no more billions spent there every month. Obama will also reduce the military (Cong. Barney Frank is already talking about a 25 percent cut in military spending) and he’ll cite the new batch of counterinsurgency experts who claim that such expenditures are redundant for 21st century warfare against jihadists.

Iraq will also keep Obama’s fans in Europe abuzz; he can be assured of many more warm welcomes in Berlin. That is, of course, until Berlin gets its own 911. Attitudes may change after that.

Iraq will also be Obama’s peace offering to Iran, with the hope that the Iranians will mellow out in their quest for nuclear armory. Iran could detonate an experimental nuclear weapon as early as next April, and I think it would be safe to say that a nuclear-armed Iran will be Obama’s most predictable early international challenge.

Obama will probably keep 3,000-5,000 troops in Iraqi Kurdistan, which would be tasked with raiding Al-Qaeda strongholds if the latter regain their footing somewhere in Iraq.

And the best thing is, whichever way Iraq goes beyond a full U.S. withdrawal—civil war or stability—Obama can claim prescience. If Iraq slides into civil war, then he can say that he was right all along and the U.S. was just delaying the inevitable. Biden could even chime in at this point and remind everyone of his plan to partition Iraq. If Iraq stabilizes, then he can claim success by forcing Iraq to stand up on its own two feet. He can always accuse the Iraqi leadership of not taking a clear stance on whether troops should stay or not, and he’d be right. Obama will bank on any excuse to justify America’s exit from Iraq. Yes, I do think that Obama is that cynical.

Obama doesn’t owe Iraq anything; he’s not emotionally invested in the place like McCain is. Iraq is somebody else’s mess, and Obama will not hesitate to trade it in for political cover, cover that he will badly need back on the domestic front if a recession sets in.

Some may argue that American policy remains stable throughout transitions from one administration to another. Most of these people are outsiders to how DC works, but on this count they are right. Except that pulling out of Iraq is a reversion to stability according to DC. Iraq was a fluke, and anyone who’d been at the front-lines of this story would know that (…yup, I’m pulling rank here). Getting out of Iraq is getting back to the good ol’ status quo that Washington’s foreign policy and intelligence elite are comfortable with.

And, as many of you may already know, I think Iraq will do fine on its own.

But Obama’s move would spell the end of a potential Iraqi-American alliance.

I also think that that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

Such a rupture would allow Iraq to go its own way. Iraq will become America’s problem child in the Middle East. I envision several parallel Iraqi intelligence shops operating from Baghdad, laden with human and financial resources, and unleashed on Iraq’s unloved neighbors. Sunnis will set up shop to destabilize Iran. Shias will do the same against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The Kurds will continue to chip away at Turkey. Basically, Iraq’s internal tensions will be projected outwards. Instead of every one and their mother meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs as was the mark of the last five years, Iraq will throw its weight around in the region. There doesn’t need to be any coordination between the various sets of ‘rogue’ and conflicting external strategies. If there’s one authentic cultural trait that all Iraqis share it would be their individualism, and love of mischief. Plus, they like to play the neighborhood bully that swaggers around and gets in everybody’s face. The domestic lines have been demarcated, setting apart winners and losers; no one is going to venture into a civil war, especially with politics trending ‘patriotic’. But Iraqis will take out their residual anger on their neighbors.

Iraq’s potential for intelligence gathering and operational networks is staggering, and I’m not just talking about the Saddam-era spooks who were arguably some of the best trained, and most audacious, spies on the world stage (…check out what the Stasi used to think of them). I’m talking about the multitudes of Iraqis everywhere around the region, and in some respects, every single adult Iraqi has been trained in the basics of tradecraft: one needed to be a step ahead in terms of discretion and sizing up situations when hunted down by a totalitarian regime. I’ve also argued in other posts that the Iraqi military will have the best know-how in counterinsurgency available, even better than that of the Americans who’ve been fighting 21st century insurgents in Iraq; the Americans were always squeamish about “going there” whereas the Iraqis don’t suffer from such neuroses—they instinctively know that a culture of political correctness does not belong on the battlefield.

Another intangible, yet absolutely crucial factor in my reasoning is that Iraqis exude cultural and civilizational confidence. Yeah, it may be misplaced, but it is still there. Iraqis see themselves as superior to their neighbors, not in the effete Iranian way, but rather through a macho and brash exuberance. A Lebanese may brag about hoodwinking Qatari royalty through sycophancy, an Iraqi would be embarrassed to stoop so low.

What’s more, Iraqis don’t need to sell out to regional fat-cats when they have bushels of their own money. I’ve personally always been comforted by the notion that I’d never have to be in the pay of some Saudi prince for the simple fact that I come from an oil-rich nation: basically, I can sell-out to my own country! I’d be a mercenary and a patriot at the same time!

Therefore, Iraqis can combine talent, confidence and money in a way that most regional actors can’t.

The net result of Iraqis starting fires around the region is that these neighbors will get weaker. Iraqis have many scores to settle. Does anyone think that a future Iraq can coexist with Wahhabi hegemony? Does anyone think that a future Iraq will tolerate anti-Kurdish chauvinism? Does anyone think that a future Iraq will bend over backwards for Iranian expansionism?

Those who do simply don’t know Iraq. For all the failings of Iraq’s political class, I predict that they will seize upon opportunities for ‘creative mischief’ because such stunts are vote-grabbers, and because they will convince themselves that the entire Middle East needs to be fundamentally re-engineered for the New Iraq to fit in.

And the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA will be powerless to stop it, let alone control it. If troops are out, then there’s no rationale for keeping 1,500 American spooks and diplomats running around Baghdad. Out they go, and good riddance. The net efforts of the bureaucracies at Langley and Foggy Bottom have undermined America’s mission in Iraq, and I certainly don’t want to see them undermine Iraq’s mission in the Middle East.

“Is Nibras arguing for a reign of chaos?” No, I’m simply predicting that chaos is coming anyway: most of these Middle Eastern regimes were barely stable with oil over 60 dollars a barrel, what’s going to happen when a recession drags the price back down to the mid 20s? The jihadists are not done doing their jihad, and they shall spark unrest in several locales. All I want is for Iraq to take advantage of this chaos for its own benefit, and for the chance to redraw the region in its own democratic, federal image.

Going back to Obama’s reasons for getting out of Iraq, a withdrawal would give him a chance to staunch a ‘public diplomacy’ nose-bleed: the increasingly hostile opinion of the much-hallowed Arab and Muslim ‘street’. Amir Taheri offers an interesting compilation of the vocal support Obama now finds in this proverbial street as it stands now. But this good-will, based on Arabs and Muslims seeing Obama as one of their own, shall be short-lived, since it is founded on exaggerated expectations. These Obama fans in the region could care less about America’s political system and equal opportunity, unless they plan to immigrate there (and many do). They view an Obama presidency as America’s apology for the Bush years. And an apology is and will always be interpreted as a mark of weakness. Pretty soon into Obama’s tenure, the rumor mill will crank up; my bet is that the most popular one would have it that America is pushing conversions from Islam to Christianity by marketing Obama as a Muslim turned Christian, and what benefits may accrue from that. People in open societies don’t seem to understand that in closed societies, the craziest conspiracy theory always wins.

So I’d imagine that some of the self-styled ‘experts’ around Obama would argue that getting out of Iraq would resurrect that good-will that Taheri is writing about. And they’d be right, because a withdrawal out of Iraq will also be interpreted as a mark of weakness. Anti-Americanism is a resentment of American power, and the only way to reconcile America’s haters is to humiliate the super-power. All that crap about ‘legitimate grievances’ is just that, crap. America will never reconcile with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadists, the Asad regime, or Iran’s mullahs, because the other side just don’t want to. These trouble-makers don’t dream about a day when their kids will frolic with Obama’s daughters on the grounds of Camp David. No, their fantasy involves a heavy boot weighing down on America’s neck.

So much for ‘International Good Will,’ yet another of Obama’s selling points.

Again, chaos is inevitable, and Iraq stands to benefit from fanning the flames of that chaos. In terms of oil sales and an edge in intelligence and counterinsurgency expertise, Iraq shall be the primary beneficiary of a free-for-all decade or two of instability in its neighborhood.

I, for one, don’t mind such an eventuality.

It will be a bumpy ride. But the destination may be worthwhile after all.

Of course, an Iraqi-American Alliance could work more harmoniously under President McCain.


Anonymous gj said...

One concern with your optimistic post-Obama-withdrawal scenario: if creative chaos prevails, what are the chances of the Baath making a comeback in another guise?

I never underestimate the resilience and power of the Baath! Please reassure, Nibras!

2:54 PM, October 28, 2008

Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي said...

Hi gj,

'Creative chaos' prevails around Iraq, not inside Iraq. The fever has already passed, I see no internal drama in Iraq for the coming years beyond political stalemate, mostly pitting Islamists versus seculars.

As for the Ba'ath, well, that's just old news. Too many new patronage networks among Sunnis have emerged to challenge the Ba'athist one, while Ba'athism among Shias is a non-starter.

I am not worried.



3:08 PM, October 28, 2008

Blogger Jeff said...

I was shaking my head until I saw the last sentence in your piece!

I think McCain will win and surprise everyone.

Hope you'll tell us how you see the Syria raid.

6:23 PM, October 28, 2008

Anonymous gj said...

Okay, I am reassured .... a leeetle.

Anyway, I like your optimism so much, here is my Nostradamus prediction: one day, Baghdad will be the first Arab city to host the Olympic Games.

2:41 AM, October 29, 2008

Anonymous Faisal Kadri said...

There is no mention of the Kurdish aspiration for independence, which is the biggest problem facing the integrity of Iraq. This scenario is pessimistic if the Iraqi political process is allowed to do business as usual, it could be optimistic if Obama or McCain starts a clean process from scratch: Census and elections run by the UN and mandated by a Security Council resolution (binding to all parties). Only a credible political process without outside interference can solve the Kurdish problem of integration or independence.

6:39 AM, October 29, 2008

Blogger davod said...

Not only will he quit Iraq, the Dems will take away any logistics and training support. They will try to excise the USA from Iraq.

I think he will leave Afghanistan as well.

It's what they do.

11:53 AM, October 29, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you. Iraq will survive the Obama presidency and come out stronger. I can't say the same for the United States. America is in decline. Iraq would be better served dissociating from a decadent and ailing civilization.

12:17 PM, October 29, 2008

Anonymous kaka said...


I must disagree with some of your comments relative to those pesky Kurds.

“Obama will probably keep 3,000-5,000 troops in Iraqi Kurdistan, which would be tasked with raiding Al-Qaeda strongholds if the latter regain their footing somewhere in Iraq.”

Yes, it is mere semantics – but the use of the word “keep” implies that there may be a few thousand American troops in Iraqi Kurdistan right now. If you are referring to the KRG region, then you are wrong… there are perhaps a few hundred.

And now the bigger point:

“The Kurds will continue to chip away at Turkey. Basically, Iraq’s internal tensions will be projected outwards.”

Chip away at Turkey? Unfortunately, Turkey occupies more of Kurdistan than any other country. This is Kurdish land occupied by a repressive Turkish state. The Kurdish/Turkish tensions are not a consequence of some internal Iraqi tension… there are many millions of Kurds (perhaps triple the number found within Iraq) who are living under Turkish oppression. The Turkish state has destroyed more Kurdish villages than Saddam. It isn’t that Iraqi Kurds are looking for a fight with innocent Turks. Quite the reverse – the Turkish state, in keeping with its founding ideology, opposes any expression of Kurdish identity anywhere in the world. The Turkish state has been promoting instability in Iraqi Kurdistan for years and thus joins the company of every single "neighbor" of Iraq (with the possible exception of Kuwait) in trying to destroy the poor country.

“Even if the Kurds establish a Kurdish state in Argentina the Turks would fight this.”
- Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 2004

2:12 PM, October 29, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gracious Nibras - the Management of Chaos?

What's worse - I like it. Especially the idea of my former comrades (and probably some former enemies as well) fiki-ing over Al Saud and Iran.

Interesting takes on the differences in character. Perhaps we lucked into the right choice of allies.

I think you're right about the Messiah pulling stakes. Like Davod said, it's what they do.

3:53 PM, October 31, 2008

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