All of the news this week is about Iraq, after the report from General David Petraeus on the impact of the troop surge. Petraeus followed last week’s report from retired U.S. Marine General Jim Jones (SFS ’66) on the state of the police and security services and the report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on whether the Iraqi government met 18 benchmarks of political progress and others.

As the presidential campaign heats up and candidates step up their rhetoric, we’re sure to hear a lot more debate over whether the U.S. should keep its troops in Iraq any longer or begin pulling out.

So how does one decide? We can argue as to whether invading Iraq was a good idea — I thought it was a terrible idea from the beginning, and still do — but that does not help us decide what to do next. One way to approach the problem is to ask what is likely to happen if we stay and what is likely to happen if we go (that is, by beginning to draw down U.S. troop levels significantly and eventually withdrawing our military completely).

First of all, fewer Americans will get killed or wounded the sooner we pull out — of primary concern to many Americans who do not understand any longer why we are in Iraq or support what we are accomplishing there. Some believe that American soldiers are more the problem than the solution to violence — they say our presence provokes attacks against us and anyone collaborating with us by Sunni insurgents, anti-American Shia militias and Al-Qaeda terrorists. There may be truth in this view — I know from spending some time in Iraq several decades ago that Iraqis are a proud people and do not like being occupied by foreign troops.

But with the apparent inability or unwillingness of Iraqis to manage an inclusive and effective democratic system, it is also very likely that our troops are the main barrier to all-out civil war between the Shia (supported by Iran) — who want power and believe that because they are in the majority, they should have it — and Sunnis (likely to be supported by Saudi Arabia and others in the region), who fear political and economic exclusion in a Shia-dominated government. One bad sign from the reports is that the Iraqi army will take some years to become an effective national force, and that the police are so corrupt and divided on sectarian bases that they should be disbanded. In short, there is no force in the country at present capable — apart from the U.S. military — of preventing war. And to complicate things further, it looks like there could also be civil conflict among factions of Shias, judging from the recent Shia-on-Shia violence in Karbala, a core Shia city.

Let’s not forget the regional stakes either. When we took down Saddam Hussein, we removed an important barrier to the expansion of Iranian influence in the oil-rich Gulf. Former U.S. administrations had been playing a balance of power political game there, trying to keep one unpleasant government in place with another. With Saddam gone and no effective Iraqi government in its place, what’s to stop Iran from asserting its influence in the region through intimidation, support of puppet states and all the usual tactics of hardball power politics?

We could walk away happily in spite of all this if it weren’t for our reliance and the reliance of our European and Japanese friends on oil. A serious disruption in oil flowing from the region could land us all in long lines at gas stations, and could lead to an increase in inflation and a further push towards recession at home.

So if we can’t stay because the majority of Americans want us to leave (and politicians are unusually sensitive to public opinion as the 2008 election nears) and we can’t go because we could leave a political and humanitarian disaster behind (worse, that is, than the one that already exists), what can we do?

I am not sure how we or anybody will fix Iraq any time soon. But I think it is safe to predict that whatever the reports or the presidential candidates say, we are stuck there for the foreseeable future. A small drawdown of U.S. troops might occur to appease the U.S. public, but the stakes are too high for us to do what we did in Vietnam – to pull out completely and let the chips fall where they may. And that’s because of oil.

My guess is that this will be the No. 1 problem for the next president. And maybe with a change of administration, he or she will have a better chance to garner the support of Europeans and regional powers in the Middle East to craft a more effective strategy for peace in Iraq and the Middle East – and the energy, commitment and skill to do so. This administration has sadly lacked these abilities.

Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. Behind the Podium appears every other Tuesday.

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