What would happen?
In the first few days after the announcement of a withdrawal the news would be positive ranging on the ecstatic from the media. After all, the central cities...especially Baghdad, where most of the media services are, wouldn't see much of a change--at first. Long held but historically uninformed ideas by a range of pundits would seem to be validated. However, once the logistics of withdrawal were put in place we would see a huge upsurge in attacks by insurgents. After all, to win their version of the public relations game they would need to be seen as expelling the occupiers, and large scale attacks would have to be attempted. The coalition would weather it well by historical standards but not near well enough for today's interconnected world. Border controls on foreign-fighter entry by Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia would become relaxed, and many more jihadis would enter the country. From the standpoint of the hostile border states, this would be a 'last chance' to thin their excess trouble prone male youth against the US & coalition troops where they could be assured most of them would die. One of the reason said countries have been so complicit in allowing jihadis into Iraq is because if they die by American hands, they won't be destabilizing our own 'corpse in armor' regimes. At this time, things would take a distinctly darker turn. Despite good-faith efforts by elements of the coalition-trained Iraqi army & central government, the regions would start to unravel. The Kurds, knowing that they can neither count on our support or respect restraints imposed by the US, would accelerate ethnic cleansing efforts aimed at eventual secession. Iran would be emboldened to act in the South, which possibly could lead to a Shia-Shia schism, making that area of the country progressively less governable. Some like to think of the Shia as monolithic--however the Arab/Persian divide would once again be thrust to the forefront, as would divisions between Sadrist and Al-Sistani backed militias. The big losers in some ways would be the Sunni. Without engagement by the U.S., Shia and Kurdish forces would not have to act with restraint...and quickly the Sunni-nationalists would find themselves overrun--and often slaughtered by their erstwhile Jihadist 'allies.'
In the countryside things would be worse still. All of us have heard of the mass reeducation camps that followed the fall of Saigon, of Stalin's purges, and of the Khmer Rouge. Those occurred far away from western eyes. Jihadis, on the other hand, don't believe in the reeducation of infidels. Murder and torture are their prescribed remedy. They also happen to be media savvy. We would see the torture and murder of entire towns, of educated classes, of the Shia, and of anyone that participated in the post-Saddam government as a nightly horror show. And by the time the media noticed, and put forth a collective 'make it stop' outcry, we would no longer have the credibility or the leverage to do anything about it. After all, why should anyone respond to an American outcry when they left Iraq when they were winning?
The central government would increasingly be pulled by their regional interests, and as a result the most partisan and extreme politicians would rise. Rhetoric would replace the attempt at good governance. Meanwhile, the Iraqi army--elements of which are already the finest trained Arab forces, because of the American-introduced development of strong N.C.O.s--would be more and more likely to stage a coup. This is especially likely because our midwifery of the Iraqi forces in not complete. We need to make them accountable to civil control, build strong N.C.O.s, and develop transitions for those leaving the service to assume a life in the citizenry. We've just started the middle task--but without completing the other two we'd leave a strong army without checks upon it. Such a coup would initially be seen as a good thing in the West. However, due to actions by foreign nations and a radicalized population they would quickly loose control unless they instigated the most draconian--that is, Saddam-llike, measures. However, there is one question that needs answering, and is never asked by most of the mainstream media: Why would the rest of the middle east meddle in Iraq's affairs?
Fear and Opportunity
I used the phrase 'corpse in armor regimes' earlier. This isn't my idea...it comes from Robert Kaplan. It does, however, accurately describe Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser degree Iran. These regimes have not adapted well to the post cold war. Their militaries are large, but do not have effective methods of reintegrating former soldiers and officers--they end up as disaffected youths, corrupt government officials, or underused elites eyeing political power for themselves. The regimes have more freedom of action but are held more accountable by the people and posses large youth bulges they run the risk of destabilization by males aged 16-25 who have not 'bought in' to society through employment and marriage. That's one reason they are complicit about the exportation of Jihad. If these violence-prone youth die in Afghanistan, or the Balkans, or Chechnia, or Iraq, it's no longer the problem of their ruling elites. The fact that these governments have long been in power makes their ideas ossified...as does the lack of criticism from a 'loyal opposition.' A democratic Iraq that is stable and (especially) prosperous would hold up a mirror these regimes, and they would not like the reflection they see. Their current actions are based on the fear of loss of face, and loss of control. Due to the lack of strategic thinking they are ignoring the long term effects of current actions, to their grave peril. They do not see what they should truly fear.
An unstable Iraq along the lines or Somalia or Afghanistan, or even (hopefully) the former Yugoslavia in the nineties would be a true nightmare for the walking dead regimes. Their militaries cannot control their borders, and increased globalization would allow for populist movements to flourish...and without a mature opposition demagogues would compete in the fiery rhetoric department, without comprehension of what would realistically happen should their demands be implemented. The downtrodden in the middle east want a better life, not jihad--but the jihadis are the only one expousing an alternative that the government doesn't shut down (part our of fear, partly out of lack of vision). When extremism doesn't provide something better it will lead to more instability and disillusionment, making the ordinary citizen's life more dire and risky. Think of the latter stages of the French revolution...One ideology would replace another without affecting the well being of anyone, leading to a downward cycle that would be fueled continually by oil wealth. Would a Napoleon or Hitler arise? Perhaps. Or worse--the region could be isolated (except for heavily armed oil conveys dealing with the regimes du jour) and left to fester and burn itself out.
The rest of the gulf would also suffer. Destabilization would put an end to the rise of Qatar, the U.A.E., and the other modernizing sheikdoms. Security the global financial markets require would be impossible. Jordan, which has made the most honest effort to improve the lives of its people, would face increasing pressure from Saudi Arabia and Syria as those central governments lost control of their people. It might lead, however, to even closer ties with Israel. The Palestinian attempt at self-government would end badly, due to radicalization of societal elements and Iranian influence (more on the later).
I mentioned opportunity as well. Many of the regimes see an opportunity to gain influence and power in the rubble of Iraq--this also influences their actions. This is especially true for Iran. The current government is trying to regain the support of its people by promoting war with 'the other.' It is not the west that needs Iran as an enemy...the Mullahs need something to set up in opposition. They would seize the opportunity provided by American withdrawal to step up activity with the Iraq shia. In my opinion, this would end badly, but the Iranian leadership doesn't care...they just want their country mobilized. They think they can blame all on the West. Likewise with their efforts in Palestine and Lebanon, as well as their effort to acquire nukes. Their priority is cementing their own power, and they see an endless jihad, AKA 'The Clash of Civilizations', AKA a new cold war, as a perfect opportunity.
An Israel, on the other hand, sees American withdrawal from the Middle East as abandonment. Without our influence to limit the actions of Arab regimes Israel would likely see no option but to act unilaterally. Israel would strike Iran's nuclear facilities, and would start acting far harsher to its neighbors. This in turn, would lead to even more instability and the life of the ordinary citizen would become increasingly anarchic. What next? Eventually another power would enter the game to stabilize the region--probably with a wink and a nod from Israel, the surviving middle east regimes, and the European Community. The US is out...the UN is ineffective, and the EU lacks the drive or military power. That leaves Russia, which most likely would partner with Iran--which would stabilize the Caucuses (snuffing out democratic dreams in the process) but not the rest of the region, due to long-standing resentment between Arabs and Persians. There is one other player, however...
Enter the Dragon
China would enter the breach left by the departure of the Anglophone coalition. India would most likely be a junior partner. They have many in the region who could influence the course of events due to the large migrant worker populace in the M.E. Up to now India's ties with America have been getting stronger, but were we to show such fickle foreign policy they would turn their attentions to China immediately. If we withdrew from the middle east, why would we side with India--which has no oil--against China? The effect of Chinese hegemony in the region is beyond the scope of this essay, or the writer's knowledge. However, three questions should be posed:
1. Would China attach as much priority to the economic and societal development as the region as we (the anglophone sphere) would?
2. Would they be encouraged or discouraged from taking bolder action vis-a-vis Japan & Taiwan?
3. If through their influence they had more control over the 'oil weapon' what would they do with it on the international scene?
The War at Home
Many have claimed that Iraq is 'another Vietnam.' In my opinion the only way it will be is if we withdraw unilaterally without building durable institutions, and supporting the nacant government economically, politically, and militarily for a decade or so. For example, our withdrawal from Vietnam certainly emboldened the U.S.S.R. and its proxies to step up actions in the third world. This led to their fueling of instability in central America, the Khmer Rouge regime, and the Ethiopian collectivization.
Things would be worse than post-Vietnam in the middle east and Africa, however. The U.S.S.R. was a much more rational actor than the jihadis. As horrid as the communist governments were, they provided a kind of regional stability. The Jihadis can only export anarchy--Anarchy that endangers us and wrecks the lives of others--and anarchy we would witness on a daily basis because of increasing interconnectivity. Immediate withdrawal would leave a power vacuum that other countries far less liberal than the U.S. would fill. As Niall Ferguson has said "There is often a view than if only the U.S. would stop intervening abroad the rest of the world would join hands and enact the lyrics from John Lennon's 'Imagine.' History suggests otherwise."
On a more micro level, these are some things we could expect stateside:
1. Reenlistment and recruiting among the military to drop dramatically.
2. Acceleration of the realignment of political parties to the benefit of the neo-isolationists from the left and the right. Disillusionment in the electorate, leading to societal navel-gazing. This would lead to a greater risk of ignoring the next threats to our security and way of life.
3. Increased estrangement of 1st & 2nd generation Immigrants from the Muslim world.
4. Less credibility in Europe, leading to less influence. Expect to see Eastern Europe being bullied more by the German/French Axis and Russian to reassert it's Soviet era sphere of influence.
5. Speaking of Europe...the French riots that are in their 9th day? You ain't seen nothin' yet.
These predictions are rather dire--in some ways their a worst case scenario. However, isn't it the job of our State and DOD representatives to worst-case every potential point of conflict? I think one thing that is apparent is that even if we were to withdraw troops we would need enough of a force to remain to be a credibly interlocutor in the region. An immediate withdrawal would be disastrous, and I doubt it would occur anywhere but in uber-lefty-pundit-fantasyland.
Unfortunately, stranger things have happened...