As the Bush presidency lurches through its lame duck trajectory into history, most pundits seem to agree that the judgment of history will not be kind. That defining decision of the Bush presidency, the Iraq adventure, is now seen to have been based on false assumptions, and there is still no exit strategy. Iraq, some say, has become another Vietnam, a political tar-baby and unfolding foreign policy disaster.
But is that right? How can we know, with events still playing themselves out in Iraq, what the judgment of history will be?
Certainly support for staying in Iraq is eroding rapidly among the American people. According to recent polls, more than 60 per cent of voters favour withdrawal in 12 months or less. But as in Australia, the views of the people are not necessarily reflected in the intentions of the political class.
Both the leading Democratic candidates, Clinton and Obama, have said they would hope to withdraw completely by 2013. But neither will give an unqualified commitment, not even Obama, who was an early critic of the war. Meanwhile, the Republican front runner, John McCain, has supported the war from day one. He believes the war was just and necessary, though it has been mismanaged.
As in the story of the blind men and the elephant, Australia and America have very different experiences of Iraq. For us, whether to stay or go was never more than a symbolic decision. Our commitment was small, even in relative terms, and we have thankfully suffered no battle casualties. But the Americans made a big investment: in men, in money, in lives, in face, in everything.
Iraq is a sunk cost for the US, and for them, withdrawing to watch from afar as Iraq descends into chaos is an ugly scenario. It would invalidate the sacrifices already made. It would sow a crop of foreign policy nightmares.
Anyone who thinks they know for sure what would happen in the aftermath of an American withdrawal is deluding himself. The best that can be done is to consider a range of plausible scenarios.
At the optimistic end of the range, it is plausible to argue, as McCain does, that given time, troops, and the right strategies, the various tribal and religious groups inside Iraq can be brought together under strong leadership. A constituency develops for compromise and accommodation as people start to realise that no one side can achieve a decisive victory in the sectarian violence. People fight wars with the intention of winning them. Neither Sunni, nor Shiite, nor Kurd wants never ending sectarian violence with no prospect of victory.
In this scenario, Iraq slowly stabilises and starts to mature towards some kind of a democracy. Call this the Northern Ireland scenario, where everybody eventually gets tired of being afraid to go to the market for fear of being shot or bombed, and the sectarian groups agree to end the violence.
At the pessimistic end of the range, a phased American withdrawal hits a tipping point at which the various heavily armed militias inside Iraq explode into open warfare. This is the Somalia scenario, the descent into chaos.
In this scenario, a chaotic Iraq becomes a playground for America’s enemies, like Somalia or Afghanistan before it, but on a much, much bigger scale. Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and al-Qaida all compete violently for power, aiming to gain control of Iraq’s enormously valuable oil reserves, and/or create a platform from which to launch terror attacks on Israel and the US.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran would be drawn into the mess, either directly or through proxies. Some of these countries are American allies now, but what would happen if the Saudis and/or the Iranians decided to intervene in a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, or Turkey decided to invade the Kurdish regions in Northern Iraq?
Both the Northern Ireland and Somalia scenarios are possible, and any number of possible variations and sub variations are plausible as well. Many of the withdrawal scenarios entail the write-off of a huge sunk cost for America, as well as largely incalculable risks for the long term stability of the whole Middle East.
For all these reasons, there is less difference on Iraq between Republicans and Democrats than between Liberal and Labor here. The US has so much more invested in Iraq. Regardless of our speculations on how history will judge the Bush presidency, and regardless of how America votes in November, we should not expect a rapid withdrawal.
The irony is that even if a war critic like Obama wins in November, he will find himself working hard to stabilise Iraq and build something positive from Bush’s legacy.