Dispatch October 2006

We Can't Just Withdraw

Iraq may be closer to an explosion of genocide than we know.
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Because it turned out we had no postwar plan, our invasion (which I supported) amounted to a bet. Our withdrawal, when it comes to that, must be different. If we decide to reduce forces in the country under the current anarchic conditions, then we are both morally and strategically obligated to talk with Iran and Syria, as well as call for a regional conference. Iraq may be closer to an explosion of genocide than we know. An odd event, or the announcement of pulling 20,000 American troops out, might trigger it. We simply cannot contemplate withdrawal under these conditions without putting Iraq's neighbors on the spot, forcing them to share public responsibility for the outcome, that is if they choose to stand aside and not help us.

What we should all fear is a political situation in Washington where a new Congress forces President George W. Bush to redeploy, and Bush, doing so under duress, makes only the most half-hearted of gestures to engage Iraq's neighbors in the process. That could lead to hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq, rather than the tens of thousands we have seen. An Iran that continues to enrich uranium is less of a threat to us than genocide in Iraq. A belligerent, nuclear Iran is something we will, as a last resort, be able to defend against militarily. And it probably won't come to that. But if we disengage from Iraq without publicly involving its neighbors, Sunni Arabs—who will bear the brunt of the mass murder—will hate us for years to come from Morocco to Pakistan. Our single greatest priority at the moment is preventing Iraq from sliding off the abyss.

A tottering Iraq, informally divided into Iranian and Syrian zones of influence, even as Iran continues to enrich uranium, is an awful prospect. But it is not without possibilities: states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to balance against the new Shiite hegemony, will implicitly move closer to us and to Israel, perhaps providing useful assistance in a settlement of the Palestinian issue. Meanwhile, Teheran and Damascus will become further enmeshed in Iraq's problems. Future violence in Mesopotamia will become their fault; not ours. The weak border between Syria and the fundamentalist Sunni region of Iraq could well undermine the Alawite regime. We will manage.

What we will not be able to manage is a genocide, mainly of the Sunnis, that we alone will be seen as responsible for. Any withdrawal—with all of its military, diplomatic, economic aid, and emergency relief aid aspects—has to be as meticulously planned-out as our occupation wasn't. Staying the course may be a dead end. But don't think for a moment that "redeploying" is any less risky than invading.

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U. S. Naval Academy.
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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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