Nearly nine years after the start of military operations in Iraq, the prudence of America's intervention remains a hotly-debated topic. What should not be is that, having spent nearly a trillion taxpayer dollars and forfeited thousands of American lives, the United States now has an enormous stake in post-Saddam Iraq, and a vested interest in its long-term success.
In that context, the U.S. withdrawal from the former Ba'athist state, completed at the end of 2011, could carry enormous costs. President Obama's failure to extend our military presence can be chalked up, at least in part, to his own campaign pledge to wind down the Iraq war in favor of other priorities, as well as by domestic polling indicating that ordinary Americans have grown tired of that protracted foreign intervention.
But what might make sense on a political level is far less defensible on a strategic one. Already, there are alarming signs that, bereft of a stabilizing Western presence, Iraq's fragile coalition government has begun to come apart at the ethnic and sectarian seams. Just as troubling is mounting evidence that Iran—Iraq's radical eastern neighbor—is exploiting the opening created by a retraction of U.S. power to expand its own ideological and political influence there. All of which augurs ill for Iraq's geopolitical direction, and for the continued viability of its fledgling democracy.
Three-and-a-half years ago, upon departing his post as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus warned publicly that, despite significant progress toward stability, the gains made by the U.S.-led coalition in Saddam Hussein's former stronghold were both "fragile and reversible." The years since have seen further forward momentum on post-conflict reconstruction, growing competence on the part of the Iraqi military, and heartening signs of real political pluralism. Yet Petraeus' admonition remains apt; Iraq today is still very much a work in progress. It is one, moreover, that requires sustained attention and support from the United States and its allies.
Without some form of a military presence in the country, the U.S. will find it exceedingly difficult to provide either. And, in the wake of withdrawal, it could easily succumb to the temptation to disengage politically and strategically as well. If it does, America will squander the gains made there over the past decade at tremendous financial and human cost.