America's complete withdrawal of its troops from Iraq is a tragic mistake. It jeopardises the gains made by President Bush's (and Tony Blair's) eminently correct 2003 decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and risks the broader Middle East falling into chaos. Sadly, Bush himself initiated this mistake by agreeing to this end point in our status-of-forces agreement with Iraq, but it was consummated by Barack Obama, who never wanted to be in Iraq, and who is now delighted to pull the plug.
But those, like Obama, who welcome US withdrawal as vindicating their opposition to the Iraq war are profoundly misguided, ignoring the international coalition's real successes in Iraq and the dismal implications of their McGovernite "come home, America" strategy.
"US withdrawal from Iraq will enhance Iran's influence there and throughout the region, facilitating Tehran's progress toward achieving virtually all its goals."
First, the world is safer with Saddam dead and his regime on history's ash heap. He was a military aggressor, a terrorist supporter and a tyrant. His record of developing and using weapons of mass destruction is unquestionable, and his future course, had he succeeded in ending UN economic sanctions and freeing Iraq of weapons inspectors, entirely predictable. Now, no longer will Saddam invade his neighbours and threaten the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against either his fellow citizens or foreign adversaries, or have his thumb on the world's economic windpipe. With 20-20 hindsight, we now see we should have overthrown him in 1991 after he invaded Kuwait.
Second, Iraq is a better place without Saddam and his dictatorship. Anyone who believes differently has to argue that tyranny is better than representative government and rebut Benjamin Franklin's penetrating observation, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty not safety." Good luck with that.
Undeniably, the period between Saddam's overthrow and today was grim, and deadly for too many. Post-Saddam, we should have rapidly handed over civil authority to Iraqis rather than establishing the Coalition Provisional Authority. Despite the CPA's intense, good-faith efforts, al-Qaida and Iran were sure to try exploiting its highly visible role, thus creating steadily deteriorating security conditions, even as the Iraqi people sought to construct the institutions of a free society. President Bush's 2006-07 surge overcame many, but far from all, of the security threats that existed, again setting Iraq on the right path. It is thus particularly cruel to Iraqis that Obama is withdrawing according to an arbitrary, essentially ideological timetable, rather than one based on facts on the ground.
Third, and a fine irony, US withdrawal from Iraq will enhance Iran's influence there and throughout the region, facilitating Tehran's progress toward achieving virtually all its goals. Considerable criticism of our overthrowing Saddam rested on the argument that terminating his regime eliminated a strong Arab-Sunni barrier to expanding Iranian-Shia influence. That view was always simplistic, given the region's vastly complex religious and ethnic politics. We had two threats to combat, and eliminating one inevitably meant confronting the other in due course. Unfortunately, under both Bush and Obama, we did not deal adequately with Iran's nuclear-weapons programme and its support for terrorism. That Iran is now more of a danger stems far more from that western failure than from overthrowing Saddam.
Iran has already substantially increased its meddling inside Iraq, both influencing the regime of Nouri al-Maliki and enhancing the capabilities of terrorist thugs like Muqtada al-Sadr. It is challenging its Arab neighbours across the Gulf, threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz and target the US bases and facilities there (as well as Nato forces in Turkey). Tehran is obviously willing to shed considerable Syrian blood to keep Assad's dictatorship in power, and Hezbollah effectively in control in Lebanon. And Iran moves inexorably closer to its long-sought objective of nuclear weapons deliverable by intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The withdrawal of US forces from Iraq will unquestionably increase Iran's relative regional power. America's Arab allies in the Gulf Co-operation Council are extraordinarily nervous about Washington's staying power, especially under the weak, indecisive and inattentive Obama presidency. Containing and ultimately overthrowing the regimes in Iran and Syria could have been substantially advanced during the US military presence in Iraq, and will clearly be much more difficult after our withdrawal. Those who say they want Iran contained should have supported a substantial, long-term US military presence in Iraq.
In short, our withdrawal from Iraq presages a world where Obama-style policies of American decline and turning inward have prevailed. Be warned: you'll miss us when we're gone. By then, of course, it will be too late.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI