Now that the American people have recognized that the war in Iraq is hopeless, what comes next? The United States is going to cut its losses and withdraw. Most likely, the withdrawal will start within months and be more or less complete by autumn 2007. If not, then the war will dominate the next U.S elections as it has the recent ones, and that is something neither the Democrats nor the Republicans want.
Withdrawing 140,000 men with all their equipment is a very complex operation. In 1945 and 1973, America simply evacuated its troops, leaving most of its equipment to its West European and South Vietnamese protégés respectively. This time things are different. So precious is modern defense equipment that not even the largest power on earth can afford to abandon large quantities of it.
Second, whatever equipment is left in Iraq is likely to fall into the hands of America's enemies. Thus the Pentagon will have no choice but to evacuate millions of tons of war matériel the way it came - in other words, back at least as far as Kuwait. Doing so will be time-consuming, enormously expensive and dangerous, as road-bound convoys making their way south are attacked.
The Iraq that the American forces leave behind them has been devastated. Its infrastructure has been wrecked. The oil industry, which used to account for 90 percent of its income, is in ruins. A recent estimate puts human losses at 150,000 dead. Worst of all, a government that can master the situation is not in sight. In its absence, Shiites and Sunnis are almost certainly going to fight each other for a long time to come; Shiites may also fight other Shiites. The beneficiaries are going to be the Kurds, who have been quietly expelling Arabs from northern Iraq, laying the foundation for their own state.
A reunited Iraq will take a long time to rise, if it ever does. A fragmented Iraq will greatly strengthen the position of Iran. To make sure some future American president does not get it into his or her head to attack Iran, the Iranians are going to press ahead as fast as they can in building nuclear weapons.
A powerful Iran presents a threat to the world's oil supplies and should therefore worry Washington. To deter Iran, U.S. forces will have to stay in the region for the indefinite future, probably divided between Kuwait, Oman, and other Gulf states. One can only hope that the forces in question, and the political will behind them, will be strong enough to deter Iran.
Some countries in the Middle East ought to be even more worried about Iran than the United States is. While turning to America for protection, several of them will almost certainly take a second look into the possibility of starting their own nuclear programs. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Syria may all end up with nuclear arsenals.
An Iraq that is in a state of chronic civil war will present an ideal breeding ground for terrorists of every sort. Most will probably operate within Iraq, but some will almost certainly take on the regimes of neighboring Arab countries, such as Jordan and Kuwait. Some may reach Lebanon, others Israel. Others still will try to extend their activities into the West. Another Osama bin Laden, setting up his headquarters somewhere in Iraq and directing his operations from there, is a distinct possibility.
Before 2003, many people looked at the United States as a colossus that was bestriding the earth. Whatever else, the war has left America with its international position weakened. The first task confronting Robert Gates, nominated to be the new secretary of defense, and his eventual successors must be to rebuild U.S. forces to the point where they may again be used if necessary.
Above all, America must take a hard look at its foreign policy. What role should the strongest power on earth play in the international arena, and just what are the limits of that role? How can U.S. power be matched with its finite economic possibilities and under what circumstances should it be used? If American power is used, what should its objectives be?
The answers to these questions may well have to wait until the 2008 elections sweep what remains of the Bush administration into the dustbin of history.
Copyright © 2006 The International Herald Tribune