Editor's Note: Nathan Freier is a former Army officer, a senior fellow with CSIS's New Defense Approaches Project, and a Visiting Research Professor at the U.S. Army's Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute. He served in Iraq as a military strategist and travelled to Iraq on three occasions since leaving active duty to provide strategic advice.
By Nathan Freier - Special to CNN
From the beginning, I was convinced that American expectations for Iraq were unrealistic. Monday's press conference reinforced that conviction. In fact, I may be even more skeptical today. A "win" now - a relatively weak Iraq that doesn't trouble us or its neighbors and isn't a client of Iran - is a substantially lower bar than that which defined success in 2003. Leaving a token force there indefinitely would not change the outcome.
Yet, with the U.S. military presence ending this month, securing even this minimalist endstate will require continued U.S. attention and, therefore, should remain an administration priority. It isn't at all clear that this is the case. In fact, given the course of events in the Middle East, any administration would be challenged regardless of their attentiveness. Frankly, there is enormous risk associated with a politically under-developed Iraq suddenly adrift in a very difficult and unsettled neighborhood.
Iraq is a mess and will be for some time; meanwhile, a number of key states in close proximity to Iraq are either already on fire with runaway political unrest or teetering dangerously close to ignition, as active civil conflict encroaches on the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya all witnessed revolutionary change this year. Three despots are gone. Yet, the long-term stability of all three is still very much in doubt. Syria and Yemen are currently in the throes of civil war. Iran and Bahrain have both recently experienced historic levels of civil disorder with more on the horizon. Which state is next in line is anyone's guess.
What is clear to me is that the Arab Spring's rampant political disaffection and tech-enabled populism are potentially as potent in Iraq as they are anywhere else in the Arab world. And, as Iraq is still in the midst of dislocating political transition, it is more vulnerable to sudden, contagious instability than most Middle Eastern states.
If nothing else, recent events have demonstrated the speed by which disruptive 21st century political contagion undermines the existing order. It is difficult to predict its course and exceedingly troublesome to control it once underway. Thus, for U.S. decision makers, what might be a troubled but modestly stable Iraq today may prove an extremely violent and unstable Iraq tomorrow.
This is a cold shower for U.S. authorities eager to wash their hands of Iraq. If risk is best described as the likelihood of failure or unacceptable cost in pursuit of strategic objectives, then the U.S. is entering high-risk territory in the Middle East. And, in spite of our best efforts, Iraq may be a central point of regional vulnerability. Indeed, U.S. strategists would be well-advised to recognize that they are far more likely to be in the business of managing Iraq-related risk over the next few years than they are helping Iraq realize liberal political transformation or security self-sufficiency.
In my view, the best possible near- to mid-term outcome in Iraq is that it is basically self-sufficient, that it acts and governs itself with a modicum of responsibility and in ways roughly consistent with U.S. values and interests, and that it does not, through its external behavior or internal weakness, prove to be fundamentally destabilizing to an already unstable region.
All of these are high-risk propositions. In fact, there is plenty of evidence indicating that Iraq might succumb to Arab Spring-like forces turned suddenly cold, resulting in its rapid dissolution into competing fiefdoms or devolution into civil war. Either way, the U.S. has both a strategic interest in and a moral responsibility for Iraq's final disposition. After all, we broke it in the first place.
Thus, Iraq's current circumstances make close monitoring and detailed contingency planning unavoidable. After eight-plus years of opposed stabilization, we are leaving Iraq in the hands of a fractious and, to date, ineffective central government whose elected leaders have yet to mature as statesmen.
Despite their weakness, they exercise sovereign authority over a very strategic piece of real estate. Iraq also remains plagued by sectarian divisions. And, Iraq's government continues to demonstrate profound insensitivity, even hostility, toward minority populations. Violence and intimidation are its most common and effective political currency. And, consistent delivery of basic public goods - including security - is still a distant hope. As a consequence, powerful centrifugal forces persistently pull Iraq's various ethnic and religious constituencies toward natural extremes that militate against national unity.
Iraq will not reverse these negative influences without help, especially in the face of the seismic political shifts occurring around it. But, the U.S. should remain humble about the prospects for real Iraqi progress and accept new limitations on its reach and influence over future outcomes. In this regard, the U.S. should have a dual track approach to Iraq going forward - maintain a close working relationship with the Iraqi government while perpetually preparing for the high probability that Iraq will succumb to its own inherent instability and we will have to pick up the most important pieces.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Nathan Freier.