December 15th, 2011
01:00 PM ET

Freier: Will Iraq descend into chaos?

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.

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Topics: Iraq

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    Of course they will!!! Stupid question.

    December 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  2. attomind

    Iraq descend into chaos? No never! Before we invaded Iraq they were in chaos; during our many year occupation they were in chaos; and after we leave they will remain in chaos. What do we have to show for it? Many more pretty graves in Arlington National Cemetery.

    December 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Indeed, some fear that Iraq might become another Lebanon. There are great similarities between the nature of the two regimes, in which power is distributed along strict ethnic and sectarian lines. In Iraq the posts of president, premier and parliament speaker have been parcelled out to a Kurd, a Shia and a Sunni, all with deputies of the other groups. Yet a new sense of nationalism seems to emerge among the Shia clerics, who apparent want to break away from Iran's theocrats.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Reply
    • yash

      i know that iraqis did not have relative (there is none in this world with absolute) freedom before the war. But chaos was not present. there was dictatorship- but stability-- not chaos. atleast not what the dictionary says this word means.

      December 17, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Reply
    • Alex

      Succint...and, unfortunately, correct...analysis. The U.S. should have learned over the past 150 years that Democracy does not export well; it must be homegrown.

      December 18, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  3. Benedict

    I can see what Nathan Ferier was saying when he said that Iraq is a violent couldron that spill over if left to their own devices and yet,he's asking the US to stay in the Middle East for more years in the midst of the global economic meltdown and the fatigue felt by the American public for the involvement in a war that lost all popularity years ago!

    December 16, 2011 at 4:20 am | Reply
  4. Goodguy1

    Before the Gulf War, the first war, Iraq was in the top 20 in every measurable statistic for developed countries. Now it is just a graveyard.

    December 17, 2011 at 10:20 am | Reply
  5. anthonyn31

    The government in Baghdad there is in the brink of chaos already. Sorry, Bush-but that's what you get for illegally invading, looting, plundering, and destroying Iraq. The pandora's box has opened and there's no way to close it.

    December 17, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  6. Russ

    It's up to them! As for Iran, I read a spin off article here where the Shia suffered tremendous casualties during the IRAN IRAQ war.Would the the Shias just forget that? Would they be willing to let another occupying country just walk in ie. Iran. Where does the sense of Iraqi nationialism come into play accordance to Iran? We shall see. Btw, there is a US reaction force ready in Kuwait, Turkey, and Jordan if things get out of hand as Panetta announced earlier. So it might be over now. However, not in the future.

    December 18, 2011 at 11:25 am | Reply
  7. Alexander

    Overall a meaningful analysis, however the major missing aspect is that the fundamental cause of so-called Arab spring was dissatisfaction of essentially younger population with economic stagnation. Basically boredom. Mubaraq's Egypt was by far not the poorest country in the region, and basically free of religious madness. Gaddafi's Libya was actually living better than its neighbors.

    In contrast, Iraqi people are exhausted by war. Yes, there are factions, ethnic and religious divisions, but the areas where each group lives are geographically well defined and not disputed. So I do not foresee an imminent catastrophe.

    December 18, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Reply

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