Sometime in the next two years, the United States will begin removing its armed forces from Iraq. Whether next month’s anticipated Petraeus report hastens or delays that departure, the rhetoric of virtually all leading presidential candidates appears to ensure the ultimate outcome.
Israel, located barely 300 miles from Iraqi’s border with Jordan, is certain to be affected by an American pullout at the most profound strategic level. So, of course, will other Middle East states, both Arab and non-Arab.
Indeed, this could well be a formative event with far-reaching ramifications for most of the Middle East — far more than the original American occupation of Iraq. In its decision-making regarding withdrawal, Washington is unlikely to assign highest priority to Israeli and Arab interests, as it will look out first for America’s own. Israel, therefore, has to take stock of the ramifications of a withdrawal and, as a friend of the United States, has both a need and an obligation to communicate its concerns to American policy planners and to Israel’s friends and supporters in the United States.
Israeli strategic analysts must first examine how extensive America’s anticipated withdrawal from Iraq will be. If, for example, the United States leaves tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft in three or four “permanent” bases now being readied in Iraq, this might reduce the damage withdrawal would cause to America’s force projection and deterrent profile.
Israel has every reason to encourage an American withdrawal plan that reduces the impression that America’s backing for its friends in the Middle East is eroding. Not only would a diminished American deterrent profile encourage Iranian and Arab Islamist aggression, it could further constrain the already-limited readiness among moderate Sunni states to coordinate defensive efforts with Israel.
One could, of course, argue that the more quickly and completely the United States withdraws and ends its failed mission in Iraq, the sooner it can begin restoring a positive superpower image in the region and patching up relations with the Middle East’s large Sunni Arab majority, both of which would presumably be to Israel’s benefit. But if the speed and comprehensiveness of the American departure from Iraq are debatable from Israel’s standpoint, the remaining ramifications appear to be far more straightforward, and worrisome, in terms of Israel’s vital security interests.
To begin with, a withdrawal of the United States and its allies is almost certain to enable Iran to expand its influence and presence in Iraq’s Shi’ite south. This brings Iran, with its hegemonic ambitions, closer to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria — and hence closer to Israel.
Jordan in particular is liable to be adversely affected by additional waves of refugees and possible subversion and destabilization. Bordering on Iraq’s Anbar province — where militant Sunni Islamists have made their base and where chaos will likely spread following a withdrawal — the Hashemite Kingdom is Israel’s only strategic depth looking to the east.
The departure of the American enemy is liable to send Al Qaeda militants in Iraq westward toward Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Israel itself, in much the way the Soviet departure from Afghanistan nearly two decades ago sent Arab Islamist fighters back to their home countries to foment unrest.
Meanwhile Syria, ever fearful of militant Sunni Islamists despite having abetted them in Iraq, could be drawn even deeper into the Iranian orbit. Already Syria and Iran are reportedly considering heating up the Syrian-Israeli border in the coming months as a means of diverting American pressure away from them both.
Alongside the threat to Jordan, the American departure, if not carefully managed, is liable to pit against one another two other nations friendly to Israel, the Turks and the Kurds of northern Iraq. Israel, with so few friends in the region, should not have to choose between them.
It is a fairly simple exercise to move from this outline survey of the dangers to Israel projected by an American withdrawal, to ask what Israel needs in terms of preventive American policy in Iraq prior to withdrawal in order to secure its interests. Not coincidentally, these are essentially the same requirements that American diplomats have been hearing lately from the leaders of the moderate Sunni Arab states bordering on Iraq.
First and foremost, the United States should leave behind a stable, moderate regime, meaning it should replace the current failed regime before it leaves. An alternative Iraqi leadership doesn’t have to be “democratic” in the Bush-reformist sense of empowering militant Islamists at the ballot box. A regime led by a moderate but tough Shi’ite autocrat will do nicely from the standpoint of all of Iraq’s worried neighbors, except for Iran.
At the regional strategic level, that regime has to be capable of blocking the expansion of Iranian power westward and overcoming extremist Sunni elements. Meanwhile, the United States has to provide backing and encouragement for security cooperation between Israel and the moderate Sunni Arab regimes against Iran and militant Sunnis.
The Olmert government knows it will have to pay a price for this in the form of an accelerated peace process. It seems prepared to do so as long as its Arab peace partner, whether Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah or Bashar Assad in Damascus, is stable and reliable.
Right now Israel is being asked to deliver on a process with Abbas, but without any significant dialogue with Washington about its concerns in Iraq. Some Israeli policy planners feel that the United States is not interested in Israel’s opinion about a withdrawal from Iraq, just as it shut Israel out of its planning for the 2003 invasion of that country. It is, for example, quite instructive to witness repeated American-sponsored meetings about Iraq held in the Sinai resort of Sharm al-Sheikh and involving all interested parties except Israel, which is a stone’s throw away.
Should Israel make its Iraq-related concerns better known in Washington? Some Israelis voluntarily made their views about Iraq known to the Americans prior to the invasion; there were both public expressions of encouragement and public and private admonitions, including by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, regarding the dangers Washington would encounter in Baghdad. This mixed bag did not prevent Israel’s detractors from blaming it and its neoconservative cheerleaders for the entire abortive Iraq war effort.
Today, beyond a clumsy endorsement by Ehud Olmert of President Bush’s refusal a few months ago to withdraw, Israel is not sharing its concerns. As a friend and ally of the United States, and in view of the possible far-reaching negative consequences of a poorly executed withdrawal from Iraq, Israel owes a blunt word or two to its American partners — even if Jerusalem’s vital interests collide with the demands of some American presidential candidates.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.