The new Administration will likely oversee the end of U.S. operations in Iraq. The end has already been set-up by the Bush Administration’s agreement with the Iraqi government to end the U.S. troop presence by 2011. The only real questions are if the Obama Administration will move the time table up, and exactly what the U.S. presence will be, if any, after the agreed upon withdrawal. While contemplating the nature of the post-withdrawal presence, DOD planners and policy makers should consider the examples of history. History shows us that although hasty withdrawal from occupation operations is politically attractive, it is often improperly conceived and fatal to the objectives of the occupation.
Two Cases in point:
In 1877 the U.S. army ended occupation operations in the former Confederate States. That same year all of the Confederate states reestablished conservative Democratic governments, in large part operated by former Confederates –the same leadership that attempted to secede from the Union and plunged the country into the deadliest war in its history. For the next 80 years the South was ruled at the local level by the white population which actively governed to keep the former slave population subjugated.
In 1902 the U.S. army ended its post Spanish-American War occupation of Cuba and withdrew all American troops from the new Republic of Cuba. Four years later the U.S. army returned as the government in Cuba fell into corruption and was about to be overthrown by a popular revolt. In 1909 the army left again and the Cubans were left to their own devices. Republican government was never firmly established in the country which eventually came under the control of the autocratic Batista regime which fell to the Castro revolution.
In both cases the army was withdrawn not because it had completed its mission, but in response to domestic U.S. politics. What was the army’s mission in occupation? In the South and in Cuba the mission was achieving the U.S. strategic objective of stable democratic government. In both cases the army withdrew after putting in place the structure of democratic government. However, structure was not enough and was quickly subverted.
U.S. Troops in Cuba circa 1902
In the case of the South and of Cuba, the failure of democracy resulted in long-term adverse effects for the United States. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s ultimately rectified problems in the South. Cuba remains a problem to this day.
So, as the new administration considers policy in Iraq, it must realize that a premature withdrawal from Iraq will likely result in a failed policy and future problems. The U.S. has built the structure of democracy in Iraq. However, Iraq as a society has no experience or tradition of democracy. For democracy to succeed will require U.S. mentorship, active support, and most importantly, large scale engagement with the Iraqi government. This can only happen with a long-term U.S. military presence in the country. Even after hostilities have ceased. Without time and continued U.S. support to ensure the viability of democracy, Iraq will follow the history of previous occupations, and previous attempts at democracy in the Middle East, and revert to chaos.
For further reading on the subject of failed U.S. occupations see my paper on the U.S. army in Reconstruction or the following books: