This piece was first published in the Sentinel & Enterprise on Jan. 16, 2020.
By Joshua B. Spero, PhD
Professor, Department of Economics, History and Political Science
As the early dramatic days of 2020 temporarily subside from flooding the news cycles regarding the U.S.-Iran confrontation, the precipitous, destabilizing developments over the status of U.S. Military forces in Iraq remains increasingly uncertain – and crucial.
Against the unceasing cacophony of politicians and policymakers over breathtaking developments regarding Iraq and Iran, we’re caught in unending partisan recriminations, just when America stands at a critical U.S. foreign policy juncture.
Even if the higher potential for war against Iran momentarily decreases, we face long-time challenges defining endpoints for wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the latter two our longest approaching two decades.
Yet, Iraq’s constantly destabilized nation-hood remains integral to the U.S. – tied now more so to the 2020 presidential election cycle – as Iran’s power may yet grow regionally, like it’s done since the 2003 U.S.-British led invasion of Iraq.
We’re again witnessing Iraq’s destabilization, but this region’s centuries old animosities between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and non-Arabic Muslim Kurds, now increasingly overlaps with expanding conflicts enmeshing Persians and Turks, let alone Christians, Jews, and Hindus across North Africa, Southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia.
Most outside of Iraq-Iran’s region fail to consider the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war’s impact with approximately one million deaths and estimated two million wounded. In supporting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein against Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and USSR raised the stakes for that war’s United Nations-negotiated ceasefire – by then opposing Saddam Hussein’s 1990 Kuwait invasion.
And now, power dilemmas entrap Iraq’s caretaker government, threatening its continued U.S. support and countered by its embrace of Iran, options fated to the U.S.-Iran confrontation.
Consequently, the 2015 “Iran denuclearization” agreement’s unraveling – and deterioration of negotiations with Iran by the U.S., China, Russia, European Union, and UN – also remains fated to Iraq’s uncertainty: America’s 2018 withdrawal from the agreement, subsequent “maximized” pressuring of Iran, and push for other signatories to abandon the denuclearization framework.
This fated crossroads parallels the stark realities of Iran ridding itself of most of the agreement’s constraints, the U.S. requesting NATO allies do more to avoid another Iraqi civil war, and the regional powers around Iraq of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia considering possible territorial annexation of Iraq.
Amid this historical sweep affecting early 2020, we careen from tweet and news flash as the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Brigade Combat Team of 4,000 response force soldiers immediately deployed from Fort Bragg, North Carolina’s 82nd Airborne Division into and around Iraq.
For the father of a 24-year-old son scheduled to deploy to Iraq from another of these 82nd Airborne’s Infantry Brigade Combat Teams, this gives me great pause.
For I remember that two-year old sitting on my knee when I’d bring him over in the mid-late 1990s from the Pentagon Daycare Center – and into the intensity of the strategic/scenario planning officers of the Joint Chief’s extraordinarily dedicated Joint Staff.
We appreciated what military contingencies entailed and recognized the grave realities involving operations, keenly planned with our Central and European Command counterparts. Those recommendations provided the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs advice to the Secretary of Defense and the President.
Further deployments from the 82nd Airborne Division in the weeks and months ahead give me even greater pause for it’s difficult to remain dispassionate.
This said, one final assessment remains essential to our understanding: the boiling cauldron that might ignite a wider Middle East war – between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Prioritizing how Iran and Saudi Arabia might avoid war remains imperative as their regional power plays endanger Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, and Jordan, the most prominent tripwires.
And, pausing to strategize the foreboding implications for how a volatile Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict seriously impacts the revival of al-Qaeda and Islamic State international terrorist networks, potentially engulfs the U.S., Russia, and other great powers more.
We’ve been part of these power dilemmas well before Sept. 11, 2001.
Even as the 2020 electoral cycle re-envelopes us, we need to plan more clearly if our allies and friends will continue alongside us in overseas commitments.
Like our constant challenges abroad, when allies and friends need our help, requesting we remain or return to their lands, hopefully we can decide more diplomatically, peacefully on such solemn commitments.
Joshua B. Spero, Ph.D., Professor of International Relations at Fitchburg State University, formerly served as Senior Civilian Strategist, Joint Chiefs of Staff (1994-2000).