What happens in Iraq will not stay in Iraq. That is, other states have an interest in the Sunni-Shiite fight. In many Arab countries, particularly the United States' oil-providing protectorates in the Persian Gulf, the ruling elite fear Iran and oppose the emergence of a Shiite-dominated Iraq, something the U.S. military occupation effectively created when it sided with the Shiites against the Sunnis in 2003. These ruling elites worry that they too could be replaced one by one with "faithful" Sharia-based Islamists.
The Bush State Department seems determined to exploit such fears, promising that giant American bases like the 30,000-man Balad Air Base will offer the Sunni elites security in the form of an anti-Iranian Maginot line that stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Turkish border. This may be the Bush administration's strategic ploy to win the support (or acquiescence) of neighboring Sunni Arab countries for continuing the U.S. military occupation of Iraq long after Bush leaves office. However, what the corrupt ruling elites of the Arab world agree to and what their restive populations will accept are very different things—meaning that a status quo predicated on U.S. troops remaining stationed in Iraq lacks stability.
Tehran is certainly watching developments in Iraq with interest. The Iranian leaders have turned out to be very competent chess players in foreign affairs, carefully calculating each move. As demonstrated by the recent National Intelligence Estimate's reassessment of Iranian nuclear aims, the Bush administration and its generals are, at best, poker players. Every raise and bluff by the Bush administration and its generals in Baghdad has been effectively countered with some very thoughtful, strategic moves by Tehran—moves aimed at cultivating close relationships with Turkey, Russia, China, and even Europe.
This brings us to the big concern: The unresolved (if not heightened) instability within Iraq could lead to unforeseen consequences of a strategic nature—say, a war between Turkey and the Kurds. Inside Turkey, the United States is viewed as a false friend, and as having betrayed the interests of its steadfast Turkish ally. Not only has Washington failed to end Kurdish support in Iraq for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which advocates independence for Kurds inside Turkey, but the United States also occupied Iraq over Ankara's strong objections. These points of friction coincide with an Islamic revival and a growing desire within Turkey for an assertion of national power. Like the Orthodox Church and Russian nationalism, Islam is inextricably intertwined with Turkish identity, culture, and history.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 9 percent of Turks still hold a favorable view of the United States, a figure that places Turkey last of 46 countries surveyed. Turks now see America as a threat to Turkish national security. The anti-American attitude has been reinforced in the past few years within popular culture. In the Turkish blockbuster Valley of the Wolves Iraq, a small Turkish force heroically battles an evil U.S. military commander and his troops. In Metal Storm, a recent best-selling work of fiction, an all-out war between Ankara and Washington in 2007 is described, a war Turkey wins with the aid of Russian and European support.
Iran suspects it is a matter of when, not if, the Turks intervene in northern Iraq. Turkey, which boasts the largest army in NATO, is the 500-pound gorilla of the Muslim world and Iran knows it. And anti-Kurdish sentiment is leading to an alliance between Iran, Turkey, and Syria, each of which fear growing Kurdish independence.
It's hard to imagine a worse outcome for the United States than the sudden intervention of 100,000 Turkish troops in northern Iraq. Turkish intervention would rob the United States of the support of Kurdish troops that are now policing northern Iraq against Al Qaeda and containing the Sunni insurgency. And the Iranians, who are the real power behind the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government, would support a Turkish military intervention. (Russia and China might support the anti-Kurdish alliance, too.)
All this could well embolden the Sunni Arab insurgents to renew their war against the U.S. military. In the midst of this, the Saudis, Egyptians, and Gulf oil protectorates might even turn to the Turks, the natural leaders of the Sunni Muslim world, as a preferable alternative to their ties with the West and Israel. And add to this mix the instability within nuclear-armed Pakistan. This could all lead to a dreaded situation in which the United States finds itself stuck in the middle of a regional war, with the potential for chaos in Iraq on the rise and Iran's influence in Iraq growing.
Which brings us back to the Great Awakening. As 2008 approaches, all we can say with certainty is that unrelenting Arab hatred of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the nature of the Sunni-Shiite struggle will make it unlikely that the cash-for-cooperation strategy will buy Iraq genuine stability, let alone the legitimate political order that is needed. (In the Saidiyah neighborhood of Baghdad, U.S. military officers have groups of "concerned citizens"—mainly Sunni—on the payroll. And the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has tried to undermine this effort, fearing the United States is organizing a rival Sunni force.)
Wherever American forces operate, they make a difference to their surroundings, but even officers with years of service in Iraq doubt that whatever the U.S. military builds for Iraq will survive the withdrawal of U.S. military power. History supports their conclusion. The last thousand years of history demonstrate that the imposition of foreign, particularly Western Christian, political systems or control on Muslim Arabs through military occupation has no chance of enduring permanently.
The storm may not hit soon. Until January 20, 2009, there is a high probability that the Arabs will take all the cash the generals are willing to give them, make minimal trouble, and bide their time. The Turks also prefer to wait for U.S. forces to leave or draw down before they intervene to eliminate the Kurdish threat. And Iran is nothing if not patient.
That said, if the next administration fails to disengage its forces from Iraq and renews the determination to hold on to the country, if it does not renounce the myth that America's mission in the world is to impose American concepts of political order on foreign peoples burdened with undeveloped economies and dysfunctional societies, all bets are off. Sunni and Shiite patience may well wear out, neighboring powers may cooperate to intervene, and this worst-case scenario (or one just as frightening) may eventually come to pass, compelling the United States to fight a major regional war far from its shores, one that is irrelevant to its strategic interests.
Meanwhile, thanks to superficial analysis and weak reporting from the media, the right questions about the "awakening" are going unasked and, therefore, unanswered. If the Marine Corps leadership were able to achieve a cease-fire with the Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, a place where U.S. forces sustained a disproportionate number of their casualties on a monthly basis over the last three years, was it really necessary to commit additional U.S. combat troops? Why was it not possible to extend the Anbar model to the rest of Sunni-held Iraq? Or did the generals in Baghdad begin cutting deals with the Sunni insurgents only when the mounting casualties from the surge in the spring and early summer of 2007 compelled them to do so?
But the main problem is the belief held by U.S. policymakers and generals that the critical issue in Iraq is tactics, not the overall mission: occupying and trying to control a Muslim Arab country. Given the conventional wisdom that the U.S. counterinsurgency efforts are working, the imperial hubris at the top of the Bush administration, and the complacency in Congress, the conditions are ideal for a spin-off war that could cause us one day to wonder how we Americans could have ever been so stupid as to occupy Iraq.