America will pay a high price for defeat in Iraq. Our global credibility is seriously damaged—it is surely no accident that the weekend after President Obama announced that we were abandoning Iraq, President Hamid Karzai said that Afghanistan would stand with Pakistan against a U.S. attack. Why not? The Iranian and Pakistani narratives all along have been that the Americans will ultimately abandon their allies to their fate, while the neighbors will be around to exact revenge. President Obama has just reinforced that narrative before all the world.
The United States will also pay a high moral price for this retreat. Tens of thousands of Iraqis sacrificed and put themselves and their families in enormous danger relying on the backing of the United States against our mutual enemies—al Qaeda and Iranian militias. The Maliki government, perhaps partially at the behest of the Quds Force, is now beginning to eliminate some of those people, and the trickle of blood and refugees will likely become a river. Yet another group of brave people who share America’s core values and risked their lives to fight with us will conclude bitterly that Americans can never be trusted.
Iran will be strengthened in the region, and Iraq’s traditional tensions with its Arab neighbors will suit Tehran’s policies. The United States has worked tirelessly to maintain decent relations between Iraq and Kuwait, and to mediate between Baghdad and Riyadh. Iran has no similar interests, and will likely encourage Baghdad to pursue its territorial and financial disputes with Kuwait (not through direct armed conflict, of course) and to distance Iraq from Saudi Arabia. In place of a coalition of Arab states resisting Iranian expansion, we can expect the emergence of an Iran-Iraq-Syria axis as a counterweight and deterrent to any such coalition. If the Syrian regime should fall, Iraq could be a valuable replacement, but also a point of leverage for continued Iranian involvement in Syria and the Levant.
Above all, the war is not over even when that last American soldier leaves Iraq. Sadr’s troops with Iranian support will continue to attack and probably kill our embassy personnel. Iran and its allies—now bolstered by militias and political groups that can function without hindrance in Iraq—will continue their explicit efforts to expel the United States from the Middle East entirely. Iran will gain free access to the world’s trade through Iraq’s cities, highways, ports, and banks, circumventing any sanctions the United States might painfully push through the U.N. Security Council. And the Shiite world will lose its leading advocate for a vision of Islam that is more compatible with Western ideals—and with the views of the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Shiites.