The first big step of Barack Obama's administration, and quite possibly its defining achievement, will be abandoning America's military involvement in Iraq. Obama can argue, quite plausibly, that he has a mandate from the American people to do exactly that.
He certainly has made no secret of this intention. In September of last year, he asserted that "the best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year, but now." And on May 16 this year, he spelled out his plan: "Nobody's talking about bringing them home instantly, but one to two brigades a month. It'll take about 16 months to get our combat troops out."
He has since been elected president of the United States, and there is no reason to suppose that he has changed his mind. So it is as predictable as anything in politics can be that we are indeed going to pull out of Iraq. The long effort to bring about a sensible solution to the problems of the Middle East is over. The Americans who died there, at the behest of our government, died in vain. The very short list of wars that America lost is about to receive a notable addition.
Whether the American people intended this result is certainly open to argument. But nobody can contend that Obama's decision is devoid of justification. He has been perfectly candid about his intention and has plenty of political support for it. Where it will lead, however, is -- to put it mildly -- open to debate.
The American withdrawal from Iraq will amount, for all practical purposes, to an American abandonment of any hope of influencing developments in the Middle East. There is no way we can pull out of Iraq and yet hope to retain any serious clout in that crucial region. Its vast supplies of oil are not essential to the United States (since we have other sources for it, at home and in the Western hemisphere) but are absolutely crucial to our allies in Western Europe and elsewhere. Control of those supplies by local powers in the Middle East, let alone more distant meddlers like Russia and China, will drastically alter the global balance of power.
How Obama intends to cope with this new strategic situation isn't clear. If he has a plan, he certainly hasn't revealed it. The European powers are in no condition to step in and impose the political stability that the Obama plan will wreck. And the notion that the local powers could do so by themselves is laughable. Within months, the whole region will simply be a plaything for troublemakers in Moscow and Beijing.
Conceivably, the situation could rapidly become so desperate that Obama would be forced to embark on military measures that would make the current efforts of American forces look positively puny. But his own commitment to nonmilitary means makes this highly unlikely. More probably he will simply abandon any nondiplomatic effort to influence events in the area and attempt to defend a broad strategic retreat.
You can be sure that this will rouse bitter opposition from his opponents in the United States. A great many policy experts on all sides of the political spectrum will resist American abandonment of our strategic interests in the Middle East. And the American people, confronted with the global economic consequences of losing control of Middle Eastern oil, may want to rethink -- alas, all too belatedly -- their eagerness to pull out of Iraq.
So we are in for some extremely rough political weather in the fall-out from Obama's abandonment of the Middle East. He may soon find that it's closer to the south side of Chicago than he realized.