x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Limits of military force seen as US limps out of Iraq

News that all US forces will leave Iraq by year-end reminds us again that US military interventions in the Middle East do not end well.

The last uniformed US troops will leave Iraq by year-end. Many have waited for this moment, but more than eight years after the US invasion, there is a sense of anticlimax.

Political acrimony over this war reshaped the region, the rationale to invade was shown to be false and, several years ago, scores of civilians were being killed every day. After all of that, the United States will withdraw based on a legal technicality: Iraqi politicians have refused to grant legal immunity for any remaining US forces.

There are still no easy answers about this war. Anyone who misses Saddam Hussein never had Iraq's interests in mind. But the deaths of so many innocent people cannot be forgotten, and regional instability is still being felt. The United States is leaving Iraq with precarious politics and questionable security, deeply vulnerable to Iranian influence. Even Americans happy to get their family members home will not celebrate that.

This ignominious end is better understood as a lesson: large-scale military intervention by any "great power" is all too likely to be humbling, blood-soaked, frustrating and fraught with risk.

In the "shock and awe" of March 2003, when US troops flooded into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein and hunt for nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction", there was little talk of an exit strategy. Over the objections of nearly every ally in the Middle East, the United States bulled ahead in a campaign that very quickly proved to be poorly planned beyond the first days of the invasion.

Nation-building at the end of the barrel of a gun has since been entirely discredited. Iraq is not the only proof: Afghanistan, too, has become a quagmire. But there are broader questions about foreign military intervention. Even in Libya, where western powers limited themselves to air strikes, and reportedly some special-forces work, "mission creep" has complicated the situation. Libya may be counted as a strategic victory, but not without legal and moral caveats.

To be sure, Iraq without any US troops will face major humanitarian and political risks. But another question, for the whole world, is the future of military interventions in general.

It would be a further harm inflicted by the US war in Iraq if intervention as a whole got a bad name. The civilian bloodshed in Syria shows how urgently the world needs multilateral action for moral and humanitarian reasons. But foreign military intervention in the Middle East has dangers that must be weighed far more carefully than they have been in the past.