The current debate over the timing of the U.S. withdrawal of forces from Iraq is misplaced. The retention of a relatively small number of U.S. troops in that country would not have measurably affected its political stability. Conversely, the withdrawal of those forces will not particularly incentivize the various political factions to intensify their struggle for power.
The U.S. maintained a very large military contingent in the Republic of South Korea even as that country went through periods of enormous political turmoil. ROK president Park Chung-hee was assassinated by the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency in 1979 and a short-lived military government came to power. The size of the U.S. contingent in South Korea remained relatively stable during the period of that country’s transition to a full-fledged democracy. The presence of U.S. forces around the world for fifty years has been nearly irrelevant to the comings and goings of local governments.
The United States retains the basis for a strong relationship with Iraq. The Department of State is operating the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad. Part of its responsibilities will be to maintain strong military-to-military contacts between our two countries through the defense attache’s office. Bringing Iraqi officers to the United States for advanced military education is a further way of maintaining a bond between our two countries and simultaneously inculcating in the future military leaders of Iraq the values of democratic governance and civilian control over the military.
U.S. arms sales to Iraq also will provide a continuing source of connectivity as well as serve as an indirect means of influence with the Iraqi government. Do not forget that the Iraqi Army is largely U.S.-trained and equipped. Iraq has signed contracts for U.S. military equipment worth at least $11 billion. These sales include F-16 fighters, M-1 Abrams main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces. Along with this equipment comes a training requirement and supply chain that will connect our two countries for years if not decades to come. This has been the U.S. experience in other countries; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE come to mind.
Arms sales are also an important component of improving relationships with new friends and potential allies. The U.S.-Indian relationship has grown closer in part due to the expansion of arms sales by Washington to New Delhi. India has acquired or is in the process of buying a range of advanced U.S. systems including C-17 and C-130 transports and P-8 maritime patrol aircraft. In addition, the U.S. is exploring possible sales of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Stryker wheeled combat vehicle and the Littoral Combat Ship to India. I would point out that the U.S.-Indian security relationship has grown closer without requiring the presence of the U.S. military in the subcontinent.
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