“What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously asked then Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Iraq provides a brutally eloquent riposte. Indeed, while the United States remains the proverbial 500-pound guerilla of global military force, using that superb military has seen U.S. influence decline rather than expand. The U.S. blew away Saddam Hussein’s regime in a matter of 26 days, but it could not eliminate the resultant insurgency (it took political deals to turn the rump of the Sunni insurgency against al-Qaeda; the Shi’ite insurgents of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army largely chose to cache their weapons and wait out the Americans). Nor could the U.S. military do anything about Iraqis, under the guidance of Grand Ayatullah Ali Sistani, spiritual guide to the majority of Iraqi Shi’ites, from protesting peacefully to demand and win the right to choose their own leaders. Nor did the presence of that American military stop Iraqis electing an Iran-friendly government, and allowing Tehran to play a growing political role. To any American rival intimidated by U.S. military capacity, the Iraq experience would have been encouraging: Iran certainly appeared to be more nervous about U.S. military power in 2003 than it is now.
Handwringing in the U.S. media over whether Iran will invade once the U.S. withdraws misses the point. Iran doesn’t need to invade Iraq; it wields more influence in Baghdad than any other single foreign power does, and it does so via its close ties to Iranian Shi’ite Islamist parties and their militias (some of which are dominant within the Iraqi security forces), and through cultivalting religious ties. And Iran built this web of influence despite the presence of 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
While friendly with Tehran, Iraq’s government is not subordinate to it; Iraqi Shi’ites are Arab, not Persian like the Iranians, and Iraq’s Shi’ite religious leadership, personified by Sistani, reject the Iranian concept of clerical rule. So, Iran is no more capable of using its military to bend Iraqis to its will than the United States has been. Nobody can see that as clearly as the Pentagon: As outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it upon his retirement last summer, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”