U.S. officials are fooling themselves if they think their plans to bolster the U.S. troop presence in other Persian Gulf countries will make up for the complete withdrawal of our forces from Iraq. Having troops in the smaller Gulf emirates–as we currently do–is certainly a good thing: It helps to deter Iranian aggression and safeguard the world’s supply of oil. (It also can put us in an awkward position when allies like Bahrain commit human rights abuses–but that’s another story.)
In the worst case scenario, it could allow us to reenter Iraq in force. But it’s hard to imagine what that scenario might be. What, short of an Iranian invasion, would lead us to dispatch substantial troop numbers to Iraq? More likely, even if the situation deteriorates in Iraq, we will wind up sitting on the sidelines, because sending troops to a country where they are not currently present is a momentous step that we (rightly) don’t take lightly. That will leave us virtually helpless to stop the machinations of the Iranians and their agents in Iraq, even if they use Iraq to evade international sanctions–as Kim and Fred Kagan and Marissa Cochrane Sullivan warn in this trenchant Weekly Standard article.
The most important function U.S. troops perform anywhere in the world is to spread political stability and American influence. Those objectives are much harder to accomplish from “over the horizon” than they are with “boots on the ground.” We will soon find that out for ourselves in the case of Iraq.