What does America’s mass troop withdrawal mean for the UK and Iraq?

In the wake of President Obama’s announcement that a mass withdrawal of troops from Iraq is imminent, many have been left confused as to the future of the conflict. Major talking points include the authenticity of the withdrawal, given the maintenance of a significant NATO presence, and the future of an Iraqi state that is still fragile in spite of the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Obama’s state visit to the UK earlier this year may have been a PR friendly affair, but it once more called into question the solidity of the Special Relationship, something that will be scrutinised once again in the aftermath of this announcement.

Barack Obama at the withdrawal announcement

Obama at the troop withdrawal announcement last Friday

The relationship is one that, even since its conception, has been dominated by foreign affairs, and one in which the United States has always appeared to play the dominant role. Whether the UK will have a larger role to play in any decision related directly to the Iraq War is uncertain, but it undoubtedly has the potential to cause friction between the two nations.

Something that will give Obama credibility in this issue is David Cameron’s original intention to begin a British disengagement of troops from Afghanistan as early as this year. It has always been the intention of both sides to eventually pull out from the Middle East, but only when the timing is right, and it is the hope that both sides will be able to reach a consensus on any future troop withdrawal, particularly with regards to time frames.

A complete disengagement at this point is unlikely, but this announcement is certainly a hugely symbolic gesture from Obama, who surely has one eye on the general election being held in the United States at the end of next year. With Republican Primaries raging and the continuing presence of huge economic concerns, a move like this is likely to go at least some way to appeasing the vehemently anti-war section of his electorate. As what has become a campaign that, some suggest, is reminiscent of Vietnam comes to an end for the United States, Obama will be able to turn his attentions to the issues that will truly decide the next election, most notably unemployment and the economy.

In the UK, the Ministry of Defence is undergoing a transitional period, as former Transport Secretary Philip Hammond replaces Liam Fox as Defence Secretary. Fox is nothing if not a seasoned defence expert, having held the shadow post since 2005, and he is generally considered to have performed well in the role since last year’s election. He voted for the Iraq war back in 2003, and, most importantly in this instance, supported the American surge in Iraq in 2007. Hammond has less experience, and his greatest skills seem to lie in cost cutting rather than defence strategy, leading to a belief that, in this instance, the Conservative Party appears to be valuing “competence over ideology”. This will be useful in the restructuring of an MoD that many now be viewed as a bureaucratic mess, but less so in organizing a similar withdrawal plan to that of the US, or any instigation of future policy on the matter. However, Hammond’s skill as a statesman will be tested in the next few months as he liaises with the US on these issues. With Foreign Secretary William Hague largely occupied by EU and post-liberation Libya, Hammond could well find himself placed at the vanguard of future debate.

In reality though, the idea of a complete American troop withdrawal is not as genuine as it may first appear, with the US retaining its influence under a NATO guise, not to mention a colossal embassy in Baghdad’s green zone, and the presence of numerous private security contractors. An American hand will still be at work, but some would claim that this is key to the establishment of a democratic future, free from Hussein’s despotic rule.

When looking to Iraq’s future, it is inevitable that genuine democracy and stability are prerequisites to any complete disengagement of foreign forces, and as such the US could potentially maintain their presence in the Middle Eastern nation for decades. However, a winding down of British influence in the country is possible, particularly given the relative low profile they could enjoy given America’s far more prominent links to Iraq, and the Government’s clear focus on cuts and austerity. While any decision made by the nations involved must be mutual, British disinterest could be considered somewhat fortunate in this case given America’s clear intentions to bring combat to an end. Diplomatically and politically however, the Iraq campaign is far from over, and cooperation between Britain and the United States in this matter will surely continue for the foreseeable future.

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Posted on October 29, 2011, in Coalition Government, Conservative Party, Foreign Affairs, Looking Forward, US Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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