Austin Bay describes seven possible scenarios following a US withdrawal from Iraq to try and create a framework to imagine what might happen. "Here are seven 'scenarios' sketching 'potential outcomes' of a quick withdrawal from Iraq. They are not mutually exclusive. They could well 'blend.' In fact, an amalgam of the first six could occur. ... These are speculative dramas. The US and the Iraqi governments have their own scenarios. I am certain that Iran, Al Qaeda, Syria and Turkey have also analyzed potential outcomes and made plans accordingly." Quickly, the scenarios are:
- Three New Countries
- Regional Shia-Sunni War
- Turkey Expands
- Shia Dictatorship
- “Gang Up”
- Surprise—The Iraqi Center Holds
Readers interested in the details should go to Austin Bay's site. But he concludes: "Out of seven possible “rapid withdrawal” scenarios only one –number seven– clearly benefits the majority of Iraqis. And the US. And the civilized world."
Interestingly -- but probably wisely -- Austin Bay has avoided assigning probabilities to individual scenarios or mashups of scenarios. Realistically, none of the regional actors is simply going to roll the dice and hope they come out on top. Austin is dead on when he says "Iran, Al Qaeda, Syria and Turkey have also analyzed potential outcomes and made plans accordingly". They are not going to roll the dice, they are going to load the dice to increase the odds their favored outcome results. Any reasonable analyst, I think, will concede that.
The sad question is: will the US do the same? Upon a withdrawal all eyes will be focused on watching the result. But if things aren't working out the way (Scenario 7) the US hopes because Iran, for example, is shaking the table to make Scenario 4 come true, what can American policy makers do? Threaten to invade Iraq? Threaten to punish Iran? None of these threats will have much credibility in the aftermath of a withdrawal.
I think the key problem that must attend any forced American retreat from Iraq is avoiding the appearance and reality of having thrown in the hand. How do you walk away from the table without leaving the game? That's the key dilemma. And the answer, I think policy makers will find, is that you can't. Absent a complete disinterest in the outcome of the game, a willingness to accept whichever scenario eventuates, regardless of its desirability, there will be enormous pressure to remain in the game somehow, either by backing one of the remaining players or attempting to play from afar.
Given the strategic importance of the region the real nightmare scenario is that you will have to go back in after you have talked yourself out.