By Lee Kuan Yew
Saturday, March 8, 2008
SINGAPORE -- On Valentine's Day 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Saudi King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud on the USS Quincy at Egypt's Great Bitter Lake along the Suez Canal. Roosevelt was on his way home from Yalta, where he, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill had settled the contours of the post-World War II world.
The compact that Roosevelt and the king reached on the USS Quincy -- American friendship and support for secure access to oil -- was no less significant. It has been the foundation of stability in the Persian Gulf, a troubled but vital region, in the 63 years since.
The Quincy compact has survived three full Arab-Israeli wars and continuing low-intensity conflicts between Arabs and Israelis. Saudi Arabia has played a responsible and moderating role in OPEC and has contributed to stability in world oil prices and to global prosperity.
There is no viable alternative to fossil fuels in the immediate future. Thus the security and stability of the Gulf and its oil supplies are vital for the United States.
America has been fighting an insurgency in Iraq for five years. Taking out Saddam Hussein was the right decision. Mistakes were subsequently made, though, and the price has been high.
Iraq is a key issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. Whether to maintain the U.S. presence in Iraq is for Americans to decide. But the general assumption has been that the only question to be resolved is the timing and manner of the withdrawal of American forces.
The costs of leaving Iraq unstable would be high. Jihadists everywhere would be emboldened. I have met many Gulf leaders and know that their deep fear is that a precipitate U.S. withdrawal would gravely jeopardize their security.
A hurried withdrawal from Iraq would cause the leaders of many countries to conclude that the American people cannot tolerate the nearly 4,000 casualties they have suffered in Iraq and that in a protracted asymmetrical war the U.S. government will not have its people's support to bear the pain that is necessary to prevail. And this even after the surge of 30,000 additional troops under Gen. David Petraeus has resulted in an improved security situation.
Whatever candidates might say in the course of this presidential campaign, I cannot believe that any American president could afford to walk away from Iraq so lightly, damage American prestige and influence, and so undermine the credibility of American security guarantees.
An additional concern is that a hasty U.S. withdrawal would leave Iran to become more of a power in the Gulf.
Iran is Shiite, not Sunni. Shiites are the largest group in Iraq, too. The schism between Shiites and Sunnis goes back more than a millennium to the very earliest years of Islam. The divide between Arabs and Persians is even more ancient.
Every Gulf state has a significant Shiite minority but is ruled by Sunni leaders. A dominant Iran with no regional counterweight would shift the balance of power between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East, changing the internal and external politics of the region. To survive, Iran's neighbors would adjust their positions.
It also would become more difficult to work out a diplomatic compromise on the Iranian nuclear issue. Without a compromise, the issue will lead to a crisis at some point.
A few years ago, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's Iraq were a check on Iran. The Taliban is again gathering strength, and a Taliban victory in Afghanistan or Pakistan would reverberate throughout the Muslim world. It would influence the grand debate among Muslims on the future of Islam. A severely retrograde form of Islam would be seen to have defeated modernity twice: first the Soviet Union, then the United States. There would be profound consequences, especially in the campaign against terrorism.
Singapore supported the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and continues to do so. My country has deployed amphibious support ships in the Gulf as well as transport aircraft and refueling tankers to assist U.S. forces. We are also helping with reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. We have placed these symbolic chips on the table because we realize that the global stakes are extremely high.
The United States clearly cannot stay in Iraq alone. America needs a coalition. This will require a more multilateral approach, which in turn requires clarity and a close examination of the strategic stakes. The domestic American debate on Iraq affects world public opinion and thus the political viability and sustainability of any multinational coalition.
The writer, Singapore's minister mentor, was prime minister from 1959 to 1990.