Let me be clear. The United States should have no -- zero -- troops in Iraq on Jan. 1, 2012, when the Status of Forces Agreement signed between the two countries requires a complete withdrawal (this number excepts, of course, a small military presence at the U.S. Embassy's Office of Military Cooperation -- a presence that exists in almost every embassy worldwide). This is not about delivering on an Obama campaign promise or saving money. This is about doing the right thing for both the United States and Iraq. Although the White House's proposal to keep approximately 3,000 troops in Iraq is better than the rumored 17,000 desired by the commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, maintaining any American presence is simply the wrong decision for both parties.
Despite having both a political problem and a terrorism problem, Iraq is now a reasonably stable country that must have the opportunity to chart its own course. Yes, the 2010 national election failed to provide any bloc with a clear mandate and has resulted in a political stalemate. Yes, the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq continue to commit atrocities against both Iraqi Shiites and the moderate figures of their own Iraqi Sunni community. And yes, Iranian groups and their proxies continue to destabilize Iraq in order to diminish its effectiveness as a buffer state against Iranian ambitions. But despite these issues, Iraq continues to muddle along without returning to the chaos of 2004 to 2008. This is a very real accomplishment of which both the United States and Iraq should be proud, even if the road to get here was excessively long and costly.
It is time for Iraq to stand on its own -- without a U.S. presence to disrupt its politics. There are significant factions within both Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni communities that would look favorably on a residual U.S. force in Iraq. They need to move on. The lingering U.S. troop presence on Iraqi soil is -- quite understandably -- perceived as an insult to Iraqi nationalism by significant portions of their fellow citizens. This is an issue that must be taken off the table so that Iraqi politics can normalize, not least with regard to Iraq-Iran relations. Ironically, it is by leaving Iraq that the United States can best let Iraq stand up to its Iranian neighbor. Ending what Iraq's neighbors perceive as its "occupation" by U.S. forces will finally permit Iraq to complete the normalization of regional relationships.
Iraq does have some serious security gaps that it will have to address, likely through the use of U.S or other Western contractors. Airspace control remains a concern for the Iraqis, but numerous aerospace firms will be happy to provide the equipment and the trainers to remedy this problem. The recently announced purchase of F-16 fighter jets from the United States is a good first step toward true airspace control. The Iraqis, however, will need to hire trainers for the pilots of their still-fledgling air force. The Iraqis may similarly require continued training on the use of their artillery pieces and the tactical employment of other weapons systems. But these technical gaps can easily be filled, and the market will respond quickly to Iraqi petrodollars.
Honoring the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is equally critical for the United States. Leaving Iraq on the terms dictated by its sovereign government will put to bed the very real perception that the United States invaded the country to transform it into its "51st state." Should the United States need to intervene in another country, it will be very helpful to be able to point to Iraq as evidence that the United States does leave when asked. While U.S. diplomats in Baghdad are reportedly in negotiations to amend the SOFA to allow a residual presence, this effort could -- and should -- be turned off quickly.
Some prominent U.S. foreign-policy leaders, such as Sen. John McCain and other public figures, have argued that it is in the U.S. interest to leave a residual force in Iraq to counter Iranian influence. This logic is misguided. Iran has been able to make inroads in Iraq largely because of the U.S. presence. Among Iraqi nationalists -- the Sadrists in particular -- the U.S. presence, which they still refer to as "occupation," has overshadowed increasing Iranian influence. Once the United States leaves, the nationalists can then turn their full attention to what a legitimate relationship with Iran might look like, recall that they did fight a very long and bloody war with their Persian neighbor, and recognize that they have no desire to be anyone's client state.
Although the argument for eliminating the U.S. presence in Iraq is not about U.S. domestic politics, it is certainly good domestic politics. It culminates the U.S. military mission in Iraq in a truly bipartisan manner, with the current Democratic president overseeing the withdrawal of U.S. forces as negotiated by his Republican predecessor. Cost savings, while hard to estimate, would not be insignificant. The marker of 3,000 troops put forward by the administration is a good step toward these goals, but it should be willing to truly close the deal and execute the currently signed agreement.
Finally, the debate over the U.S. military presence is distracting policymakers from the real issues in the United States' future relationship with Iraq -- the role of the State Department (and particularly its ambitious police-training mission) and of the American business community. It is these two instruments of U.S. "soft power" that will shape U.S.-Iraq relations going forward, and to put it frankly, the sooner the military can get out of their way, the better.