Why the Iraq milestone matters

On Tuesday President Obama will give a major address marking the end of combat operations in Iraq, which delivers on one of his major campaign promises and marks one of the largely unremarked bright spots in his foreign policy record to date.  Given how central Iraq has been to the great foreign policy debates of the last decade, it's somewhat surprising how little attention has been paid to the steady drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq.  Skeptics on all sides have dominated what little discourse there's been:  many on the left point to the continuing presence of nearly 50,000 troops and many more civilian contractors to mock the notion that the war is over;  many on the right mutter about Obama's refusal to give Bush credit for the surge;  and many serious analysts on all sides worry about the continuing political gridlock in Baghdad and the seemingly shaky security situation.  But Obama's meeting his self-imposed deadline of drawing down to 50,000 troops by this month --- 90,000 fewer than were in Iraq before he took office --- really does matter.   There was only one shot to get the U.S. on the road to leaving Iraq, and Obama has delivered. 

It's worth taking a step back and pointing out some of the key things which have happened in Iraq under Obama's watch, and somethat haven't.  The drawdown of U.S. forces has proceeded on schedule, despite plenty of opportunities and some pressure to slow it down -- the much anticipated revolt of the generals demanding to delay the drawdown hasn't happened. Despite the continuing pattern of violent attacks grabbing headlines, the overall security situation has remained pretty good despite the steady reduction of U.S.forces and the shoddy treatment of the Awakenings movements by the Iraqi government.  Iran, despite its massive investments in Iraqi politics, has proven no more able to dictate the outcomes of Iraqi politics than has Washington, a key development which gets too little attention.   Iraqi state institutions have continued to function, for all their flaws, despite more than a half a year of political gridlock.  And that political deadlock would almost certainly been the same even if the U.S. still had 140,000 troops on the ground --- which is where the "conditions based" withdrawal favored by many of Obama's critics would have us today.   Iraq's not perfect, but who thought it would be?  Winding down America's involvement in Iraq without disaster is nothing to scoff at.

Has disaster been averted?  The political situation in Iraq is certainly disheartening -- from the institutional shenanigans such as those of the De-Baathification Commission, which badly hurt the legitimacy of the elections, through the long-running political stalemate preventing the formation of a government.   Former Bush NSC official Peter Feaver,  in a thoughtful post, argues that this disproves the "theory of the case" developed by Obama's team, including me, that a commitment to withdrawal would push Iraqi political reconciliation:  

But the Obama team sold this rigid timeline as the best way to achieve a more important political goal: incentivizing the Iraqis to make further political compromises yielding further political progress. During the campaign, Obama's Iraq advisors claimed that we did not see faster and more sustained political progress in Iraq because the Bush administration coddled Iraqi leaders and, in effect, fostered a co-dependency that allowed Iraqi dysfunctions to persist. Better, they argued, to administer the tough love of leaving on a fixed schedule regardless of the political conditions on the ground. This would concentrate Iraqi minds and get them to make the painful compromises they were resisting.

It was an interesting academic theory advanced by reasonable people... [But] We now have seen 18 months of the Obama theory in action and the results, thus far, are not promising. The Iraqi political stalemate is at least as bad as it was in Spring 2006...  There is no evidence that Obama's gambit has fostered greater political cooperation among Iraqi political elites. To be sure, the blame should also be laid at the feet of other factors: weak leadership in Embassy Baghdad; neglect of the Iraq issue at the top levels of the Obama administration; and above all, the dysfunctions of the Iraqi political leadership. But as tests of academic theory go, this is a pretty dispositive rejection of the Obama hypothesis.

Not really.  I'm more than happy to admit that my prediction right after the election didn't pan out (see below), but on the broader case I'm nowhere near willing to cede the argument.   I certainly did argue that a clear commitment to draw down U.S. troops would force Iraqi politicians to recalculate, but not that it would happen overnight or solve all of Iraq's problems.   In fact, Brian Katulis and I argued at the time that the surge had set up a "political house of cards" which had failed to resolve major political challenges -- including many of the ones currently blocking Iraqi politics. The political stalemate is rooted in the political institutionsdesigned by the Bush administration and the dysfunctional politicalclass it nurtured.   The key question is not whether Iraq now has wonderful politics -- it doesn't, and I didn't expect it to -- but rather whether the American drawdown has been a net positive for Iraqi politics or broader U.S. interests.  And there, I think the answer is yes.   

As for the current political stalemate, which (in keeping with Dan Drezner's meme of the day, was my worst prediction of the year), here's my take.  I hadn't expected Iyad Allawi's electoral upset -- accomplished primarily because Maliki split the Shi'a vote by breaking with the INA -- which was the wild card from which the game has yet to recover.   Had Maliki won even by 1 vote, as most everyone expected and for which they had gamed out their strategies, then it would have likely unfolded just as I predicted at the time -- a quick move to areconstituted government which resembled the previous one.  But Allawi's upset created a logjam.  Allawi and Maliki's personal differences, more than ideological ones, prevented their alignment, while Maliki refused to reunite with the INA except on his own terms and Allawi's ideological differences with INA were too great. The Kurds, as always,  sat around waiting for anyone to meet their terms, while the non-sectarian movements of which many Iraqis (and analyzed in depth over the years by the tenacious Reidar Visser) have dreamed have failed thus far to capture political ground. 

Obviously, seven months of stalemate show that the U.S. drawdown hasn't led these politicians to resolve their differences as I had hoped.   But on the flip side, there is no evidence that Obama's allowing the August 31 deadline to slip would have made the slightest difference in improving the situation, and probably would have made it worse.  The mission of the troops was long ago remade by the SOFA.  The only effect of delaying the drawdown would have beena hammer blow on U.S. credibility, informing all Iraqis that American commitments were always and only up for bargaining, and losing a one-time opportunity to change policy and begin to get out of Iraq.  

Obama deserves the credit he is likely to claim for drawing down troops on schedule and moving towards a vastly reduced U.S. role in Iraq.  No, the war inside Iraq isn't over yet and American forces aren't all gone yet.  And I'm perfectly willing to give credit to the Bush administration for the SOFA it eventually negotiated (which I've previously called Bush's finest moment in Iraq), which created the bipartisan framework to make the drawdown possible.   But it took Obama's determination to actually draw down to actually make it happen -- had McCain won, for instance, I'm quite sure that excuses would have been found to keep many more troops there for far longer.  There are plenty of things which I would have liked to have seen done differently, including a continuation of former Ambassador Ryan Crocker's quiet dialogues with the Iranians and more of an effort to deal with Iraq within its broader regional context.   But overall, meeting the campaign commitment to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq is a real accomplishment which should be acknowledged. 

Marc Lynch

How Arabs view the anti-mosque movement

Two recent arguments about the impact of the rising anti-Islam trend in the U.S. -- from the Stupid!Storm around the Manhattan mosque to the lunacy of "national burn a Quran day" -- on the Arab world strike me as not quite right.  Last week, Bill Kristol cited the translation of a column by Saudi TV station al-Arabiya director Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed downplaying the relevance of the mosque as evidence that the argument should be over.  Meanwhile, several recent articles claim that the mosque had become the #1 topic of discussion on jihadist forums.   Both are wrong, in different ways.  Most Arab columnists agree with the argument that the anti-mosque movement will badly harm Arab and Muslim views of the United States, contra Rashed, but there isn't as much active discussion of it in the forums as you'd expect.  That isn't a reason to relax, though.  The impact is likely to be felt not so much on extremists, whose views about America are rather fixed, but on the vast middle ground, the Arab and Muslim mainstream which both the Bush and Obama administrations have recognized as crucial both for defeating al-Qaeda and for achieving broad American national interests. And that mainstream, not the extremists themselves, is where our attention needs to be focused. 

A closer look at Arab mainstream media and jihadist forum debates shows what I mean.  A scan of the major op-ed pages quickly reveals that Rashed is very much a minority voice in the unfolding Arab debate.  Rashed's column caught the attention of anti-mosque activists such as Kristol, because it suited their needs.  But if Kristol really wants Americans to take their cues from Arab columnists, here's a more representative sample of commentary over the last few days:

  • Jamil al-Nimri, a Jordanian liberal writing for al-Ghad, who writes that the backlash against the mosque has unleashed a wave of bigotry and hate, at the expense of the intended message of an enlightened and tolerant Islam. 
  • Mohammed al-Hammadi, an Emirati writer for al-Ittihad, who describes the mosque as a moment for America to choose whether it truly believes in freedom.
  • Abd al-Haq Azouzi, a Moroccan writing for al-Ittihad, who reverses the familiar question to ask "why do they hate us?," and warns that those cynically manufacturing the issue for political benefit are unleashing an uncontrollable wave of hatred.
  • Abdullah al-Shayji, a Kuwaiti writing for al-Ittihad, who sees the mosque battle as a fundamental test of the place of Muslims in America and fears rising Islamophobia.
  • Ragheda Dergham, writing in al-Hayat, warns that the campaign against the mosque threatens Islamic moderation.
  • Manar al-Shourbji, in Egypt's al-Masry al-Youm, reflects that the campaign against the mosque demonstrates that the good intentions of the mosque's founders were not enough in the face of rising anti-Islam extremism in America.

And this is just from the last few days.  The most positive spin on the mosque crisis is actually that it's all politics.  A number of columnists argue that it is just  Republicans cynically using the Islam issue to hurt Obama and help their re-election campaign.   But even those columnists generally go on to worry that such forces, once unleashed, are hard to control.   Fortunately, the courageous remarks of figures such as Michael Bloomberg have also received prominent coverage --- something which gives moderate figures something to grasp onto when arguing against the extremists.   And that's what they need, both for their own sake and for ours.  

Meanwhile, the mosque has barely registered on the major jihadist forums which I frequent -- yesterday, on the leading al-Shamoukh forum, it was not mentioned in the headline of a single one of the first ten pages of posts (more than 500 in all).  There have been a few threads, as Evan Kohlmann has claimed, but it's a fairly minor theme within the forum debates ("Burn a Quran Day" has actually had more traction than the NY mosque thus far, actually).   Certainly no triumphalism about how they'll soon have a monument to victory, as you hear so often out there on the American lunatic fringe. I have no doubt that al-Qaeda and like-minded extremists will eventually use the anti-mosque movement in their propaganda, since it so perfectly fits their narrative of a West at war with Islam --- the very narrative which both the Bush administration and the Obama administration worked so hard to combat over the last few years.  I suspect that the participants in the forums aren't talking about it much is that it simply confirms what they already believe about America.  They'll use it, but don't see much to argue about. 

That's the opposite of the Arab mainstream, which is vigorously arguing about what it means for the future of America's relationship with Muslims --- both in America and in the world.  Where the anti-mosque movement and escalating anti-Islam rhetoric is really resonating is with the Arab mainstream --- that vast middle ground which had hoped that the election of Barack Obama would mark a real change from the Bush administration but have grown increasingly disappointed.   The mosque issue has been covered heavily on Arab satellite TV stations such as al-Jazeera, and the images of angry Americans chanting slogans and waving signs against Islam have resonated much like the images of angry Arabs burning American flags and denouncing U.S. policy did with American viewers after 9/11.   The recent public opinion surveys showing widespread hostility towards Islam among Americans have also gotten a lot of attention. 

It all contributes to the ongoing deterioriation of their residual hope in Obama's ability to bring about meaningful change. It's confirming the worst fears of too many mainstream Arabs and Muslims, and thus providing fodder for the extremists who hope to exploit that atmosphere. It's become a cliche to say so, but it's true:  by fueling the narrative of a clash of civilizations and an inevitable war between Islam and the West, this unfortunate trend is empowering extremists on all sides and weakening moderates.  That's exactly the dynamic which I warned about here and in my recent Foreign Affairs article, and it's one which counter-terrorism professionals and public diplomacy specialists alike understand needs to be broken before it's too late.