President Barack Obama's announcement today of a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 should be cause for real celebration. This is the right decision, at the right time. It may have been forced upon the administration by Iraqi political realities. But the end result will be a mutually agreed upon and orderly American withdrawal from Iraq on the timetable which both Bush and Obama promised but which few believed would ever really happen. This should be seen as a positive moment for America and for Iraq. Indeed, removing the distraction of the polarizing and largely irrelevant debate over the presence of U.S. troops could actually improve the chances of building a positive, enduring relationship with Iraq -- though that opportunity could all too easily be lost.
Iraq still faces many difficult challenges and won't be fully secure or politically stable for a long time. But the U.S. military presence is now largely irrelevant to those problems. Nor would the remaining troops have greatly troubled Iran. Iraqi politics and security institutions have long since adapted to the reduced American role and its impending departure. Disaster did not follow when U.S. troops stopped patrolling, or when 100,000 troops left over the course of a year. Instead, Iraqi Security Forces took over the lead role in internal security under the new conditions, and adapted effectively enough. Even if an agreement had been reached to keep some U.S. troops after 2011, they would have been almost exclusively involved in training and support. The ongoing terrorist attacks and unresolved instability along the Arab-Kurdish border pose real challenges, but the U.S. troops which might conceivably have stayed behind in 2012 weren't going to be dealing with them.
Crucially, Iraqis will not be surprised by the American withdrawal. This is no rush to the exits. Thanks to Bush's 2008 SOFA deal and Obama's clear public declarations over the last few years, the withdrawal will not be a sudden, unexpected or disruptive removal of a vital support structure. Iraqi politics have already adapted to the declining American role, and factored it in. The result hasn't been pretty -- worrying centralization of power by Prime Minister Maliki, a fractious and ineffective Parliament, continuing institutional deficiencies, a nasty political discourse, and ongoing low level violence. But it looks resilient enough to avoid catastrophe, and above all it doesn't depend on (or want) constant American pushing and prodding and intervention to carry on.
The reality, too often downplayed in the U.S.-centric debate, is that most Iraqis simply didn't want the U.S. troops to stay. This matters in the intensely polarized Iraqi political arena. The scars of invasion, occupation, and civil war run deep. There are plenty of Iraqi elites who privately hoped that the U.S. would stay, who recognized Iraq's external military weakness, warned of a resurgent civil war, or feared for their political future. But very few would make that case to Iraqis in public because they knew it would be political suicide. And that matters. It should not be a surprise that negotiations over extending the U.S. presence collapsed over the question of immunity for U.S. troops -- essential to the Pentagon, but perhaps the single most politically incendiary issue for Iraqis.
While there's of course a wide range of opinion, it's worth noting that Iraqi officials with whom I've spoken recently shrugged when asked about the likely effects of a full American withdrawal. They didn't expect a major impact on security, and some thought that removing the issue of extending the U.S. troop presence from the Iraqi political debate would have a healthy effect. People whose political lives depend on it don't all seem to share the apocalyptic fears often heard in Washington -- and if they did, presumably they would have behaved differently during the negotiations.
Even those who privately hoped the U.S. would stay opposed the idea of a small residual force, which they pointed out would keep the political issue alive without providing many real security gains. Trying to circumvent public opinion through a secret agreement or through a deal which didn't require Parliamentary approval would have been even worse, leaving the U.S. presence in a vulnerable condition of contested legitimacy which would have ensured that it remained a top political wedge issue.
The Obama administration did what it could to negotiate an agreement to keep a training and support mission in Iraq. But administration officials involved with the issue seem satisfied with the outcome, as they should. As I wrote months ago, I wouldn't have been bothered much if Obama and the Iraqi government had ultimately agreed to keep a few thousand troops in an agreement ratified by the Iraqi Parliament. It wouldn't have been necessary, and would have looked like he had broken his commitment to withdraw, but it wouldn't have remotely resembled an occupation under those terms. But I am glad that it didn't work out that way. It's simply better that the troops all leave. And it's far, far better that the Obama administration didn't accept either a fatally flawed deal or one which had not won Iraqi political consent -- which were the only other plausible outcomes.
I do hope that Obama's invitation to Maliki to come to Washington in December to discuss the implementation of the Strategic Framework Agreement leads to real, mutually beneficial cooperation between the U.S. and Iraq. The fact that most Iraqi elites recognize that they still need U.S. logistical support, especially for external defense needs, should give them a strong incentive to stay engaged with us even without a new SOFA. There are plenty of non-military ways that the U.S. could help Iraq, more important to building an enduring relationship than the military dimension, even if Congress still doesn't seem inclined to pay for them. One way to get around the deal would be to rely even more on private contractors -- and, indeed, their continuing role is one of the main criticisms already aired on the left against the withdrawal announcement. But it wouldn't surprise me if the expected army of thousands of American security contractors and massive Embassy staff also soon comes into question.
Those questions will all come up soon, though I suspect that the actual fallout on the ground and in the region will be limited. But for now, the announcement of the withdrawal of all U.S. troops should be welcomed as a major step forward and an opportunity to develop that new relationship. Today feels good after so many long years of working towards the goal of a responsible U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
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