Obama's bold move out of Iraq

The last American troops officially left Iraq before Christmas, mostly completing an American withdrawal by the end of 2011 which few thought possible when then-candidate Barack Obama promised it or even when then-President George Bush formally committed to it. Critics of the withdrawal have blasted Obama for putting politics over policy, risking the alleged gains of the "surge" in order to meet a campaign promise. Many of those who played a role in the desperate attempt to reverse Iraq's 2006 descent into civil war have entirely legitimate and justifiable fears for Iraq's future. But in fact, Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal from Iraq was probably better policy than it was politics -- and it was the right call both for America and for Iraq.

In many ways, it would have been safer politically for Obama to keep the residual force in Iraq which hawks demanded to insulate himself against charges of having "lost Iraq". But it would have been wrong on policy. It's not just that the U.S. was obligated by the SOFA to withdraw its forces, once it proved unable to negotiate the terms of an extended troop presence with the immunity provisions which the Pentagon demanded. It's that the remaining U.S. troops could do little for Iraqi security, had little positive effect on Iraqi politics, and would have soon become an active liability. This is the lesson of the last two years, when U.S. troops were reduced in number and largely withdrew to the bases under the terms of the SOFA. The American troop presence didn't prevent bombings and murders, didn't force political reconciliation, didn't usher in real democracy, and didn't significantly increase American diplomatic influence in the region. But nor did Iraq fall apart. Obama's gamble is that the same sequence will play out in 2012 and that he will have successfully left behind an Iraq which isn't perfect but which has avoided yet another catastrophe.

Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal has been widely presented by critics as politically motivated, made in order to satisfy his political base at the expense of the national interest. It's true that Obama made the promise to withdraw from Iraq central to his campaign narrative, and that this commitment was widely popular (with Iraqis as well as with Americans). And it's true that Obama should be able to present the withdrawal as a promise kept during the election campaign.

But for all that, the political gains are too minimal and the political risks too high for such considerations to really be driving such a major policy decision. Iraq dominated the foreign policy debate for years, but at this point very few people care. It barely shows up in public opinion surveys as a concern of voters, and stories about Iraq rarely even make it into the media anymore. For the most part, it seems, Americans just want to forget about it.  Even the formal end of the war which consumed American politics for nearly a decade barely caused a blip on the national radar.  On the left, people seem more agitated by the security contractors who will remain in Iraq than by the more than 160,000 troops which have been withdrawn, and have not been inclined to give the administration much credit. On the right, the withdrawal has been a gift, an opportunity to now hold Obama responsible for anything which goes wrong in Iraq over the next year and to frame him as weak on national security.

The real benefits of completing the Iraqi withdrawal are in the realm of policy, not politics. This isn't because Iraq has somehow solved its problems, or that we should not worry about its fate. The emerging Iraq doesn't look much like a well-functioning, institutionalized democracy governed by the rule of law. It isn't likely see serious political reconciliation, particularly at the level of its contentious and dysfunctional political elite, any time soon. It's likely to have continuing violence, bombings, murders, sectarian fears, and the potential for serious conflict in disputed territories.

But the fact is that it has had all of those things with the U.S. troop presence. The American presence over the last two years has not prevented the low-level violence, has not blocked Maliki's efforts to centralize power, has not helped build an effective Iraqi Parliament, and has not advanced political reconciliation. Staying for another few years wouldn't have done any more on these scores, because such things are largely out of America's hands.  Iraqis are the main players in Iraq, not Americans, and the best the U.S. could do was to try to facilitate their political bargains. That was true before the withdrawal, and it's still true today.

I argued years ago that only an American withdrawal would force Iraqi politicians to find a sustainable political equilibrium. I never expected it to be a pretty one, or to be an easy process. But I would say that this is exactly what has been happening and what we will see unfold over the coming years. Prime Minister Maliki was deeply reckless and misguided to try to arrest Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi -- and yes, it is extremely worrying to watch Hashemi flee for refuge in the Kurdish areas. Insurgents have carried out some horrific bombings to try and destabilize the situation. While a lot of people see this as the opening stage of the coming collapse, I saw it as their testing the new political arena to see what they can get away with and how far they can go. That's not a surprise. All Iraqi political actors, from the Sadrists to Iraqiyya, will do the same. The test is whether the new Iraq can absorb those provocations and settle down. I hope and pray that it can. But this was going to happen no matter when the U.S. withdrew -- and this was the time to do it.

Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops might not have been his first preference. He tried to negotiate an extension of the SOFA, and I don't think he would have had much trouble defending a residual presence of 15,000 troops to an American public which barely cared anymore. I'm glad that the effort failed. Those troops would have accomplished little. They would not have prevented the ongoing low-level violence, the murders and bombings which continue to plague Iraq. They would not have fostered political reconciliation or checked Maliki's power grab, any more than they did for the last two years. They would not have made Iraq a pro-American, anti-Iranian foreign policy player, any more than they did before. Their main effect would have been to serve as a lightning rod for Iraqi political criticism, a mobilizing factor for the Sadrists, and a target for those hoping to strike at Americans.

Withdrawing the last troops from Iraq was a risk, to be sure -- but it was exactly the kind of bold choice which needed to be taken.*  It was bold in the best way: not militaristic bluster or bombing things to demonstrate resolve, but having the courage to take a risky but correct decision. I hope and believe that Iraq will hold together, and avoid a renewed sectarian bloodbath or state collapse.  That is, if the U.S. can avoid bombing Iran. But that's an issue for another day.

* last paragraph expanded, 2:20pm - ml.


Marc Lynch

Best Books on the Middle East, 2011

It's time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year's winners here.) Next year's list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year's uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011.  That'll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out -- don't worry, it won't be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! -- and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline.  In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.

First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There's no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn't read everything -- especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn't make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can't go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).

And with that...the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:

Book of the Year

Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, by Stephane LaCroix (Harvard University Press). Awakening Islam is an astonishingly rich, detailed analysis of the fascinating world of Saudi Islamism. The young French scholar Stephane LaCroix spent significant time in Saudi Arabia, and got deep inside the competing networks that have shaped Saudi Arabia's distinctive Islamist milieu. He unpacks the role of Muslim Brothers and Salafis and their sometimes-uneasy relationship with the state. He carefully traces the evolution of the Sahwa (Awakening) networks, and how they both carried political dissent and re-structured the pathways of political mobilization. And while he certainly pays attention to militant jihadism and the worldview which helped spawn al-Qaeda, that does not overwhelm his broader analytical mission.  This book is simply an extraordinary accomplishment, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the politics of Islam. Read LaCroix on the Middle East Channel: "Saudi Islamists and the Potential for Protest" (June 2, 2011).

Runner Up

Violence, Non-Violence and the Palestinian National Movement, by Wendy Pearlman (Cambridge University Press). Pearlman has produced a beautifully written, deeply researched, and theoretically sophisticated overview of a century of Palestinian political mobilization. She goes deep inside the political opportunities and obstacles which have shaped Palestinian decisions about violence and non-violent mobilization, with a particularly rich and insightful reading of both of the Intifadas.  Nobody should ever again dare ask "where is the Palestinian Gandhi?" before reading her book.  This is the best kind of scholarship, and deserves a wide readership -- which I fear it will not get, unless Cambridge decides to quickly issue it in an affordable paperback version instead of as an absurdly expensive $99 hardcover. Read Pearlman on the Middle East Channel: "A New Palestinian Intifada?" (Oct. 10, 2011).

Honorable Mentions

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, by Timothy Mitchell (Verso). Mitchell offers an alternative reading of the political and economic history of the Middle East that offers new interpretations of the impact of the struggle for the control of oil. Carbon Democracy ranges widely over the 20th century, placing oil not only at the center of U.S. foreign policy and the evolution of state structures and popular protest in the Middle East but also at the evolution of the disciplines of economics and political theory. Like many such alternative readings, Mitchell sometimes pushes his argument too far and produces contestable historical interpretations. But Carbon Democracy is a challenging, sophisticated, and important book that undermines expectations in the best kind of intellectual provocation. Read Mitchell on the Middle East Channel...next year!

The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, by Steven Cook (Oxford University Press). Cook's timely, well-written history offers the best up to date review of Egypt's modern political history through the opening months of the revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak. His account of how the 1952 Egyptian revolution produced the Nasserist authoritarian regime is more relevant today than ever, as is his discussion of the final years of the decaying Mubarak regime -- including intriguing new evidence about Gamal Mubarak's activities.  I'm still just glad that he didn't go with his editor's original suggested title, "Why the Mubaraks Will Never Ever Fall No Matter What Even If Martians Attack and Eat the Pyramids." Read Cook on the Middle East Channel: "The Frankenstein of Tahrir Square" (Dec. 19, 2011).

Finally, I found a huge number of books about other regions of the world to be critically important in shaping my thinking about the unfolding events in the Arab world this year. Of those, I'd like to recommend one in particular: The Justice Cascade, by Kathryn Sikkink (Norton). Sikkink, a leading IR scholar and Latin America specialist, details the growth of the norm of human rights prosecutions for regime officials responsible for atrocities against their own people. Whether such a norm can take hold in a changing Arab world strikes me as one of the most interesting and important questions out there -- I'm developing an academic research project on it, at any rate, so I hope so!  Sikkink presents an invaluable guide to the possibilities of normative and political change in world politics.

Congratulations to all the winning authors -- we hope that the honor and prestige and Aardvark love compensates for the complete absence of any cash prize.

And then, tradition demands.... 

Tradition demands that I also present here my picks for the top hip-hop albums of the year. And so I shall. Top of the list is Watch the Throne, by Jay-Z and Kanye West. I wasn't blown away by this one at first, especially after the ridiculously high bar set by the first single Otis.  But this adventurous, playful, and surprisingly mature album really grew on me over repeated listenings and after seeing them perform at the Verizon Center in DC. See Jay-Z and Kanye on the Middle East Channel here: Jay-Z's Hegemony in the Age of Kanye.

Next comes J. Cole's wonderful, smart debut Cole World: The Sideline Story, which finally brought one of my favorite rappers from the mixtapes to a wider public. Pusha T's Fear of God II EP was wicked (I think I played the first verse of Trouble on My Mind 17 times in a row at one point). I liked Kendrick Lamar's Section 80, and Monumental by Pete Rock and Smif n Wessum. I wanted to like the new albums by Wale, Big Sean, Game, the Roots, Talib Kweli and especially Lupe Fiasco but I just didn't really feel them.   And I really liked the various collections of revolutionary Arab rap that everyone kept sending me this year, and I hope y'all will keep sending them. I'm still bummed that Lauren Bohn managed to track down El General in the south of Tunisia for an FP interview while I had to settle for seekng J.Cole, Jay Z and Kanye in DC.

Thanks for a great 2011, everyone -- and get on those great books and great albums which might earn you an Aardvark Award of your own in 2012!