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The irrelevance of America's withdrawal from Iraq

On December 15, 2011, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the formal end of America's military presence in Iraq. The withdrawal came after the inability to reach agreement on a revised Status of Forces Agreement which would have allowed a limited number of troops to remain under legal conditions acceptable to the Pentagon.  While the vast majority of Iraqis and Americans supported the departure of America's military presence, some supporters of a long-term U.S. military presence warned of disaster.  Some, like Senator John McCain and the Romney campaign, continue to fume that we no longer occupy Iraq and complain that Obama has lost what Bush gained. But in fact, the American departure has hardly mattered at all -- and that's a good thing.

This isn't to say that Iraq has emerged as a peaceful, democratic paradise or an enthusiastic pro-American ally. Hardly.  That was never in the cards, after the disastrous invasion and bungled occupation led to a horrific civil war and a near-failed state.  Iraq today remains a violent, poorly institutionalized place with deep societal fissures and unresolved political tensions.  But little has happened in the months since the U.S. withdrawal which differs significantly from what had been happening while the U.S. remained. The negative trends are the same ones which plagued Iraq despite the presence of U.S. troops in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. The U.S. presence contributed to some of those problems, helped deal with some, and  failed to resolve others.  But it had always struggled to convert its military presence into political leverage, and by 2011 it had become almost completely irrelevant. 

The real story of America's withdrawal from Iraq is how little impact it has really had on either Iraq or the region.  There are even signs that the withdrawal has helped to nudge Iraqis onto the right path, though not as quickly or directly as I might have hoped. This month's death toll was the lowest on record since the 2003 invasion, while Iraqi oil exports are at their highest level since 1980. Baghdad successfully hosted an Arab Summit meeting, which may have done little for Syria but did go further to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold than anything since 2003.  Maliki's jousting with his domestic foes and efforts to balance Iraq's ties with Tehran with improved Arab relations are what needs to happen for Iraq to regain a semblance of normality.   It isn't pretty, and probably won't be any time soon, but there's absolutely no reason to believe that it would look any better with American troops still encamped in the country.  Thus far, Obama's risky but smart gamble to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq is paying off.

This is not to say that there aren't reasons to worry about Iraq's future.  There are many.  It is troubling that Maliki has driven Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi into exile on terrorism charges and has rebuffed all efforts at meaningful cooperation with his political rivals. It is troubling that core constitutional issues such as the oil law and the limits of federalism remain unresolved. It is troubling that violence and terrorism continues to claim Iraqi lives and unsettle its politics.  It is troubling that the Iraqi Parliament appears inept and incompetent, as tirelessly chronicled by Reidar Visser, and that the rule of law has gained little purchase. 

But what's striking is that these problems are the same ones which kept us all up nights in previous years. None of these trends is remotely new, and few have become palpably worse since the American departure.  Iraqis have been worried about the centralization of power in Maliki's office and his authoritarian tendencies for the last four years.  Iraq's political and sectarian factions have failed to reconcile or achieve meaningful political unity despite intense U.S. pressure to do so for years.  Various militant groups have been carrying out bombings, revenge killings, assassinations, and acts of terrorism for years. 

But the key point is that extending the U.S. presence beyond 2011 would likely have had almost no impact on any of these trends.  By serving as a lightning rod for political criticism in a very hostile Iraqi political arena, an unpopular extension might well have made them worse.  The argument that the U.S. would have more influence over Iraqi politics if it had not withdrawn its troops simply has very little foundation.  A stronger argument can be made that a residual U.S. force would have provided a needed safety net in the difficult political battles to come, for instance in the relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdish areas.  But even there it isn't obvious that troops inside of Iraq would make a significant difference --- and the safety net itself might have retarded progress towards the necessary compromises.  

All told, Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal from Iraq along his original timeline has been largely vindicated.  Disaster has yet to occur, and some positive signs can be glimpsed from within the haze of a hotly contentious and murky political scene.   And American troops are no longer trapped in the middle.  That's probably the best that could have been hoped for out of the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq --- a mistake which we should all hope is not repeated in Syria, Iran or anywhere else.   

AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

The Muslim Brotherhood's Presidential Gambit

The Muslim Brotherhood resolved months of speculation this weekend by announcing its intention of nominating Deputy Supreme Guide Khairet al-Shater for Egypt's presidential election. It may not seem so surprising for a country's largest political force and the largest parliamentary faction to field a Presidential candidate. But it was. The announcement sent an earthquake through Cairo's already wildly careening political scene. I'm happy to admit that I was taken by surprise. 

What was the Brotherhood thinking? The nomination of Shater seems to have been a response to threats and opportunities a rapidly changing political arena, rather than the hatching of a long-term plan. But many Egyptians would disagree, seeing it instead as the culmination of a long-hatching conspiracy with the SCAF. I think it will reveal itself to be a strategic blunder which has placed the Brotherhood in a no-win situation. But clearly they had their reasons for making such an uncharacteristically bold move. How will it affect the endlessly turbulent and contentious Egyptian political transition? And could Khairat al-Shater really replace Hosni Mubarak as the president of Egypt?

I've been studying Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood for many years, and have interviewed most of its senior leaders (including Shater) multiple times. And I'll admit that I was surprised. So were most other MB-watchers I follow. That's in large part because it contradicts what I had heard for months from Brotherhood leaders in private and in public, and has dubious political logic. What's more, the decision appears to have been controversial inside the Brotherhood's leadership, and seems to have taken even many of its own top people by surprise. There are at least three reasons to consider the Brotherhood's move surprising, despite the obvious temptation that any political party would have to seek the top political position which it believes it can win: its promises to not field a candidate; the strategic risks of seeking the presidency; and the stakes of nominating Shater himself. 

First, the Muslim Brotherhood had promised for months to not field a presidential candidate. They left little room for ambiguity in their promises. Indeed, it held this position so strongly that senior reformist leader Abd al-Moneim Abou el-Futouh had broken bitterly with his organization over his determination to run, and the Brotherhood leadership had in turn threatened to expel any members who worked on his campaign. This was not a minor, off-handed promise -- it had been a central, often-repeated feature of the Brotherhood's political message for many months. 

The Brotherhood-bashing over this reversal may have been a bit over the top ("Boo hoo. Call the wahmbulance. Politics ain't beanbag," quipped FP's house cynic in response to the finger-pointing). But putting forward a candidate didn't simply break a frequently repeated public promise. It also fit a broader narrative (justified or not) about the Brotherhood's steadly creeping ambitions and broken vows. Many of these complaints were themselves exaggerated, particularly over the Brotherhood's alleged conspiracies with the SCAF and over-performance in the parliamentary elections. But the accusations took on a new intensity this month as a wave of liberals and independents quit the constitutional assembly in protest over perceived Islamist domination. 

The second reason for surprise was that the move carries significant political risks for little obvious advantage. The Brotherhood has long worried about the perception that it seeks to dominate Egyptian politics and sought to avoid triggering the crystallization of an anti-Islamist front. Most analysts expected the Brotherhood to practice self-restraint in order to avoid provoking these fears, and this was generally the message which Brotherhood leaders attempted to signal. But there's no question that the Brotherhood has become increasingly assertive as it has established its power in the transitional environment, and less willing to back away from confrontation or back away from its own preferences.  

Advancing a candidate, while in line with this newly found willingness to flex its muscles, nevertheless creates a no-win situation for the Brotherhood. Backing an acceptable but non-Brotherhood presidential candidate would have protected their core interests without triggering fear in others. If a Brotherhood candidate wins, then the movement would control the parliament, the constitutional assembly, and the presidency. It would therefore stand alone in the face of the military, and would bear full responsibility for whatever happened in Egypt's economy, politics and society in the coming period.  

If it loses the election, then it would conclusively shatter its own carefully cultivated air of invincibility. And victory is not certain. I've been genuinely impressed with Shater's forceful presence, confidence, and intellect when I've interviewed him. In person, he is charismatic and impressive, calm and careful but capable of dominating a discussion. But Shater is not a charismatic front-man likely to enthrall the mass Egyptian public on television or in public speeches. He might find it tough going to unite an Islamist presidential field already divided, at least for now, between Abou el-Fotouh, the surprisingly omnipresent Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, and Mohammed Salim al-Awwa. In contrast to the parliamentary elections, Muslim Brotherhood members alone would not likely be enough to carry the day in a high-turnout presidential election -- and Shater has not proven an ability to appeal beyond the organization he dominates. Finally, his presence in the race could well galvanize the non-Islamist vote to rally behind a consensus candidate such as Amr Moussa.

The third reason for surprise was the candidate himself. If the Brotherhood needed to field a candidate, then it could have turned to one of its well-known political leaders. Choosing Khairat el-Shater raises the stakes considerably. Shater is the deputy supreme guide, and in the view of most MB-watchers the real power behind the throne. Either his victory or his defeat would have more serious potential negative repercussions for the Brotherhood as a whole than if a less central figure had been offered up as a candidate. There can be no doubting that with Shater, the Brotherhood has gone all-in for victory. And that in turn puts the organization's reputation very much on the line, win or lose.

So why did the Brotherhood do it? There are two, diametrically opposed arguments circulating -- each, of course, firmly held as the obvious truth by its proponents. The first is that Brotherhood's hand had been forced by the SCAF's mismanagement of the political process and alleged targeting of the Brotherhood. Some Islamist leaders seemed to share overheated fears of an approaching "1954 moment" in which the army again cracked down on Islamists and reasserted authoritarian rule. While expected, the Brotherhood's attempts to use its parliamentary power to rein in the SCAF and the SCAF's counter-moves to block parliamentary action were, by this reading, pushing Egypt towards a political showdown. The MB has turned sharply against the Ganzoury government in recent weeks, after initially cooperating with it. Shater's nomination is therefore in this scenario a response to threat, the next step in an escalating conflict between the Brotherhood and the SCAF.  

A second popular argument, held by many of the Brotherhood's critics, is precisely the opposite: that Shater's nomination represents the culmination of the long-standing collusion between the Brotherhood and the SCAF. In this reading, Shater's assuming the presidency will complete a bargain by which the former will be handed political power in exchange for guarantees of the latter's core interests. The public spats are dismissed as political theater designed to camoflouge the conspiracy. But in this reading, the fix is in and the Brotherhood is set on seizing the opportunity. 

The reality is likely some combination of threat and opportunity, as the Brotherhood seeks to navigate Egypt's turbulent politics. They may have preferred to find a candidate to support from outside the organization, but couldn't find a suitable one among the contenders. Perhaps they feared what the leading alternatives might do with regime power: Moussa perhaps rallying anti-Islamist forces and rolling back their gains, Abu Ismail capturing Islamist sympathies and votes and shunting the Brotherhood to the sidelines. They may have realized that they were at the peak of their power right now, with parliament under their control and other parties in disarray, and may never get another shot at the presidency. Or maybe it's all of the above, and more.

The next two months are going to be a wild period for Egyptian politics which will make or break its deeply troubled but still -- just barely -- viable transition. The constitution is supposedly to be drafted, the president elected, and power transferred from the SCAF to a civilian government within this short time frame. Meanwhile, the economy continues to badly struggle, frustrated activists continue to protest, and relations with the United States. are badly strained. Shater's entry into the presidential race just introduces one more wild card into this loaded deck. At least Egyptian politics won't be boring.