Hoping for the Best in Iraq

President Obama’s announcement that all, or virtually all, U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the end of this year is not the ideal outcome. That is in keeping with the accord negotiated in 2008 between Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and President Bush, though there had been many efforts to extend the relationship beyond the 2011 deadline that earlier accord had imposed. But the American departure is not a horrible outcome, either, and it is not clear that the Obama administration deserves much blame for the decision.

It would have been preferable to keep 10,000 or more American troops in Iraq another couple years. The simplest reason, in broader terms, would have been to help reassure Iraqis about their security as they continue to navigate a treacherous path to stability. Their country is much more stable now than before, but violence remains considerable, extremists still plot more attacks, and renewed sectarian warfare remains a possibility.

More specifically, I would point to unresolved territorial disputes in Iraq’s north as the clearest reason for keeping enough GIs to help with joint patrolling and joint manning of checkpoints. Here, Iraqi Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs come into contact in places they all claim – and places where a clear process to resolve territorial disputes is not yet succeeding. There was supposed to be a referendum by 2007 to determine whether any of the land just below Kurdistan in Iraq’s north should join the autonomous Kurdistan region, remain in “Iraq proper” where it is today, or enjoy some kind of other status distinct from the other two options. We would have done well to stay involved here until the issue could be resolved—and given the modest troop requirements, we could have been patient about this. Even keeping just a few thousand Americans as trainers would have helped psychologically and politically.

But while my preference for a continued U.S. presence was clear, I do not join those who criticize President Obama harshly for this outcome. First of all, there is in fact a good chance that Iraqis, who have come so far together already, can and will handle this on their own. Their young democracy has been characterized by a good deal of political brinkmanship to date, but in general they have pulled back from the brink so far. That is in fact part of the argument for keeping American forces in Iraq. We’ve helped persuade them to reconcile differences at key moments in the past. Our strong presence has aided that process. But it is also a reason to think that perhaps they are ready for the next step.

Second, this decision, while regrettable at one level, is not primarily due to any major mistake by the Obama administration. Indeed, it is mainly the Iraqis who are responsible for the American departure, as they have refused to do what other major American allies have done at similar points in the past—allow Americans to be handled within their own legal system for any alleged infractions in the future. The Iraqis should have realized that tragic experiences of the past, such as that with the Blackwater team that killed almost 20 Iraqis without cause several years ago in Baghdad, resulted more from unregulated contractors than GIs.

To the extent the United States has partial responsibility for the recent failure to agree on terms to keep forces past 2011, it may reflect inadequate focus at times from the Obama administration. But overall the attention has been there. More important has been the legacy of the horrible years of 2003-2006 when the United States did such a poor job stabilizing Iraq, prior to the surge. That period’s mistakes, it must be restated, were the fault of the Bush administration, which went into Iraq having made with poor preparations to stabilize the country after Saddam’s downfall despite many independent warnings from analysts and policymakers that the period could be fraught.

To be sure, as the U.S. president the last three years, it was Obama’s duty to make the best of whatever situation he inherited—and the surge did make the situation far better, it is worth remembering. So this is not a complete exoneration of the Obama administration, which has in fact not seen its finest hour on this issue. But we need to keep things in perspective.

Most of all, if Iraqis change their mind in coming months, we should be prepared to keep at least a few thousand troops in Iraq into 2012 and beyond as part of a NATO-run international force if need be. But even if that does not occur, Iraq’s prospects for the future remain more good than bad, and Obama deserves credit for modifying his original campaign promises that called for a rushed American departure to give the Iraqis until the end of 2011 to prepare for this day.