Obama’s Iraq Legacy

Barack Obama has been an entirely pragmatic president on Iraq.

As Martin Indyk, Ken Lieberthal and I argue in our book about President Obama’s foreign policy, Bending History, he took an issue that had been highly ideological in American politics—and that he had used in an ideological and partisan way on the campaign trail—and defused it politically. This remains true even though Iraq’s trajectory in mid-2012 remains unpredictable and the jury remains very much out on where it is headed.

Obama’s first key move was to slow down his promised withdrawal from Iraq dramatically. He said he would get all combat formations out of Iraq within sixteen months of becoming president. Instead, nineteen months later, the United States still had fifty thousand troops there (even if redesignated, in something of a semantic legerdemain, as “advised and assist brigades”).

The decision to keep fifty thousand troops into 2011 was based on guidance from General Raymond Odierno, who commanded American forces in Iraq; from General David Petraeus, who had led the surge until September 2008, when he returned home to run U.S. Central Command; and from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It also built on the accord negotiated by Bush and Maliki in late 2008 that directed U.S. forces to leave Iraq’s cities by June 2009 and leave the country altogether by December 2011.

By modifying the plans in this way, Obama could avoid any big drawdowns of U.S. troops in Iraq in the unsettled year of 2009, when Iraqis would be taking his measure, and when American troops would be pulling out of Iraqi cities and thereby conferring far more responsibility on the Iraqi army and police. This was too fraught a time to test the stability of Iraq by launching into a predetermined exodus. With Obama’s new plan, U.S. troop numbers could stay robust through the crucial Iraqi elections of March 2010—the second real election in that young democracy, a delicate moment in any country that has recently thrown off the yoke of dictatorship and adopted representative government.

There was some good diplomacy in this time as well, largely spearheaded by Vice President Biden. During the winter of 2010, Prime Minister Maliki seemed intent on exploiting gray areas—and even some not-so-gray areas—in Iraqi election law to ensure he would hold onto power. Biden did much to get him to desist from further electoral shenanigans. Partial recounts in districts where other parties besides Maliki’s had done well were, it was agreed, not a good idea. Banning former members of Saddam’s Baathist Party from holding office after they had won seats was without legal foundation. To drive home such points, the vice president could count on his boss’s backing when necessary. As Biden put it to me, “When I need the big man to make a phone call to an Iraqi politician to make a point, he’s happy to do so too.”

The progress represented by the surge, the Sunni awakening, the Basra and Sadr City offensives, and related developments in the latter Bush years was solidified during Obama’s tenure. The Iraqi civil war as such is over. Violence is down more than 90 percent relative to 2006 and early 2007 levels. Electricity production is up more than 50 percent, and international energy firms are bidding enthusiastically to help develop new oil fields. The central government is sharing revenues, and responsibilities, with Iraq’s eighteen provinces—even those dominated by Sunni and Kurdish communities. Politics are still rough and tumble, and the future remains uncertain. But debate, parliamentary maneuver and horse-trading, rather than violence and threats, have become the means of trying to resolve differences in Iraq.

The Obama administration’s work is not done on Iraq, of course. Prime Minister Maliki is showing autocratic tendencies, and violence continues at tragic if much-reduced levels. In this environment, the complete departure of U.S. forces last year was regrettable. They formerly helped man checkpoints, carried out joint patrols with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and otherwise helped calm nerves and provide reassurance among still-jittery Iraqis as the wounds of civil war began to heal. It is a different situation with them gone.

To what extent was their departure inevitable? Could Obama have done more to improve the odds of striking an acceptable deal with the Iraqi government that would have kept, say, five thousand to twenty thousand U.S. troops in Iraq for an additional period of time, perhaps up to several years? It is difficult to say. The Obama administration could not force the issue, as Secretary Gates realized in noting late in 2010 that the United States would be open to reconsidering the departure deadline, but only if Iraqis made the first move. It was at Maliki’s insistence that the 2008 accord mandating this scheduled departure was reached, and it was the Bush administration, not the current U.S. government, that signed the bilateral deal. Domestic Iraqi politics still contain a healthy dose of anti-Americanism, and Iraqis remain a proud people who want to run their own country.

There have been reports that the Obama administration signaled to Iraqis that it wanted any enduring American role to be quite modest—perhaps scaring away Iraqi leaders who would have been willing to lobby hard for a continuing U.S. military presence but only one large enough to make a major difference. This fact may have contributed to the ultimate impasse in negotiations and thus the complete departure of American units from the country. If such reports are true, the Obama administration elected to take a gamble that perhaps was not necessary.

But the United States gave Iraq eight and a half years of military support, including nearly three on Obama’s watch, when he had promised only sixteen months before being elected. In the end, even if Washington’s interest in staying engaged was known to be only lukewarm, it was the Iraqis and their new democratic government that insisted on no legal immunity for American troops on Iraqi soil, which everyone knew in advance would be unacceptable to the United States.

Iraqis made the crucial decision for American troops to go. It was their right. And it is useful for the United States to prove to the Middle East and the world that, when asked to leave, we do in fact leave. That counters many myths about our supposedly imperial intent and discourages countries from taking our presence and our help for granted. On balance, this outcome is a reasonable gamble on the part of Baghdad and Washington. Obama’s record to date on Iraq may not be Churchillian and may not be his proudest achievement, but it is a solid and sober one.