‘Tell me how this ends,” Gen. David Petraeus famously asked during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It’s still a question no one can answer, although the odds of a satisfactory outcome have vastly increased since 2006, when Iraq was spiraling downward into a hellish civil war.
For now, we have transformed Iraq from a hostile, terrorist-supporting dictatorship destabilizing the region into a ramshackle democracy that is an ally in the war on terror. To get Iraq to this point, in January 2007 President Bush had to order tens of thousands of additional troops into a failing war, in the teeth of gale-force opposition from the political establishment, public opinion, and the balance of the military brass. To capitalize on the opportunity we have bought in Iraq with blood and treasure, President Obama has to do something much easier: resist a strategically witless urge to turn his back on Iraq as being merely the site of “Bush’s war.”
The president’s Oval Office address wasn’t confidence-inducing. Appropriately, he saluted the troops for “completing every mission they were given in Iraq,” and he promised Iraqis they will “have a strong partner in the United States.” But he spoke particularly forcefully of removing 100,000 troops from Iraq, closing or transferring hundreds of bases, and moving millions of pieces of equipment out of the country — indices of ending a war, not necessarily winning it. He talked up the growing capabilities of the Iraqis, but in the spirit of declaring victory — or, more precisely, the end of combat operations — and coming home. He exhorted us to “turn the page,” before arguing that we must honor the troops by uniting around his domestic agenda.
In its failure to credit explicitly Bush’s surge for turning around the war, the speech was graceless; in its cursory treatment of Iraq, it lacked strategic vision; and in its attempt to hijack the troops for Obama’s domestic priorities (“we must tackle . . . challenges at home with as much energy and grit, and sense of common purpose, as our men and women in uniform”), it was shameless. Altogether a poor performance.
Iraq is important not only for the sake of the Iraqis and not only because its success could still, over the long term, provide a model for the region: Any strategy for containing Iran makes no sense unless a stable, U.S-allied Iraq is a bulwark against it. Ensuring that it is will take resources and, especially, U.S. troops. In preparing to pull out all troops by the end of next year, President Obama is adhering to the agreement that President Bush signed with the Iraqis. But there’s no reason that our troop presence eventually can’t be extended under another agreement, and it should be. President Obama praised the performance of Iraqi troops, but we don’t know yet how they will perform under continued assault with only 50,000 U.S. troops on the ground. A more substantial ongoing U.S. troop presence would give us additional leverage to promote the Iraqi army’s professionalism and guard against extra-constitutional adventurism on its part (not unknown in that part of the world).
For all of President Obama’s talk of “our dedicated civilians” stepping up to replace the U.S. military, there are limits to what they can do. Put aside the fact that so far the Obama administration’s diplomatic effort in Iraq has been passive and unimpressive, even as the Iraqis have deadlocked on the formation of a new government. It doesn’t matter how dedicated its civilians are, the State Department can’t patrol the Arab-Kurdish fault line in the north the way the military can; it can’t train police the way the military can (as we learned from prior experience in Iraq and Afghanistan); and it can’t protect its own people the way the military can.
Forging a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq needn’t take exorbitant resources, or anything like what we’ve had to devote to the war to get it to this point. Absent a disastrous deterioration of conditions on the ground, we should over time be able to do it with less than we spend annually in aid to Pakistan ($1.5 billion), and with fewer troops than we keep in Germany (54,000) or Japan (36,000). There’s no need to stint on it for the sake of wind power, as President Obama vaguely implied last night.
If we still don’t know how the Iraq war is going to end, an engaged, strategically far-sighted commander-in-chief is essential.