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.
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Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.