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