Gauging Merits of Iraqi Withdrawal

It came as a surprise to some that last year's election was not about Iraq. Now the challenge for the Obama administration is to ensure that the same is true in 2012.

On Feb. 27, President Obama announced his plan for an Iraq withdrawal--"how the war in Iraq will end"--at Camp Lejeune. The president outlined a transitional withdrawal that will "end" combat operations by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving a "residual" force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops that would be engaged in force protection, counterterrorism, and training until the end of 2011, at which time all troops would leave.

Some have criticized the pace of withdrawal and the size of the "residual" force. Indeed, after a private meeting with the president, Democratic members of Congress went out of their way to bad-mouth the plan. In contrast, Republicans, including John McCain, were publicly supportive.

In Washington, eliciting cautious approval from political opponents is what passes for bipartisanship, and among some supporters of the Iraq war, condemnations from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid constitute confirmation that Obama's plan is a sound one. But the plan deserves to be judged on the merits, gauging whether it protects hard-fought gains, contributes toward long-term stability, and serves U.S. interests in the Middle East. None of that is yet clear.

Violence in Iraq has dropped to the lowest level in four years, and a certain comity appears to be holding among ethnic and sectarian factions inside the government and in previously troubled areas of the country. The Iraqi armed forces have staffed up from 463,000 to 618,000 in the last year. And while al-Qaeda in Iraq has not evaporated, the environment of Sunni tolerance that once allowed it freedom of operation is no more. Iraq's economy, while suffering as all oil producers are from a drop in price, is nonetheless slowly reemerging, with optimistic projections for 7.5 percent GDP growth this year.

In Washington, eliciting cautious approval from political opponents is what passes for bipartisanship.

The credit for this remarkable turnaround belongs almost entirely to the surge of forces into Iraq in 2007, and to the servicemen and women and their commanders--most particularly Gens. David Petraeus and Ray Odierno--who conceived and executed the plan and strategic shift, and to their Iraqi military partners who stepped up to the plate.

The counterinsurgency strategy at the heart of American success in Iraq--a strategy opposed strenuously by then-Sen. Obama and his erstwhile fellow travelers in the House and Senate--rested on an understanding that battlefield victories that did not hold ground and did not ensure security for the Iraqis brought only ephemeral gains against a resilient enemy.

It is not clear from the Camp Lejeune speech that this lesson--the "why" of success--is understood in the new administration. Indeed, Obama appeared instead to have bought into the discredited notion that feckless Iraqis were the main force stymieing a U.S. retreat: "America's men and women in uniform, so many of you, have fought, block by block, province by province, year after year, to give the Iraqis this chance to choose a better future," he intoned. "Now we must ask the Iraqi people to seize it." It's true that Iraq's destiny must ultimately be in Iraqi hands; but if America has no interests in Iraq, then why remain even another year?

In reality, the United States does have short-, medium- and long-term interests in Iraq. As the president admitted, Iraq is not yet stable. Flashpoints in Mosul and Kirkuk--and particularly between Arabs and Kurds--hold the potential for serious turmoil in important oil-producing areas. Seven U.S. soldiers have died in violence in Mosul in the last month alone. In addition, the robust U.S. presence serves to limit Iranian encroachment, circumscribe Iranian regional ambitions, and dampen efforts to reconstitute Shiite militias.

Finally, the question of a more permanent strategic partnership with Iraq should not be off limits. While that may not include a major troop presence, the notion that the United States does not have regional interests that could be well-served by a U.S. military presence in Iraq is naive.

Success in Iraq has been sustained by our troops and by the superb quality of our commanders and diplomats on the ground. Ambassador Ryan Crocker has now left Iraq, and an envoy with no service in the Middle East and no Arabic will be nominated to replace him. If normal rotations prevail, Odierno is due to leave in 2010. Yes, Iraq is stabilizing. Yes, America has pressing priorities. But securing hard-fought victory remains a top priority, and our commanders have warned that a race to the exits risks reigniting violence.

Former President George W. Bush had many faults, but he had the courage to listen to key commanders and turn around a lousy Iraq strategy. America needs to finish this fight properly, and that will require another commander in chief willing to listen. Should he choose not to, the fireworks promised for 2008 may ignite in 2012.

Danielle Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI.

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