Obama on Course in Baghdad
Obama with Iraqi leaders (AFP/Mandel Ngan) Obama’s surprise stop-over in Baghdad, following his impressive performance in Turkey, again hit the right notes. He demonstrated his continuing commitment to the American effort in Iraq, while strongly affirming his intention of carrying out the withdrawal of troops by the end of 2011. He pushed ...
Obama’s surprise stop-over in Baghdad, following his impressive performance in Turkey, again hit the right notes. He demonstrated his continuing commitment to the American effort in Iraq, while strongly affirming his intention of carrying out the withdrawal of troops by the end of 2011. He pushed hard on Maliki, by all accounts, to move on reconciliation and to take advantage of the closing window of the American troop presence to secure a workable political accommodation. The message he’s sending is the right one: American troops can not be the answer to Iraq’s problems, they really are leaving, and it’s now up to the Iraqis — whether things go well or they go badly.
I think that it’s hard for a lot of American commentators to really internalize this, because they are so firmly anchored in a U.S. military centric concept of the war where American strategy, troop levels, and will are what matters most. That, I suspect, is what animates the steady drumbeat of pessimism from my colleague Tom Ricks and many others. They have lived this war from the American side, embedded with American troops and American politicians and American debates in which Iraqis are viewed too often as passive recipients of American strategy or as problems to be managed. I understand it, but it seems evident that Obama really is thinking differently.
Do I think that the war is over and that Iraq’s problems have been solved? No, no, no. For years I’ve been pointing out the fragility of the political situation, and I’ve seen little to change my mind. You can see it in the crackdown on the Awakenings leaders in Fadhil and elsewhere (which highlight the coordination problems among the deeply fragmented Awakening ranks as much as they do the Maliki government’s continuing suspicion and hostility). You can see it in the intense struggles between Arabs and the Kurds, and between a centralizing Maliki regime and a hopelessly fragmented group of opposing factions. You can see it in the perennial gap between political agremeents and their implementation, in the continuing incapacity of state institutions, in the endemic corruption and in the current budget struggles. And you can see it in the uptick in bombings and insurgency violence. No, Iraq’s internal struggles and problems won’t be over for a long, long time.
But that’s not the same thing as saying that America’s war in Iraq will continue for a long, long time. I take Obama’s commitment to drawing down seriously, and so — increasingly — do many Iraqis and those in the region. It isn’t that the war is “over”… it’s that the American role is fundamentally going to change. As American troops withdraw and Iraqi sovereignty cystallizes, something else I’ve been arguing for years will become ever more central: a solution which depends on American troops to enforce it is not a solution. Americans, as much as Iraqis, need to adapt to this credible commitment to the drawdown of U.S. troops.
There’s a long way to go, and I’m as pessimistic as ever. Iraqis may well make bad decisions, and the chances of a return of the insurgency are real. But I’m reassured by the evidence of this changing approach across the administration and MNF-I alike, as the new reality sinks in. I’m reassured by the continuing commitment to withdrawal despite the security deterioration (taking place, I would add, despite the continuing high level of U.S. troops — which once again really is not the decisive variable). And I’m reassured by Obama’s regional approach to the issue, just as promised during the campaign. It isn’t going to be easy, but I think that Obama has things on the right course.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark
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