The sky isn’t falling in Iraq, and America is just staring at it
By Christian Brose Consider this for a moment from today’s New York Times: Insurgents struck at the heart of the Iraqi government on Wednesday in two huge and deadly bombings that exposed a new vulnerability after Americans ceded control for security here on June 30. Nearby American soldiers stood by helplessly — despite the needs ...
Consider this for a moment from today’s New York Times:
Insurgents struck at the heart of the Iraqi government on Wednesday in two huge and deadly bombings that exposed a new vulnerability after Americans ceded control for security here on June 30. Nearby American soldiers stood by helplessly — despite the needs of hundreds of wounded lying among the dead — waiting for a request for assistance from Iraqi officials that apparently never came.
“As much as we want to come, we have to wait to be asked now,” said an American officer who arrived at one site almost three hours after the blast…. At one blast site, American soldiers snapped pictures of the devastation before ducking out of the streets.
This is the harbinger of the new phase of the U.S.-Iraq relationship. The first phase, from 2003 to about 2005, consisted of Americans and our allies largely doing things for Iraqis, and often doing them very, very poorly. The second phase, stretching from 2005 to 2009, consisted of Americans and Iraqis trying desperately to do things together, miraculously avoiding not one but several total meltdowns and ultimately managing to snatch some elements of success from the jaws of failure. Now, with the implementation of the Status of Forces Agreement and President Obama’s plan to withdraw U.S. forces, we have entered the third phase, the leap in the dark: Iraqis doing things largely and increasingly on their own while America, the coalition of one, stands on the sidelines in fewer and fewer numbers, advising, encouraging, supporting, and at times, just watching and waiting and wringing our hands. In this case, literally.
It’s tempting to look at this and conclude that the sky is falling. That would be wrong, and here I humbly part ways with Tom Ricks’s ongoing predictions of an “unraveling.” Violence, as Peter Feaver has argued, is an unreliable metric for measuring success or failure. Just because terrorists can carry out a few coordinated, spectacular acts of carnage does not necessarily mean that they are a growing or reemerging threat to the Iraqi state. What’s more, the attacks were surely made easier to carry out by what is an undeniable sign of progress: the removal of blast walls from the Baghdad streets. This says less about the capabilities of Iraq’s enemies than it does about the increasing normalization of life in the country (though risks do come with that). And by all accounts, the Maliki government responded to these attacks as well as could be expected.
Let’s not forget either that attacks like these still remain outliers in a far larger trend: Iraq’s emergence as a normal country, with normal politics, a growing economy, and an increasingly capable government. Friends who have recently flown into Baghdad describe a scene that was unfathomable to them a couple years ago: kids playing in the streets, markets full and bustling, the sights and sounds of a normal Arab capital. These bombings won’t change that. And this extends to Iraq’s politics as well, which is increasingly colored by the jockeying and horse-trading of the democratic process. Even Maliki, with all of his troubling strongman tendencies, is being checked and balanced by Iraq’s other rival factions. Talk of coups, or a reborn insurgency, or a renewed civil war all seem misplaced at this time.
Still, this new phase in Iraq will be far from smooth and peaceful. And more and more, the United States, like that soldier yesterday, will be a spectator, watching and waiting in the wings. Our main source of leverage is flying out of the country on C-17s — which makes our diplomatic role, and our new ambassador, all the more important. We are leaving Iraq to the Iraqis, and though it will be hard and awful to watch as they struggle imperfectly to get their arms around the still-monumental problems that their country faces, this is the right thing for us to do. The days of America rushing in to help at every sign of trouble are over.
This war had to end at some point, and amid all the close calls and near catastrophes, we are fortunate that it is ending in the way that it is. And yet, days like yesterday are a reminder of how grim and costly this success will remain: sporadic violence that continues to murder and maim innocent Iraqis; an Iraqi government that, even when doing its best, will continue at times to fail its people; and America still able to help, still wanting to help, but not allowed to help, and in some sense, knowing it shouldn’t help. This is success, but right now I don’t feel much like clapping.
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