Marc Lynch

Why the Iraq milestone matters

On Tuesday President Obama will give a major address marking the end of combat operations in Iraq, which delivers on one of his major campaign promises and marks one of the largely unremarked bright spots in his foreign policy record to date.  Given how central Iraq has been to the great foreign policy debates of ...


On Tuesday President Obama will give a major address marking the end of combat operations in Iraq, which delivers on one of his major campaign promises and marks one of the largely unremarked bright spots in his foreign policy record to date.  Given how central Iraq has been to the great foreign policy debates of the last decade, it’s somewhat surprising how little attention has been paid to the steady drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq.  Skeptics on all sides have dominated what little discourse there’s been:  many on the left point to the continuing presence of nearly 50,000 troops and many more civilian contractors to mock the notion that the war is over;  many on the right mutter about Obama’s refusal to give Bush credit for the surge;  and many serious analysts on all sides worry about the continuing political gridlock in Baghdad and the seemingly shaky security situation.  But Obama’s meeting his self-imposed deadline of drawing down to 50,000 troops by this month — 90,000 fewer than were in Iraq before he took office — really does matter.   There was only one shot to get the U.S. on the road to leaving Iraq, and Obama has delivered. 

It’s worth taking a step back and pointing out some of the key things which have happened in Iraq under Obama’s watch, and somethat haven’t.  The drawdown of U.S. forces has proceeded on schedule, despite plenty of opportunities and some pressure to slow it down — the much anticipated revolt of the generals demanding to delay the drawdown hasn’t happened. Despite the continuing pattern of violent attacks grabbing headlines, the overall security situation has remained pretty good despite the steady reduction of U.S.forces and the shoddy treatment of the Awakenings movements by the Iraqi government.  Iran, despite its massive investments in Iraqi politics, has proven no more able to dictate the outcomes of Iraqi politics than has Washington, a key development which gets too little attention.   Iraqi state institutions have continued to function, for all their flaws, despite more than a half a year of political gridlock.  And that political deadlock would almost certainly been the same even if the U.S. still had 140,000 troops on the ground — which is where the "conditions based" withdrawal favored by many of Obama’s critics would have us today.   Iraq’s not perfect, but who thought it would be?  Winding down America’s involvement in Iraq without disaster is nothing to scoff at.

Has disaster been averted?  The political situation in Iraq is certainly disheartening — from the institutional shenanigans such as those of the De-Baathification Commission, which badly hurt the legitimacy of the elections, through the long-running political stalemate preventing the formation of a government.   Former Bush NSC official Peter Feaver,  in a thoughtful post, argues that this disproves the "theory of the case" developed by Obama’s team, including me, that a commitment to withdrawal would push Iraqi political reconciliation:  

But the Obama team sold this rigid timeline as the best way to achieve a more important political goal: incentivizing the Iraqis to make further political compromises yielding further political progress. During the campaign, Obama’s Iraq advisors claimed that we did not see faster and more sustained political progress in Iraq because the Bush administration coddled Iraqi leaders and, in effect, fostered a co-dependency that allowed Iraqi dysfunctions to persist. Better, they argued, to administer the tough love of leaving on a fixed schedule regardless of the political conditions on the ground. This would concentrate Iraqi minds and get them to make the painful compromises they were resisting.

It was an interesting academic theory advanced by reasonable people… [But] We now have seen 18 months of the Obama theory in action and the results, thus far, are not promising. The Iraqi political stalemate is at least as bad as it was in Spring 2006…  There is no evidence that Obama’s gambit has fostered greater political cooperation among Iraqi political elites. To be sure, the blame should also be laid at the feet of other factors: weak leadership in Embassy Baghdad; neglect of the Iraq issue at the top levels of the Obama administration; and above all, the dysfunctions of the Iraqi political leadership. But as tests of academic theory go, this is a pretty dispositive rejection of the Obama hypothesis.

Not really.  I’m more than happy to admit that my prediction right after the election didn’t pan out (see below), but on the broader case I’m nowhere near willing to cede the argument.   I certainly did argue that a clear commitment to draw down U.S. troops would force Iraqi politicians to recalculate, but not that it would happen overnight or solve all of Iraq’s problems.   In fact, Brian Katulis and I argued at the time that the surge had set up a "political house of cards" which had failed to resolve major political challenges — including many of the ones currently blocking Iraqi politics. The political stalemate is rooted in the political institutionsdesigned by the Bush administration and the dysfunctional politicalclass it nurtured.   The key question is not whether Iraq now has wonderful politics — it doesn’t, and I didn’t expect it to — but rather whether the American drawdown has been a net positive for Iraqi politics or broader U.S. interests.  And there, I think the answer is yes.   

As for the current political stalemate, which (in keeping with Dan Drezner’s meme of the day, was my worst prediction of the year), here’s my take.  I hadn’t expected Iyad Allawi’s electoral upset — accomplished primarily because Maliki split the Shi’a vote by breaking with the INA — which was the wild card from which the game has yet to recover.   Had Maliki won even by 1 vote, as most everyone expected and for which they had gamed out their strategies, then it would have likely unfolded just as I predicted at the time — a quick move to areconstituted government which resembled the previous one.  But Allawi’s upset created a logjam.  Allawi and Maliki’s personal differences, more than ideological ones, prevented their alignment, while Maliki refused to reunite with the INA except on his own terms and Allawi’s ideological differences with INA were too great. The Kurds, as always,  sat around waiting for anyone to meet their terms, while the non-sectarian movements of which many Iraqis (and analyzed in depth over the years by the tenacious Reidar Visser) have dreamed have failed thus far to capture political ground. 

Obviously, seven months of stalemate show that the U.S. drawdown hasn’t led these politicians to resolve their differences as I had hoped.   But on the flip side, there is no evidence that Obama’s allowing the August 31 deadline to slip would have made the slightest difference in improving the situation, and probably would have made it worse.  The mission of the troops was long ago remade
by the SOFA.  The only effect of delaying the drawdown would have beena hammer blow on U.S. credibility, informing all Iraqis that American commitments were always and only up for bargaining, and losing a one-time opportunity to change policy and begin to get out of Iraq.  

Obama deserves the credit he is likely to claim for drawing down troops on schedule and moving towards a vastly reduced U.S. role in Iraq.  No, the war inside Iraq isn’t over yet and American forces aren’t all gone yet.  And I’m perfectly willing to give credit to the Bush administration for the SOFA it eventually negotiated (which I’ve previously called Bush’s finest moment in Iraq), which created the bipartisan framework to make the drawdown possible.   But it took Obama’s determination to actually draw down to actually make it happen — had McCain won, for instance, I’m quite sure that excuses would have been found to keep many more troops there for far longer.  There are plenty of things which I would have liked to have seen done differently, including a continuation of former Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s quiet dialogues with the Iranians and more of an effort to deal with Iraq within its broader regional context.   But overall, meeting the campaign commitment to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq is a real accomplishment which should be acknowledged. 

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

Tag: Iraq