The Zero-Sum Game

Listen up, Obama. By Jan. 1, there should be not a single U.S. troop remaining on the ground in Iraq.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Let me be clear. The United States should have no — zero — troops in Iraq on Jan. 1, 2012, when the Status of Forces Agreement signed between the two countries requires a complete withdrawal (this number excepts, of course, a small military presence at the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Military Cooperation — a presence that exists in almost every embassy worldwide). This is not about delivering on an Obama campaign promise or saving money. This is about doing the right thing for both the United States and Iraq. Although the White House’s proposal to keep approximately 3,000 troops in Iraq is better than the rumored 17,000 desired by the commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, maintaining any American presence is simply the wrong decision for both parties.

Despite having both a political problem and a terrorism problem, Iraq is now a reasonably stable country that must have the opportunity to chart its own course. Yes, the 2010 national election failed to provide any bloc with a clear mandate and has resulted in a political stalemate. Yes, the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq continue to commit atrocities against both Iraqi Shiites and the moderate figures of their own Iraqi Sunni community. And yes, Iranian groups and their proxies continue to destabilize Iraq in order to diminish its effectiveness as a buffer state against Iranian ambitions. But despite these issues, Iraq continues to muddle along without returning to the chaos of 2004 to 2008. This is a very real accomplishment of which both the United States and Iraq should be proud, even if the road to get here was excessively long and costly.

It is time for Iraq to stand on its own — without a U.S. presence to disrupt its politics. There are significant factions within both Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni communities that would look favorably on a residual U.S. force in Iraq. They need to move on. The lingering U.S. troop presence on Iraqi soil is — quite understandably — perceived as an insult to Iraqi nationalism by significant portions of their fellow citizens. This is an issue that must be taken off the table so that Iraqi politics can normalize, not least with regard to Iraq-Iran relations. Ironically, it is by leaving Iraq that the United States can best let Iraq stand up to its Iranian neighbor. Ending what Iraq’s neighbors perceive as its "occupation" by U.S. forces will finally permit Iraq to complete the normalization of regional relationships.

Iraq does have some serious security gaps that it will have to address, likely through the use of U.S or other Western contractors. Airspace control remains a concern for the Iraqis, but numerous aerospace firms will be happy to provide the equipment and the trainers to remedy this problem. The recently announced purchase of F-16 fighter jets from the United States is a good first step toward true airspace control. The Iraqis, however, will need to hire trainers for the pilots of their still-fledgling air force. The Iraqis may similarly require continued training on the use of their artillery pieces and the tactical employment of other weapons systems. But these technical gaps can easily be filled, and the market will respond quickly to Iraqi petrodollars.

Honoring the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is equally critical for the United States. Leaving Iraq on the terms dictated by its sovereign government will put to bed the very real perception that the United States invaded the country to transform it into its "51st state." Should the United States need to intervene in another country, it will be very helpful to be able to point to Iraq as evidence that the United States does leave when asked. While U.S. diplomats in Baghdad are reportedly in negotiations to amend the SOFA to allow a residual presence, this effort could — and should — be turned off quickly.

Some prominent U.S. foreign-policy leaders, such as Sen. John McCain and other public figures, have argued that it is in the U.S. interest to leave a residual force in Iraq to counter Iranian influence. This logic is misguided. Iran has been able to make inroads in Iraq largely because of the U.S. presence. Among Iraqi nationalists — the Sadrists in particular — the U.S. presence, which they still refer to as "occupation," has overshadowed increasing Iranian influence. Once the United States leaves, the nationalists can then turn their full attention to what a legitimate relationship with Iran might look like, recall that they did fight a very long and bloody war with their Persian neighbor, and recognize that they have no desire to be anyone’s client state.

Although the argument for eliminating the U.S. presence in Iraq is not about U.S. domestic politics, it is certainly good domestic politics. It culminates the U.S. military mission in Iraq in a truly bipartisan manner, with the current Democratic president overseeing the withdrawal of U.S. forces as negotiated by his Republican predecessor. Cost savings, while hard to estimate, would not be insignificant. The marker of 3,000 troops put forward by the administration is a good step toward these goals, but it should be willing to truly close the deal and execute the currently signed agreement.

Finally, the debate over the U.S. military presence is distracting policymakers from the real issues in the United States’ future relationship with Iraq — the role of the State Department (and particularly its ambitious police-training mission) and of the American business community. It is these two instruments of U.S. "soft power" that will shape U.S.-Iraq relations going forward, and to put it frankly, the sooner the military can get out of their way, the better.

The State Department police-training mission — the contours of which I helped set some years ago — does appear to have learned from earlier errors. The State Department has avoided the earlier confusion involved in contracting out this mission and has instead hired the trainers as temporary government employees. A well-qualified ambassador, who will report directly to the chief of mission, James Jeffrey, has been positioned in Baghdad to oversee the mission, giving senior hands-on oversight. And rather than attempting to train the rank-and-file patrolmen, the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has focused on the systematic problems — management, pay, promotions, and especially logistics — in the more senior police headquarters.

Serious concerns remain about continued funding from Congress and the possibility that the mission could be sabotaged by the risk-adverse nature of diplomatic security officials (though concerns about al Qaeda and Iranian-sponsored terrorism are valid). But this mission appears to be in a much better position to assume police training from the U.S. military than many of those involved in its creation dared hope when the transition was planned in 2008 and 2009. But it can only benefit by continual monitoring by senior policymakers.

To be frank, American business (with the notable exception of the oil and oil-services sectors) has not thrived in Iraq — a problem not experienced by the Turks, the French, or the Chinese. There are many reasons for this fact, and the U.S. mission in Baghdad should elevate the priority it gives to assisting American businesses attempting to enter Iraq. The long-term Strategic Framework Agreement that accompanied the Status of Forces Agreement makes it clear that Iraq desires a long-term commercial (and cultural) relationship with the United States. Although there are numerous barriers to this aspirational goal — corruption issues, legal issues, language barriers, and in some quarters a lingering resentment of Americans — quiet engagement by the U.S. Embassy could go a long way toward reducing and remediating these obstacles. Visiting American business people should be able to view the U.S. government officials in Iraq as their allies.

There are issues that could prevent Iraqis from immediately taking complete control of their security. The disputed "Green Line" that marks the boundary between the provinces of the Kurdistan region and Iraq’s Arab provinces remains a potential flashpoint for ethnic violence. While it is in the interest of both parties to have a peaceful settlement of territorial and other claims, the presence of Iraqi and Kurdish armed forces in this tense region heightens the possibility of an unfortunate incident, which could spiral out of policymakers’ control. U.S. forces have done an admirable job in dampening tensions along the Green Line, but some kind of outside presence on this border may be desirable until a final settlement of Kirkuk (the primary territory in dispute) can be reached.

This presence, however, does not have to be American. Accepting the fact that the SOFA requires the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of the year, the United States and Iraq might find it worthwhile to look for some other external force or international organization that could put a peacekeeping force in place. The United Nations is, of course, the traditional source for such a force, but time is short. One can perhaps see some other international organization — potentially the European Union or even the Gulf Cooperation Council — responding to an Iraqi request for a limited third-party presence. Initial reports indicate that the Arabs and Kurds are managing the tensions themselves, but the situation should still be monitored carefully.

Finally, all international agreements are subject to modification by consent. If the Iraqi government — of its own accord, without U.S. pressure — comes to desire an extension of a small U.S. presence in Iraq, then that should be carefully considered. I do not believe it is in Iraqi leaders’ interest for them to ask for an extension of the U.S. presence, but they certainly have the right to manage their own relations with the United States. But the visible U.S. diplomatic pressure on the Iraqis to come to this decision, as exemplified by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s comments in Baghdad, should immediately cease, so that any request will not be tainted.

In short, it is time for the United States to stop being a "helicopter parent" to the Iraqis. To extend the metaphor: The Iraqis have graduated and are now legally of age. Let them go. They will doubtless not do everything perfectly or in the way the United States would prefer. So be it. They are no longer America’s wards, no longer its charges, no longer in receivership.

This is how the U.S. war in Iraq ends.

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