Hoping for the best in Iraq
President Obama said Friday that the United States will withdraw almost all its troops from Iraq by year's end.
October 22nd, 2011
08:09 PM ET

Hoping for the best in Iraq

Michael E. O'HanlonEditor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon specializes in national security and defense policy and is senior author of the IraqAfghanistan, and Pakistan Index projects. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

President Obama’s announcement that all, or virtually all, U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the end of this year is not the ideal outcome. That is in keeping with the accord negotiated in 2008 between Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and President Bush, though there had been many efforts to extend the relationship beyond the 2011 deadline that earlier accord had imposed. But the American departure is not a horrible outcome, either, and it is not clear that the Obama administration deserves much blame for the decision.

It would have been preferable to keep 10,000 or more American troops in Iraq another couple years. The simplest reason, in broader terms, would have been to help reassure Iraqis about their security as they continue to navigate a treacherous path to stability. Their country is much more stable now than before, but violence remains considerable, extremists still plot more attacks, and renewed sectarian warfare remains a possibility.

More specifically, I would point to unresolved territorial disputes in Iraq’s north as the clearest reason for keeping enough GIs to help with joint patrolling and joint manning of checkpoints. Here, Iraqi Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs come into contact in places they all claim - and places where a clear process to resolve territorial disputes is not yet succeeding. There was supposed to be a referendum by 2007 to determine whether any of the land just below Kurdistan in Iraq’s north should join the autonomous Kurdistan region, remain in “Iraq proper” where it is today, or enjoy some kind of other status distinct from the other two options. We would have done well to stay involved here until the issue could be resolved - and given the modest troop requirements, we could have been patient about this. Even keeping just a few thousand Americans as trainers would have helped psychologically and politically.

But while my preference for a continued U.S. presence was clear, I do not join those who criticize President Obama harshly for this outcome. First of all, there is in fact a good chance that Iraqis, who have come so far together already, can and will handle this on their own. Their young democracy has been characterized by a good deal of political brinkmanship to date, but in general they have pulled back from the brink so far. That is in fact part of the argument for keeping American forces in Iraq. We’ve helped persuade them to reconcile differences at key moments in the past.  Our strong presence has aided that process. But it is also a reason to think that perhaps they are ready for the next step.

Second, this decision, while regrettable at one level, is not primarily due to any major mistake by the Obama administration. Indeed, it is mainly the Iraqis who are responsible for the American departure, as they have refused to do what other major American allies have done at similar points in the past - allow Americans to be handled within their own legal system for any alleged infractions in the future. The Iraqis should have realized that tragic experiences of the past, such as that with the Blackwater team that killed almost 20 Iraqis without cause several years ago in Baghdad, resulted more from unregulated contractors than GIs.

To the extent the United States has partial responsibility for the recent failure to agree on terms to keep forces past 2011, it may reflect inadequate focus at times from the Obama administration. But overall the attention has been there. More important has been the legacy of the horrible years of 2003-2006 when the U.S. did such a poor job stabilizing Iraq, prior to the surge. That period’s mistakes, it must be restated, were the fault of the Bush administration, which went into Iraq having made with poor preparations to stabilize the country after Saddam’s downfall despite many independent warnings from analysts and policymakers that the period could be fraught.

To be sure, as the U.S. president the last three years, it was Obama’s duty to make the best of whatever situation he inherited - and the surge did make the situation far better, it is worth remembering. So this is not a complete exoneration of the Obama administration, which has in fact not seen its finest hour on this issue. But we need to keep things in perspective.

Most of all, if Iraqis change their mind in coming months, we should be prepared to keep at least a few thousand troops in Iraq into 2012 and beyond as part of a NATO-run international force if need be. But even if that does not occur, Iraq’s prospects for the future remain more good than bad, and Obama deserves credit for modifying his original campaign promises that called for a rushed American departure to give the Iraqis until the end of 2011 to prepare for this day.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.

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Topics: Iraq • Perspectives • President Obama

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Occupado

    Like it or not, Iraq will dissolve into a civil war between the Shi'ites and the Sunnies. All the better if Iran gets involved. They can all have a big Islamo fascist kill-fest.

    October 22, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Reply
    • Stan Levenson

      Hope your suggestion comes to true, except if this happens, Iran leadership will blame the USA Israel for this uprising however there will lots of lives lost and great devastation . My main concern what happens to all the nuc capabilities they gathered in the past few years. The world does not realize what Iran is trying to accomplish. Their response is it is for electricity and because Israel has nuc capabilities Iran believes they should it as well, Remember Israel does not want to destroy any country in middle east.

      October 24, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  2. Owlygator

    Nice try, Michael, but your bias is clearly CNN, 2011. Appear to be an expert as you make excuses for the poorest president in US history. Why? What motivates such bias? I depended on CNN for Middle Eastern news and analysis for many years, including Desert Storm, but now with people like you, Amanpour and that clownly Brit, I only browse CNN.com ocassionally and watch CNN TV only when commercials are running on Fox!

    October 23, 2011 at 9:43 am | Reply
    • Matt

      and you don't think fox is biased? a wee bit hypocritical if you ask me. i do agree this article is biased, but its very difficult to find unbiased material today, everyone cares one way or another on situations like these, unfortunately people will only listen/read about what they want to hear, never getting both sides, greatly detrimental to political society. so, all in all, its people like you that think they know everything, but unfortunately know less than half of the information needed to make rational opinions.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:01 am | Reply
  3. Daniel

    It very much appears that the best fo Iraq won't come any time in the near future. Instead, the current pseudo-democracy established by the U.S. will most propbably hang on for some time to come with all it's corruption and backroom deals! Meanwhile, this "glorious victory" which has been bought and paid for will be belly-hooed to the hilt!!!

    October 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    "Most of all, if Iraqis change their mind in coming months, we should be prepared to keep at least a few thousand troops in Iraq into 2012 and beyond.."
    This request could only come from the Sunni opposition or the Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who despite his Shia party, Dawa's Islamist roots has sought to position himself as a strong and unifying figure in post-Saddam Iraq since gaining power in May 2006.

    October 23, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  5. marc

    The U.S. has never had less than 40K troops in Iraq since the SOFA was signed by the Bush administration. Truth be told I don't think there has been all that much calm in Iraq unless compared to the all out civil war of 06-07. The civil war petered out when the Sunnis were defeated. U.S. troops and contractors merely added to the violence. The Iraqis in many cases with good reason have found the U.S. ability to hold troops and contractors accountable for their actions to be wanting. Also it is absurd for Michael O'Hanlon to try and make distinctions between U.S. troops and U.S. paid contractors like Blackwater. since the Iraqis rightly do not.

    October 23, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  6. Mary

    My policy preference is the opposite – maintaining US troops in Iraq is too costly, and hasn't proved particularly effective. But I appreciate this fair, balanced reading of the situation, and your reminder to keep things in perspective.

    October 23, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Reply
  7. Kailim

    There are still suicide bombers attack and other violences occuring in Iraq. Please stabilise Iraq before you leave, Americans. It is utterly inhumane for what you have done, Americans.

    October 23, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Reply

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