Foreign Affairs

Obama’s unfinished business in Iraq

Mission accomplished.  Two words.  A phrase that haunted one president is now the calling card of success for another. 

While President Obama technically claimed no victory in his national Oval Office address last week, the subtext was clear – in this election charged season, your president has delivered on a campaign promise.  

For the better part of this decade, Americans have struggled with their own identity crisis on this war.  It was always easy to be “for the troops.”  Yet many succumbed to the frustrations we all felt just before the Surge started to push back against rogue militants (sentiments we see emerging again today as we surge forces into Afghanistan).  They collectively threw their hands up in disgust.  Seeing no end in sight, doubters blamed President George Bush and his cowboy attitude toward Saddam and his country. 

Barack Obama was all too eager to oblige that sentiment, stoke those frustrations and ride the utter regret to the White House.  But what President Obama saw upon assuming office was not the easy solution Candidate Obama projected while on the campaign trail.

Fast forward two years, and three months late on some date plucked out of thin air; we now have a commander-in-chief ready to move on, whether or not Iraq is.

“We have met our responsibility,” Obama sternly stated last week. “Now it is time to turn the page.” 

You can say that again.  This administration would like nothing more than to turn the page on its Iraq policies, and hope the American people never find out the real mess Obama has left in his wake as the last combat brigades withdraw.

In his remarks, Obama deftly weaved his way around the sticky situations that remain in Iraq, focusing instead on the apple pie issue of combat troops withdrawing, and a relative peace that, for the time being, persists in country. 

It is true that Iraqi security forces are slowly but surely assuming field-ready status, preparing to take over responsibilities for major security functions.  Once again, the U.S. soldier has done his job, training those who would take his place.

But the larger problems facing Iraq is its government, or lack thereof.  Following the bumbled, clumsy elections in March that produced no clear winner, the country’s leading parties can’t even agree on a coalition government.  It’s the Middle Eastern equivalent of banana republics we saw in the 80s – a “fig republic” that only pretends to be in power while the Iraqi people struggle for basic necessities such as power and clean water.

These are the true tests of “democracy building” that Obama and even Bush publicly long for.  And they are found wanting.

Whether he says so or not, President Obama now owns the issue of Iraq.  The withdrawal of combat troops on some arbitrary timetable was his idea.  Yet his failure to secure the diplomatic side of this calculus will cost his administration dearly if Iraq continues down this path, or worse, slips into a sectarian civil war.

If we’re not careful, what will result is a return of American forces to the country to clean up a radioactive mess. 

To succeed in Iraq and truly prepare the nation for the democracy we all want, the president must do three things:

First, he must pressure President Talabani to form a new government by any means necessary.  It’s not enough to coax and prod from an ocean away.  Obama must take a personal role in bringing the various factions together and striking a compromise that sets a regime in power.  The future legitimacy of elections in Iraq (a staple of a democracy anywhere) hangs in the balance. 

Second, the Pentagon must keep combat troops in the region, if not in-country.  Already, the State Department is signing contracts with private security companies that will send over 7,000 civilians to protect these foreign workers.  What signal does that send to the Iraqi people?  Anyone remember Blackwater?  Keep some combat brigades there, continue the training, and send a psychological threat to the enemy that it can’t ignore – just as we have in Germany and South Korea for over a half century.

Finally, Congress must not cut funding at this critical time for the Iraqi army.  As a conservative, I loathe more spending.  But the right, short term investment will help stand up a sturdier, lethal army and ensure we’ll never need to send our troops back to lend a hand.

The president punctuated his speech last week by saying, “Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.”

Those words will ring hollow if he fails to complete and accomplish his own mission of securing that nation’s political infrastructure and rule of law.  Despite all of our efforts Iraq continues to struggle since the toppling of Saddam Hussein.  Obama knows that.  What must be done now doesn’t fit nicely into some political ad, but it’s the right course of action for the peace we all want.

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