The Iraq mission shifts to the Iraqis

Christopher Preble VP for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, The Cato Institute
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In his prime-time address last night, President Obama wisely avoided many of the pitfalls that tripped up his predecessor. He did not declare victory under a “mission accomplished” banner or claim that a fully-flowered democracy had been created in Iraq. Rather, he expressed his hope that violence comes down, that Iraqi politicians will reconcile their differences, and that Iraq may someday be capable of defending itself.

All Americans, even the president’s most vocal detractors, share these same desires. But most Americans know that we can’t want these things more than the Iraqis do, and our troops understand that best of all. Explains Maj. Joseph Da Silva, who logged three tours in Iraq, “We had military successes, but the Iraqis will decide whether it is a long-term success or not.”

Maj. Da Silva and all of our troops have performed admirably. The president honored their sacrifices in his speech. Despite being told that they would be greeted as liberators and home by Christmas 2003, they have persevered through seven Christmases. But they also learned the limits of their power. Short-term success in Iraq will be measured by a reduction in violence. Ultimate success will be achieved when an independent Iraqi government commands the respect of the Iraqi people. We can declare mission accomplished when Iraqis are responsible for their own defense.

A rising chorus of voices, however, is working diligently against the ultimate goal of U.S. withdrawal and Iraqi self-sufficiency. Some people are advising the president to leave a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq, essentially arguing that the United States is the rightful guarantor of Iraqi sovereignty, and that the Iraqis simply can’t be trusted with security matters. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz says that Americans must “remain open to the possibility of a mutually agreed longer-term security commitment or military presence” along the lines of our five-decades-long presence on the Korean peninsula.

In fact, the disposition of U.S. troops in Iraq has been a point of contention from the beginning. In 2003, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations advised that Americans should “get used to U.S. troops being deployed [in Iraq] for years, possibly decades, to come.” Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute agreed, predicting that “the protection of the embryonic Iraqi democracy” would be a “duty that will likely extend for decades” and calling for a “quasi-permanent American garrison in Iraq” to protect American interests there.

But Wolfowitz’s apparent embrace of an open-ended nation-building mission is a particularly curious turn for one of the Bush administration’s leading lights. It was Wolfowitz, after all, who conceded that the U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia and the military pressure on Saddam Hussein had “been Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device.” Looking ahead to the post-Hussein period, Wolfowitz implied that the removal of Hussein would enable the United States to withdraw troops from the region. “I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to . . . be there for another 12 years to continue helping recruit terrorists.”

While George W. Bush must shoulder responsibility for the loss of blood and treasure in Iraq, he at least recognized that U.S. strategic interests were not served by a long-term presence there. Senior officials in the Bush administration had no intention of conducting nation-building in Iraq. They had no desire to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on an eight-year-long occupation. They erred in believing that a functioning Iraqi democracy would spring forth with minimal U.S. effort.

As an Illinois state legislator, Barack Obama saw the flaws in this thinking. He correctly predicted that the costs of the war would far outweigh the benefits. As president, he has wisely turned aside recommendations to leave U.S. troops in Iraq. He should heed the lessons that our troops have learned after multiple tours there, and avoid repeating the same errors in Afghanistan. “If Iraq is to teach us anything, it must be that a new idea cannot be beat into a society,” Maj. Walt Cooper wrote in an e-mail in 2006.

“The lesson I fear we will take from Iraq is that we have figured out a way to impose order or governance on other societies,” Cooper explained to the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe, “It is a different brand, but the same kind of hubris that got us into the mess I saw in 2006.”

Despite today’s milestone, the costs of the Iraq war will continue to mount until all U.S. troops are withdrawn from the country. President Obama should ignore those who have been proven wrong, and bring our troops home as scheduled.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.