President Obama intends for Operation New Dawn to be America’s quick get out of Iraq plan, but our long-term interests would be better served if we patiently prepare Baghdad to become a catalyst for regional stability.
Obama last week announced the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq and then promised “all U.S. troops will leave by the end of the new year.” His announcement fulfills a campaign “pledge,” allows him to shift troops to Afghanistan—Obama’s “war of necessity”—and to begin cashing in military savings to address “our most urgent task,” restoring the economy and creating jobs.
Most Americans agree our economy and unemployment are serious national problems. However, rushing out of Iraq before that nation is stable could result in a nightmare that haunts the region and costs America dearly.
Historically Iraq has counterbalanced Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions. Currently Iraq is unstable but with the backing of American troops stationed in that country it keeps Iran at bay. But once America leaves, Baghdad must either be prepared to stand-up to Tehran’s threats or instability will reign.
Currently Iraq is far from stable. It has serious problems: no functioning government, security is crumbling, and the country’s economy is totally dependent on oil with high unemployment.
Nearly six months after its national election, there is still no government and now there’s talk of a new election to resolve the impasse. Outgoing U.S. commander Gen. Raymond Odierno predicted Iraqi politicians still need up “to eight weeks” to form a new government. Odierno asked rhetorically “If it goes beyond 1 October, what does that mean? Could there be a call for another election?”
The lack of a functioning government feeds the ongoing violence which has spiked over the past month. Even though levels of violence are down compared to the pre-surge period in 2006, Iraqi Maj. Gen. Noaman Jawad, the head of an elite police brigade, recently told the Los Angeles Times his country is at least two years away from an end to its internal conflicts. And Iraq’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Babaker B. Shawkat Zebari, told Agence France-Presse his army may not be ready to defend the nation from its external enemies—read Iran—until 2020.
Iraq’s economy is one of poorest in the world which feeds instability. Most of its vast oil resources remain undeveloped. The U.S. Energy Department estimates Iraq’s oil production will increase slowly from 2.4 million barrels per day (MMBD) in 2008 to 2.6 MMBD in 2015 and potentially to a high of 7.6 MMBD in 2035. But for now the money Iraq gleans from petroleum sales is poured into salaries and maintaining employment. Little is left for development and security.
In spite of these destabilizing problems, President Obama kept his campaign promise to end our combat mission in Iraq and launched Operation New Dawn. He told the nation “The future is ours to shape if we move forward with confidence and commitment.”
That future includes a different kind of Iraq mission that puts less emphasis on security and more on nation building. The 50,000 U.S. troops that remain in Iraq, according to Obama, are “advising and assisting Iraq’s security forces, supporting Iraqi troops in targeting counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilians.”
Our nation building effort is led by the U.S. State Department. Obama said “Our dedicated civilians … are moving into the lead to support Iraq as it strengthens its government, resolves political disputes, resettles those displaced by war, and builds ties with the region and the world.”
Under the terms of the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement, the State Department-led effort will help Iraq’s development in a range of sectors, including education, energy, trade, health, culture, law enforcement and judicial cooperation.
But these efforts, military and civilian, will cost a lot of money and take more time—that’s the challenge. U.S. lawmakers have been reluctant to fund Obama’s ambitious post-combat programs in Iraq. For example, the Obama Administration’s request for $2 billion to train and equip Iraqi army and police forces was recently cut in half by the Senate.
Failing to sufficiently resource Operation New Dawn virtually guarantees failure. But that may be acceptable to Obama who said the “Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country” and “We have met our responsibility. Now, it’s time to turn the page.”
Obama’s “turn the page” comment appears to mean Washington’s time in Iraq is just about finished. But Obama ought to consider the French perspective regarding Iraq.
Last week the French ambassador to Iraq, Boris Boillon, told Le Figaro, a French newspaper, “Iraq is a true laboratory of democracy in the Arab world today.” Boillon continued, “Our mission in Iraq may succeed, or it may fail. In the end, though, we have given them a republic, and it is up to them to keep it or not. The Arab and Muslim worlds desperately need reform and Iraq may well provide the impetus.”
We may be on the cusp of major reform in the Middle East and Iraq may be the catalyst. But to realize that goal Obama must grasp this opportunity to think strategically—to stretch our commitment.
Realistically, Iraq needs our robust partnership for another decade to insure it is ready to defend itself against Iran and “provide the impetus” for regional reform. In particular, Iraq needs our close partnering to deal with an extended period of political paralysis, sectarian violence, and building an economy crippled by decades of mismanagement.
Our close partnership backed by military and civilian forces has a broader regional effect as well. It will limit Iran’s hegemonic influence, help constrain regional sectarian extremism, and ensure the flow of petroleum through the Persian Gulf which will serve global economic stability.
Americans are divided over the justification for going to war with Iraq. But abandoning Iraq too soon would be a mistake and could cost us dearly in terms of re-emergent security requirements and much higher oil prices.
Obama last week said, “Ending this war is not only in Iraq’s interest—it’s in our own.” He promised a “new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization” but that requires perhaps a decade more work and genuine strategic thinking.
Obama should not prematurely cut our support for Iraq until Baghdad is mature enough to serve as a catalyst for regional stability. Only at that point will our collective best interests be served and we can rightly declare the Iraq war is won.