Remember Iraq?

President Barack Obama made an unannounced trip to Iraq earlier this month as an adjunct to his well-received diplomatic stops across Europe and Turkey. Speaking to hundreds of cheering U.S. troops, the president reiterated his promise to withdraw “combat” forces over the next two years, and pointedly urged the Iraqis to “take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.”

Three days after the president’s brief visit, a suicide truck bomb killed five U.S. soldiers in Mosul, long a center of insurgent activity. It was the deadliest attack on American forces in thirteen months. Hundreds of Iraqis, of course, continue to be killed each month in assassinations and bombings. Although the counterinsurgency efforts known as the “surge” have been widely heralded as a “success” by the war’s most unrepentant advocates, more honest observers concede that even the relative peace Iraqis now enjoy is fragile and reversible. While violence is down significantly—and the reasons for that development reach well beyond the surge—little has been done to resolve underlying ethnic and religious conflicts, conflicts that many U.S. commanders think will pitch Iraq back into civil war, even if the U.S. withdrawal goes smoothly.

Political reconciliation among Iraq’s three dominant and antagonistic communities—Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds—remains tentative at best. Most problematic is the status of the “Awakening Councils,” the 100,000 Sunni insurgents the United States successfully turned against their former Al Qaeda allies with tens of millions of dollars in bribes. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki remains deeply suspicious of these Sunni tribesmen, and has yet to make good on promises to incorporate them into the army or to share any real governing authority with them. Meanwhile, the Kurds, now living in a semiautonomous state of their own, show little interest in being reintegrated into the larger Iraq. Divisions within the majority Shiite community, though dormant at the moment, are equally serious.

Opposition to the invasion of Iraq was the initial rationale and most distinguishing feature of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency. Much of the political momentum behind his candidacy flowed from outrage over the war. While willing to compromise on the pace of the U.S. withdrawal, the new president shows no sign of reneging on his pledge to “bring the troops home” before the end of his term. With the army stretched thin and 69 percent of the American people in favor of ending the war, Obama probably has little wiggle room. It is also the case, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan and others have pointed out, that the United States is obligated by the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq (signed by President George W. Bush) to withdraw “all U.S. forces” by December 31, 2011. Keeping U.S. forces in Iraq against the express wishes of the Iraqi government would make a mockery of everything our men and women have been fighting for.

There are important dissenting views about the likelihood of a peaceful endgame in Iraq. Most prominent among the skeptics is Thomas Ricks, former senior Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post and author of Fiasco, considered one of the best accounts of the military failure of the occupation. Ricks’s new book, The Gamble, is an analysis of how and why, after finally recognizing in 2006 that the war was being lost, President Bush came to embrace the surge strategy. But Ricks is no Pollyanna about the long-term prospects for peace, let alone democracy, in Iraq. “I don’t think the Iraq war is over,” he writes, “and I worry that there is more to come than any of us suspect.” He predicts that U.S. troops will remain in Iraq for decades, arguing that the country will be plunged into genocidal violence should the United States leave according to schedule. He quotes an American commander who knows the generals of the new Iraqi army well: “They’re ready to kill people—a lot of people—in order to get stability in Iraq.”

There are limits to what even the best-intentioned intervention can accomplish if those whom the United States is trying to help are determined to settle old scores once and for all. President Obama has set in motion the incremental withdrawal of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops over the next several years. No one, however, should underestimate the risks involved. As Ricks writes, to do so would be as hubristic as the claims made by those who initially championed this terribly misbegotten and unnecessary war.

April 14, 2009

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