Staying the course

If the U.S. perseveres long enough, we can leave behind an 'Iraq good enough'

March 31, 2009|By Anthony H. Cordesman

No one can predict the outcome in Iraq. It certainly is not yet victory in any meaningful sense. There are still serious security threats. U.S. command warns that al-Qaida in Iraq is not yet defeated, and there may still be years of low-level violence before Iraqi forces can eliminate it. Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi militia are down but scarcely out. Sunni-Shiite and Arab-Kurdish tensions can still explode into violence. Iranian influence remains a threat, and so does the threat of Turkish intervention in the north and Syrian tolerance of hostile Sunni infiltration across the Syrian border.

Nevertheless, there is real hope for a stable, independent Iraq that can stand on its own and that would be largely democratic - if we can persevere a while longer.

Plenty of challenges remain. Most of the leaders elected in provincial voting have no real experience with politics and governance, and will have to deal with local governments formed by their predecessors and a central government that is still heavily biased in favor of Shiites and Kurds. A new power struggle for national elections set for late this year has begun and adds a Shiite-on-Shiite and Sunni-on-Sunni dimension to the problems.

Iraq lacks refinery capacity and must import large amounts of oil that are sometimes stolen. Oil export income has dropped sharply. Iraq has had to cut its planned budget from $80 billion annually to $58.6 billion. It has had to freeze critical new hires, such as 60,000 security personnel, as well as key projects. It still faces problems with debt and reparations, massive unemployment and underemployment, is ceasing to get floods of foreign aid, and faces serious challenges in modernizing its manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

Yet these are problems - not crises. Neoconservative dreams for Iraq have proved to be just as unreal and infantile as neoliberal dreams for Vietnam. But what U.S. soldiers now refer to as "Iraq good enough" is becoming a reality. Such an outcome may well be far better than Saddam Hussein.

Violence is down to levels that allow Iraq to function as country. The central government is now far more popular, and the Iraqi people have far more confidence in the government, the economy and the future. A new ABC poll shows that 64 percent of Iraqis now call democracy their preferred form of government. Sixty-five percent of Iraqis say things are going well in their lives, up from 39 percent in 2007.

In short, there are good reasons to support President Barack Obama and U.S. military commanders in keeping U.S. forces strong enough to help secure Iraq for the coming national election, and phasing down U.S. forces at the rate the president has planned for. There are good reasons to leave a strong residual force in Iraq that can train the Iraqi security forces, and provide assistance in areas such as intelligence and air support as the Iraqi forces take over.

There are good reasons to offer Iraq continued U.S. military training assistance after 2011, and to keep a U.S. aid presence to help Iraq make the transition from aid to self-reliance. Iraq also remains a key oil power and a key factor in Persian Gulf security at a time when gulf oil will remain critical to the recovery of the U.S. and global economy.

Moreover, quite aside from such practical concerns, the U.S. has a moral obligation to Iraq.

This does not mean open-ended commitments, or that we can save Iraq from itself if Iraqis turn on each other. It does not mean giving massive new aid, accepting high American casualties or failing to significantly reduce U.S. spending from its peak of $7 billion a month. The U.S. does, however, have to stay long enough to help Iraq - and it cannot ignore its potential obligations under the strategic agreement it signed with Iraq in 2008.

Some new aid programs may be needed, as well as efforts to protect Iraq from its neighbors and to help with debt relief, reparations problems and future issues with the International Monetary Fund.

"Iraq good enough" is well worth having, and it means the U.S. staying long enough.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His e-mail is acordesman@aol.com.

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