While we are witnessing remarkable and potentially transformative events across the Middle East, broad skepticism regarding the United States and its motives has not changed appreciably. Unlike Libya, there was no Arab League invitation to occupy Iraq.
But the Pentagon, despite the obvious stress on our military, wants to stay in Iraq beyond the end of the year, when all U.S. military forces are scheduled to leave the country. This is an understandable impulse we should resist. Reversing our oft-stated commitment to leave Iraq would further damage America’s credibility in the region. To develop a beneficial long-term relationship with Iraq, the United States must first formally end its occupation.
Under the terms of the status of forces (or SOFA agreement) the U.S. and Iraq approved in 2008, the roughly 50,000 U.S. troops that remain and continue to train and back up Iraqi security forces will pack up in a few months. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, on a trip to Iraq last month, hinted publicly that the U.S. would be willing to extend those troops' stay if the Iraqis ask and soon.
There are valid reasons for staying. Having invested close to a trillion dollars replacing the regime of Saddam Hussein with a struggling democracy, it is understandable to want to protect that investment. While the overall security situation has improved, insurgent attacks on Iraqi government institutions continue. Iraqi forces have earned solid grades for their performance since taking over the security lead last year, but there are still clear weaknesses. Retaining tens of thousands of military forces in Iraq would send a message to Iran, a clear beneficiary of the 2003 Iraq invasion.
To fundamentally reset perceptions across the region, the United States needs to formally end military operations.
But the costs of an indefinite military presence in Iraq are too high. It would undermine the national government in Baghdad and be used as justification for extremists who continue to attack government institutions.
U.S. officials stress that the Iraqis are now in charge, but people in Iraq are not going to believe it until all the troops are gone. To fundamentally reset perceptions across the region, the United States needs to formally end military operations. Then the two countries can construct the mechanisms for a long-term partnership, including a long-term defense cooperation agreement.
The broad policy goal is to build the same kind of relationship with Iraq that we have with other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Jordan. Diplomats should take the lead, continuing efforts to strengthen Iraqi government, security, and political capabilities. This will require billions in foreign assistance for several more years. At the same time, the Obama administration should continue to push Iraq’s neighbors to resume normal relations with Iraq.
Rather than retaining tens of thousands of troops at permanent bases, at great expense, the military can rotate units into Iraq for regular training exercises. The United States did this routinely in the region while containing Iraq and Iran prior to 2003.
Beyond the financial cost of long-term overseas deployments, we can no longer ignore the stress that this places on the volunteer force. The Iraq campaign didn’t start in 2003. Our military has been continuously deployed in and around Iraq since August 1990. It is time to bring the troops home.
Philip J. (P.J.) Crowley is the 2011-2012 Omar Bradley Chair for Strategic Leadership at Dickinson College, Penn State University Dickinson School of Law and School of International Affairs, and the Army War College. He served as the assistant secretary of State for public affairs and spokesman for the State Department from May 2009 until March 2011.