"America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire," said President Obama in his Cairo speech. There are many in the Muslim world who would disagree, convinced that America has imperial ambitions. They should track the media coverage of the Iraq War. America conquered and occupied an ancient land of crucial strategic import. For years, Washington has had the power to shape the destiny of 25 million Muslims. And yet the average American's question about the endeavor from the start has been: when can we leave (and still claim some degree of success)? From 2003 to 2007, it seemed that the answer to that question was "Not for a long time," which deeply frustrated most Americans. Then came the surge. And as levels of violence declined, so did interest in the war. Once it became clear that Iraq was reasonably—just reasonably—stable and that U.S. casualties were low, Americans promptly lost interest in the war and the country. You would have to search long and far to find much coverage of Iraq now outside of a few elite publications.
At the peak of Britain's empire, its popular culture was filled with songs and verse extolling the glories of its imperial destiny. Across the world, thousands of young Britons delighted in governing India, Malaya, Kenya and other exotic lands. Americans, by contrast, particularly most American soldiers, cannot wait to leave the deserts of the Middle East and the mountains of Central Asia and get back to their suburban homes. As the economic crisis at home has deepened, the problems of Fallujah, Kirkuk and Mosul seem very distant.
But this inward turn is wrong. The United States has responsibilities. It is still occupying a proud and important land in the heart of the Middle East. It has 135,000 soldiers serving there. That country's fate still hangs in the balance, between failure and success. And American actions will make a crucial difference.
President Obama delivered an eloquent, intelligent speech last Thursday that succeeded in its core task, reaching out to mainstream Muslim communities across the world. Critics were quick to note that deeds were needed more than words, and the Obama administration will no doubt follow up with specific policies and programs for countries in the region. But ironically, the single most important place where Obama can have a transformative impact within the Muslim world is Iraq, which got only a brief mention in his address. A resolution of the Israeli--Palestinian conflict would certainly be pivotal, but America cannot make this happen by itself, and not on its own timetable. Nor can it, or any outsider, bring democracy to Egypt in the next few years. But Obama still has the power to shape a decent outcome in Iraq. In doing so, he could help change the political dynamic within the Arab world and present a new model of America's relations with a modern, Muslim, Arab country.
The Iraq War was one of choice, as Obama says, but an Iraq policy is now a matter of necessity. However the Obama administration handles the issue, its action or inaction will have a huge impact on the country. Iraq is going through a slow but crucial transformation, from war zone to new nation-state. The next set of policies that Washington and Baghdad decide upon will determine how well this turns out.
When the surge was announced in January 2007, I was somewhat cautious about it. I believed that more troops and a proper counterinsurgency strategy would certainly improve the security situation—I had advocated more troops from the start of the occupation—but I believed that the fundamental problem in Iraq was political discord among the country's three main sects and ethnic groups. The surge, in my view, would alleviate those tensions but also postpone the need for a solution. Only a political agreement among these groups could reach one.
I was wrong in some ways. First, the surge turned out to be a more sophisticated strategy—encompassing political outreach to the Sunnis—than I had imagined. Second, the success of the surge empowered the Baghdad government, brought Sunni rebels out from hiding and thus broke the dynamic of the civil war. Sunni militants have now been identified, their biometric data have been collected and their groups are being monitored. They cannot easily go back to jihad. The Shiite ruling elites, secure in their hold on the country, have less to gain by ethnic cleansing and militia rule. An adviser to surge commander Gen. David Petraeus told the reporter Nir Rosen that the civil war in Iraq would end when the Sunnis knew that they'd lost and the Shiites knew that they'd won. Both now seem to be true.
Yet while a renewal of the civil war—and a return to high casualty levels—is highly unlikely, Iraq remains a troubled country. One can see this best in the fact that despite the big reductions in violence, one terrible statistic is largely unchanged. Of the approximately 2 million Iraqis who fled the country over the past few years, very, very few—well under 5 percent—have returned. Compare this with Afghanistan or Kosovo, where millions came back when their conflicts ended, and you see that Iraq's peace remains fragile. The only way that it will be broadened and deepened is through a genuine political bargain, in which each of the three major communities in Iraq feel that they have been included in the sharing of the country's power and wealth. In other words, my original concerns about the surge remain, despite the impressive success on the ground.
Most observers—especially many in the U.S. military with whom I have spoken—believe that the cardinal errors of the occupation of Iraq were to disband the Iraqi Army, de-Baathify the country and shut down all state-owned enterprises. In doing this, America engineered not simply regime change but the total dismantling of the state and a massive social revolution as well, all in the space of two months. The basic problem that this created—a large displaced, unemployed and armed Sunni populace—has been somewhat redressed over the past year, but Sunnis in Iraq remain deeply insecure, largely excluded from power at every level. That's why they fled in the first place and why so few of them have returned from abroad. (Since they made up the bulk of the country's middle class, the loss is visible everywhere, from factories to hospitals.) The problem of the Kurds has become an equally tough one, if only because while they have fared much better in the new Iraq, their demands for spoils are greater as well. Although there's been some progress on these issues, the conflict between the central government and the Kurds over oil revenue and the future of Mosul and Kirkuk could yet spiral into serious violence and a de facto partition.
American influence is not what it was a few years ago. Yet America still has enormous leverage with a government that relies on U.S. forces for its basic security and well-being. The question is whether the Obama administration will use this leverage in a focused and purposeful way.
The reason to do so is simple. How Iraq evolves in the next few years will define America's legacy there. After all, there were no weapons of mass destruction. The costs—in blood, treasure, anti-Americanism—have already been paid. All that is left to redeem the mission is the hope of a decent outcome—a democratic Iraq that represents a new model of Arab politics, one that does not force its citizens to choose between a repressive regime and an extreme opposition. But for that to happen, Iraq must become an inclusive democracy for all its people. Its potential as any kind of a model rests largely on this evolution.
Today, Arab regimes paint a picture of Iraq that suggests that American-led democracy has led to chaos, collapse and, perhaps more crucially, to Shiite tyranny. This is a damning indictment because for the rest of the Arab world—which is overwhelmingly Sunni—it suggests that democracy is something to be feared. It is also a convenient lesson because it means that Arab dictators can postpone indefinitely any need to open up their own political systems. But the message does resonate: opinion polls show that large majorities view Iraq as a failure and a sham democracy.
It isn't. There is much going on in Iraq that is admirable. Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis are beginning to work out their differences through negotiation, not violence. Freedom of speech abounds. A new economy is taking shape, in which entrepreneurs are creating jobs and a civil society. Elections are punishing thugs and theocrats who cannot deliver services and rewarding more-pragmatic forces. The appeal of radical Islam is waning. But without active American involvement, assistance and pressure, Iraq could well follow the trajectory of so many Third World democracies, where initial promise is overwhelmed by chaos and corruption.
This was not Barack Obama's war. But it might well turn out to be his greatest legacy to the Arab world. Ambassador Ryan Crocker ended his distinguished stint in Iraq with these fitting words: "In the end, how we leave and what we leave behind will be more important than how we came."