As he made the transition from campaigning to governing, President Obama came to realize that a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Iraq would constitute a grave threat to the United States’ strategic interests in the region. So it is ironic that the very democracy the US helped build in Iraq may now prevent it from maintaining the military presence that is vital to these strategic interests.
By declaring that his own pullout plans would be in line with the Status of Forces Agreement reached between President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last December, Obama is adhering to a doctrine that has survived since the late 1940s, when the US replaced Great Britain as the dominant foreign power in the Gulf region: No local power should be allowed to dominate an area that contains 40 percent of the world’s oil.
Democracy means serving Iraqi interests, above all else, even against our own interests.
This is exactly why the region has witnessed three wars in the past three decades—the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the 1991 US invasion to prevent Saddam Hussein from occupying Kuwait, the war launched in 2003 to overthrow Saddam and reassert US power in that part of the world. In fact, the conventional wisdom is that the US encouraged the devastating Iran-Iraq war as part of a policy of “dual containment” aimed at exhausting both regional powers.
Now Iran looks once again like an ascendant bully, and a reduced US influence in the Gulf region could potentially push US allies such as the six states in the Gulf Cooperation Council—led by Saudi Arabia—closer to Tehran, moving Tehran closer to being the dominant local power.
But there is no guarantee that the SOFA agreement, even if it is revised or amended, will be ratified in an Iraqi referendum that is expected by the end of this summer. So there is no guarantee that any significant number of US troops will be allowed legally to stay in Iraq beyond next year, including the “residual” force Obama plans to keep behind. If the Iraqi general elections, slated for December 2009, are won by candidates committed to a quick withdrawal, that could also limit Obama’s options.
As Iraqi forces gain more confidence and clout, and the insurgency appears to be defeated, the general mood in Iraq favors a faster rather than slower US withdrawal. This has become the politically correct position for Iraqi politicians to adopt, which could make it even harder for the Iraqi government to adhere to the SOFA.
On Saturday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking to Iran’s news agency following his meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, said “the occupying troops should exit Iraq as soon as possible.” No comment thus far from Talabani, who, like other Iraqi leaders, is aware of the popular sentiment for withdrawal, but also fears Iran’s influence in Iraq will grow even further as America’s commitment wanes.
Given realities on the ground in Iraq, and the worsening economic crisis in the US, chances are the Obama administration will be forced to accelerate its own timetable for troop withdrawals and considerably reduce the level of residual forces left behind.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi objected to 50,000 residual troops in Iraq and suggested a number closer to 15,000 or 20,000. But the way things have been going in Iraq, even that more-modest troop presence, could be untenable.
Even President Bush, who, for years, adamantly refused to fix a date for US troop withdrawals, finally succumbed to Iraqi demands and signed the SOFA. Quite simply, realities forced Bush to move closer to Obama’s position on Iraq in the last days of his administration, while a more sober and pragmatic Obama was moving closer to Bush’s position, meeting him halfway.
But the Iraqis have been moving much faster, with a growing confidence of their ability to manage their own security. The last provincial elections were successful and further boosted this confidence. The Iraqis have smelled victory over the insurgency, and they believe they can take care of the Iranian influence in their own way.
They have tasted democracy, and they know it is America that made it all possible. But democracy means serving Iraqi interests, above all else, even against the interests of democracy’s foreign sponsors.
Salameh Nematt is the international editor of The Daily Beast. He is the former Washington bureau chief for the international Arab daily Al Hayat, where he reported on US foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the US drive for democratization in the broader Middle East.