Should I Stay or Should I Go?

What the United States Can Leave Behind in Iraq

In recent weeks, a number of deadly terrorist attacks in Iraq have highlighted the fact that even after seven years of counterinsurgency and stability operations, the United States still faces major challenges in realizing its long-term goal of establishing an Iraq that is, in the words of President Barack Obama, "sovereign, stable, and self-reliant."

Although these events -- including a series of coordinated attacks on August 25 that killed more than 50 people in 13 cities across Iraq -- underscore that security is still job number one for the United States in Iraq, several other factors will affect Washington's ability to work with Baghdad to preserve the security gains of recent years, build a strategic partnership with the government and people of Iraq, and shape and influence future developments there.

In transitional democracies, the second election often determines whether nascent democratic processes will take root and prove sustainable. Iraq's first parliamentary elections under its new constitution were held in December 2005 and led to the formation of the current government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The second elections were held in March 2010 and produced a draw; no single party received enough votes to form a government on its own, and none has proven willing in the seven months since then to make the compromises necessary to form a coalition government. Some U.S. officials have hinted darkly that continued political gridlock could inspire a coup led by military officers who are frustrated with Iraq's squabbling politicians (although a coup is unlikely to occur as long as U.S. forces remain in Iraq).

To avoid further instability, Washington is pushing for an Iraqi government that is "inclusive, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people," according to U.S. officials in Baghdad. The U.S. government has also reportedly floated a power-sharing plan that would trim the powers of the prime minister and expand those of the Political Council for National Security in the hopes of speeding up the government formation process by increasing the size of the political pie that could be divided among the contending parties.

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