The Problem With Obama's Decision to Leave Iraq

How to Salvage the Relationship Between Washington and Baghdad

Courtesy Reuters

In April 2008, Ryan Crocker, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told Congress, "In the end, how we leave and what we leave behind will be more important than how we came." Given President Barack Obama's announcement last Friday that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year, it is more important than ever to answer Crocker's implicit question about what, exactly, Washington will be leaving in its wake.

There is reason to worry. Iraq faces multiple political, security, and diplomatic challenges, and it is unclear how well it can meet those threats. Eight years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the country remains a fragile and complicated place. When pressed, Iraq's new political class has been able to forge compromises over contentious issues such as the role of Islam in government and how to ratify a new constitution. The Iraqi people resisted the worst forms of Iran's predations when they backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's crackdown on Iranian-affiliated militias in 2008.

But the foundations of the Iraqi state remain shallow. Divisions within Iraq's ruling elite run deep. A continued U.S. military presence would not have guaranteed peace and prosperity, but its removal increases the risks of failure in Iraq by eliminating the psychological backstop to a still delicate political system and by kicking open the door more widely to foreign interference.

The ostensible reason for America's withdrawal is that the two sides could not agree on the legal terms for an ongoing U.S. military presence -- specifically, whether American troops would be subject to local laws. Indeed, Obama was right to make immunity for U.S. troops a deal-breaker. Yet this impasse was probably surmountable. After all, the issue arose during the negotiations that led to the successful completion of the 2008 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad. In that case, the two sides worked privately on an agreement that ultimately entailed some strategic ambiguity. Iraqis were able to claim that there

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