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 were certain scenarios under which American soldiers would be held to Iraqi law; Americans could plausibly claim that such scenarios would never materialize. 

Of course, 2008 is not 2011. And there is no question that the Iraqis bear much of blame for this outcome. But at a minimum, a successful outcome this time around would have required painstaking efforts by the United States to shape the political environment so that Iraqi leaders could say in public what many were saying in private: that their preference was for some number of American soldiers to stay.  

Conditioning the scene would have taken an enormous amount of political commitment and capital. It would have required Washington's vigorous engagement -- and possible deal-cutting -- with powerful Iraqi actors across the political scene to approve a continued U.S. military presence, however limited. The team at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which worked tirelessly on this negotiation, would not have been able to produce this outcome without extensive support from Washington, particularly the time and voice of the president and vice president. Neither had traveled to Baghdad for months; Obama apparently did not meet with the Iraqi delegation during the UN General Assembly in September.

Brokering a deal to keep U.S. troops in Iraq would also have necessitated more discipline from Washington. Once the U.S. side leaked the White House's intention to leave only 3,000 troops behind, the Iraqis were left with little incentive to take a major political risk to secure something so meager. Finally, getting a deal would also have required more flexibility from Washington, which insisted that immunity for U.S. forces be approved by Iraq's parliament. (The United States does not usually make it a practice to tell a country what it needs to do to make its own laws or international agreements binding.) All of these components of a successful negotiation were in short supply; collectively, they led to strategic failure. 

Washington also leaves behind less than optimal prospects for a robust U.S.-Iraqi partnership. Five or ten years from now, the relationship will be more anemic, in part because groups opposed to American influence have now gained an upper hand and are likely to be strengthened in the interim. Note the recent statement from the Iranian-allied Iraqi lawmaker Muqtada al-Sadr. Apparently dissatisfied with the imminent departure of U.S. military personnel, Sadr declared all U.S. Embassy employees "occupiers" who should be "resisted." In addition, the nonmilitary bilateral relationship will be difficult to build without any forces on the ground. Last Friday's announcement complicated ambitions to expand the civilian footprint in Iraq -- the U.S. State Department is putting plans to build consulates on hold due to security and cost concerns.

The United States also leaves behind a region where Iran's influence is growing. Tehran is on the offensive, as it has shown by announcing new nuclear enrichment plans, backing more aggressive attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and allegedly plotting to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington. What, if any, plan the White House has for countering such belligerence is unclear. But it is inconceivable that any sensible strategy for addressing Iran would involve withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq. 

Finally, the optics of how the United States leaves Iraq matter. The events of the last few days have given a negative gloss to nearly a decade of U.S. military involvement there. The focus has been almost exclusively on the breakdown in negotiations and the president’s campaign promise to end the war in Iraq. Obama began his troop-withdrawal announcement with, "In my campaign, I promised . . ." An e-mail from the president to millions of Americans noted that the troops were coming home, that the costs of the war had been tremendous, and that, of course, he had delivered on a signature campaign pledge. There has been virtually nothing said about what has been achieved, what Americans and Iraqis can be proud of, or how the two countries will work together on a common agenda going forward.

Imagine a different scenario, one in which Obama and al-Maliki stood together and issued a joint statement on the decision to wind down the U.S. troop presence while pledging to remain steadfast partners. Such a rollout would have done better justice to the more than one million Americans who served in Iraq. It would have had a strategic importance as well. One of the core lessons learned from a decade of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is that you can win on the battlefield, but unless you control the narrative of what happened, you will not be successful.

While there is much to lament about the long U.S. involvement in Iraq, there is also a great deal to be proud of. Americans and Iraqis have shown enormous resilience and fortitude. Iraq has built new institutions and begun to fashion a path toward sustainable, representative government. And the region has opportunities today it never would have enjoyed under Saddam. If the U.S. government had to withdraw all troops from Iraq, its words should have put these developments in the context they deserve.

All, however, is not necessarily lost. While regrettable, last Friday's decision does not completely close the door on American interests in the region, or on the potential to improve the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. There will still be opportunities to promote common U.S.-Iraqi interests -- the 2008 "strategic framework agreement" provides a template for a more robust, multidimensional partnership by declaring a commitment to educational exchanges, scientific cooperation, and diplomatic coordination.

Once emotions in both countries have calmed, Washington should intensify efforts to make the training mission that U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is talking about a reality. The United States should also look at what sort of cooperation and support it can give to Iraq by air and sea without putting any U.S. military personnel on Iraqi soil. Congress should declare its intention to fund robust budget requests for the State Department and other U.S. agencies to make meaningful civilian cooperation possible.  

Finally, Obama should consider making a visit to Iraq, where he can stand side by side with Maliki and put this chapter of American history into the right context -- for Americans and for the region. One need not have agreed on the start of the war to finish it honorably.

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  • MEGHAN L. O'SULLIVAN is Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2004 to 2007, she was Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan.
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