What is the American future in Iraq?

Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Iraq (2007-2009) argues that the US needs to consolidate the gains of the surge and capitalize on the rare case of Iraqi openness to the West:

NOW WE need to shore up the accomplishments of Baghdad. If it is true that failure in Iraq would have had far-reaching consequences for our interests in the region and beyond, it is also true that the emergence of a stable, prosperous and pluralistic country can have a positive impact far beyond its borders. Since the 1958 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, successive Iraqi regimes have defined themselves in opposition to the West generally and the United States in particular. For example, Iraq led OPEC in nationalizing the oil sector. For the first time in fifty years, we are witnessing an Iraq that wants close economic and strategic ties with the West. Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have made multiple visits to Washington and European capitals. Immediately after his campaign against Jaish al-Mahdi in 2008, al-Maliki went to Brussels for meetings with EU and NATO representatives. The signal to the West—and to Tehran and Damascus—was clear. Major international oil companies, including from the United States, are now helping to develop the country’s petroleum resources. An Iraq at the heart of the Middle East, strategically linked to the West could profoundly alter the political calculus of the region. And we now have the blueprint to make this a reality.

In the post-surge climate of relative stability at the end of 2008 we were able to negotiate two historic bilateral accords, the Status of Forces Agreement and the Strategic Framework Agreement, which provided for a smooth handover from the Bush to the Obama administration. They are our road map for the future. Perhaps inevitably, most public attention has been on the first, which provides for the full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. That agreement effectively ended the allegations in Iraq that America sought permanent occupation, as it did the debate in this country about our presence there. Although we are no longer involved in combat operations, the fact that our military is on the ground is an important reassurance to Iraqis. The Obama administration’s decision to reduce troop levels to fifty thousand by the end of August will require very careful management to ensure that Iraqis do not become less inclined to compromise as they wrestle with the hard decisions ahead of them. And if the new government in Baghdad approaches us about the possibility of extending our presence beyond 2011, I hope we will listen very carefully.

The Strategic Framework Agreement should emerge over time as the model for our long-term relationship. It lays out the parameters for a U.S.-Iraqi partnership in education, trade, diplomacy, culture, and science and technology. It is the outline for an alliance that can fundamentally alter the strategic map of the Middle East. But it will require U.S. commitment. I am heartened to see Vice President Joe Biden engage directly and repeatedly on Iraq. That sustained, high-level effort will be essential in helping the Iraqis deal with the multiple challenges ahead of them and in cementing our partnership for the future. Over time, these agreements will define an increasingly normalized relationship between two sovereign partners. At present, our active involvement will continue to be vital. We need to be sensitive to Iraqi concerns over sovereignty, but we need to be in country.

While recent progress has brought new hope to Iraqis, the fear hardwired into their society from the Saddam era remains profound. The Shia are afraid of the past—that a Sunni dictatorship will reassert itself. The Sunnis are afraid of the future—an Iraq in which they are no longer ascendant. And the Kurds, with their history of suffering, are afraid of both the past and the future. Our sustained presence and involvement works to mitigate those fears.

The main point of his argument is that Iraq should not be allowed to slip back into what it was before the change in policy in 2007 (military surge and “political, economic and diplomatic” involvement).  If it does slip back, the same groups that drew encouragement and operational space from our withdrawals from Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan take advantage of this withdrawal.

There are a few interesting things about Crocker’s piece.  First of all, he is really widely respected, as far as I can tell.  He was part of a team in the second Bush administration that was far more effective in Iraq.  So he’s worth listening to.  Second, he never defends the invasion of Iraq.  Third, his logic commits the US to the Middle East with no end in sight, focusing on the bad things that could happen without much of a consideration of any costs to us.

Hat tip: Tom Ricks

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