Iraq’s ‘National Sovereignty Day’

iraq-withdrawal-clebrationThe celebrations taking place in Iraq today marking the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq’s cities and towns provide a pretty explicit picture of how Iraqis have viewed the large U.S. military presence in their country — unfavorably. This is understandable. There’s something inescapably and unalterably repellent about having foreign troops patrolling your country, something that has been too little acknowledged in the American debate about Iraq, but which I suspect we would have no problem understanding were we confronted by machine gun-toting foreigners every time we went down the street for a loaf of bread.

Suggesting that today’s withdrawal “is far more important symbolically than practically,” Marc Lynch notes that “the Obama administration and General Odierno’s team deserve a lot of credit for their careful, rigorous, and publicly affirmed adherence to the agreement.” I think this is right — it’s done an enormous amount for the legitimacy of the Iraqi government that the Obama administration has refused to hedge on the terms of the agreement.

Meanwhile, Michael Rubin relays, in somewhat subtler and therefore more insidious form, the conservative “stab in the back” narrative that Dick Cheney floated yesterday. Rubin warns that today “will likely mark another milestone: the end of the surge and the relative peace it brought to Iraq.”

In the past week, bombings in Baghdad, Mosul and near Kirkuk have killed almost 200 people. The worst is yet to come. […]

In effect, his strategy is an anti-surge. Troop numbers are not the issue. It is the projection of weakness. Not only Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki but Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani have also reached out to the Islamic Republic in recent weeks.

In Cairo, Mr. Obama said the U.S. had no permanent designs on Iraq and declared, “We will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron.” Indeed. But until the Iraqi government is strong enough to monopolize independently the use of force, a vacuum will exist and the most violent factions will fill it.

Power and prestige matter. Withdrawal from Iraq’s cities is good politics in Washington, but when premature and done under fire it may very well condemn Iraqis to repeat their past.

As I wrote here yesterday, the war’s supporters hailed the signing of the security agreement as a victory for Bush’s Iraq policy — even if it was essentially an adoption of candidate Obama’s plan. But now we’re apparently to believe that President Obama’s honoring the terms of that agreement is a “projection of weakness” that could endanger the United States.

Rubin also introduces a new element to this argument by implying that Obama’s “weakness” has caused members of Iraq’s government to reach out to neighboring Iran. As Rubin surely knows, and as my colleague Brian Katulis and I wrote about in April 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki President Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, among other Iraqi leaders, have longstanding ties to the Iranian regime — indeed, Talabani was among the very first leaders to congratulate Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his controversial re-election victory. The suggestion that these leaders are only now drawing closer to Iran as a result of the U.S. drawdown is both patently ridiculous and misleading.

While Rubin is of course correct that “power and prestige matter,” it’s typical of the conservative mindset to think that the best way to maintain power and prestige is through the continued, open-ended projection of military force, rather than through the cultivation and support of legitimate domestic governance. President Obama’s honoring of the security agreement is an important step in doing that for Iraq.