By Peter JuulSoon after President Obama last year fulfilled his pledge to withdraw all American troops from Iraq, conservatives eagerly pounced with baseless declarations the president had somehow “lost” Iraq to Iran and increased “the risks of failure.” Neoconservative analysts Fred and Kim Kagan proclaimed that the withdrawal amounted to “defeat.”
Since the U.S. withdrawal in December, nearly every act of violence or political crisis has been interpreted as evidence that Obama should not have ended the war. Brookings Institute analyst Ken Pollack provided the basic narrative: the withdrawal has caused American influence in Iraq to decline “precipitously;” removed a stick with which to threaten Iraqi “bad guys” (with some commentators lamenting the lack of a stick to shake at Iran and Syria as well); and the military influence U.S. troops provided has not been replaced by political or economic influence. Or as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) put it, Iraq is “unraveling because we didn’t keep a residual force there.”
Last week, Antony Blinken, a deputy assistant to the president and National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden, refuted these allegations of defeat and lost influence in Iraq at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress.
Blinken noted that violence in Iraq remains at record lows despite widely reported terrorist attacks, shootings and other acts of violence. Fewer than 100 weekly security incidents occur today as compared with 1,600 at the height of the violence in 2007 and 2008.
Blinken recalled that the events of a 2007 political crisis in Iraq resemble one that began just after U.S. troops left Iraq in December, noting that in 2007, the U.S. had more than 100,000 troops on the ground there:
“In the end, the main difference between the two episodes was that in 2007/2008, the boycott lasted eight months — at a time when the United States had more than 150,000 troops on the ground. In 2012, we had no troops on the ground, and the boycott ended after less than two months.”
What’s more, Blinken argued, accusations that the United States has lost diplomatic influence in Iraq are baseless. The U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, James Jeffrey, has met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki nine times this year and movements from U.S. diplomatic posts have increased by a third over the last quarter of 2011.
And Iraq continues to make economic and diplomatic progress. Oil production is up to 2.7 million barrels a day versus 1.8 million in 2005. Saudi Arabia appointed its first ambassador to Iraq since 1990, Iraq has settled a number of outstanding debt issues with its neighbors, and Baghdad is preparing to host the Arab League summit this year.
While Blinken acknowledged Iraq continues to face problems that “will not be solved overnight,” he mentioned a series of steps the United States is taking to maintain progress in Iraq. The Strategic Framework Agreement signed at the end of 2008 that outlines areas of civil cooperation between Iraq and the U.S. is being implemented, with Biden and Maliki chairing its Higher Coordinating Committee last December. American assistance trained 1,700 Iraqi judges and judicial employees in 2010, and the United States funded and supported Iraq’s anti-corruption institutions. Finally, the U.S. is selling Iraq advanced weapons — F-16 fighters and M1 tanks — to enable Baghdad to defend itself against external threats.
“If that sounds less like a war-footing,” Blinken stated, “and more like the type of programs we have in countries around the world — that is exactly the point.”
As the United States seeks a “new, more normal relationship” with Iraq following the withdrawal of U.S. forces, it’s worth noting, as Blinken did, that over the last three years prognostications of doom and gloom offered by many conservatives — and “breathless, baseless accusations that American disengagement, or the absence of our military forces, was to blame” — have failed to materialize.
Violence continues to kill innocent Iraqis, and political crises in Baghdad are always around the corner. But the sort of steady, normal civilian-led relationship between Iraq and the United States the Obama administration is pursuing is the best way the United States can safeguard its interests in Iraq.