Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
At the end of his European trip yesterday, President Barack Obama made an unscheduled stopover in Iraq, in order to visit U.S. troops and talk with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In contrast with President Bush’s last visit in December 2008, no shoes were thrown at the American head of state.
But there were more important contrasts between Bush’s and Obama’s trips to Iraq than a lack of footwear hurled by local journalists. In each of President Bush’s three visits to Iraq since Maliki came to power, he has portrayed the United States military presence as indispensable to progress in Iraq — with the implied notion that the outcome in Iraq would be dependent on the actions of the United States, not Iraqis.
During his September 3, 2007 trip to Anbar province, for example, Bush made a point to “reassure [Iraqis] that America does not abandon our friends, and America will not abandon the Iraqi people.” The implication being that Iraqis could not possibly succeed without the United States having a long-term presence.
By contrast, President Obama delivered a different message. Rather than reiterating an open-ended military commitment to Iraq, the president made it clear to U.S. troops that “it is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.” Speaking with Prime Minister Maliki, Obama reiterated the United States’ commitment to drawing down all of its forces by the end of 2011, as per the Bush-negotiated security agreement.
Equally important, the president focused on resolving Iraq’s outstanding political conflicts while noting, “we can’t do it for them.” At the same time, though, he committed the United States to a more civilian political partnership with Iraq — promising to work “in a spirit of partnership” with the Iraqi government to resolve Iraq’s domestic governance and regional security problems. These differences amount to a major shift in tone from Bush’s visits, which emphasized the military and security aspects dominated by the United States.
More importantly, though, Obama’s shift in tone represents a shift in policy away from tinkering with U.S. force levels and toward letting Iraqis control their own fate. As Senior Fellow Brian Katulis recently argued, “For far too long, I think we’ve hung on to this notion… that we can simply change and reshape things with our military presence.” Obama’s new policy and recent remarks in Baghdad recognize that there is a limit to what the United States military can accomplish in Iraq, and that political and diplomatic engagement will be far more potent in helping Iraqis resolve their internal conflicts.