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An End in Iraq, and a Beginning

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Report 31 August 2010

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Tonight President Obama will commemorate the close of America's combat mission in Iraq and the redeployment of nearly 90,000 U.S. troops, marking the culmination of years of effort to replace the failed invasion strategy with one that better serves core American interests. America's mission in Iraq is changing to a civilian-led partnership, though thousands of troops will remain to advise and assist Iraqi forces. Challenges remain - the stalled government formation process, as well as persistent acts of violence - but these are problems that demand Iraqi-led solutions. These challenges will not be helped by heavy-handed intrusion on Iraq's political scene. And they certainly will not be helped by keeping American troops in the country indefinitely. The new effort underway in Iraq points toward a more effective focus for US policy:  a genuine partnership with Iraqis built around diplomacy, trade, and development, as well as security. This approach stands the best chance of building an enduring strategic relationship that aligns core U.S. interests with our resources and values.

Combat mission gives way to new stage - innovative partnership marks a new milestone in U.S. foreign affairs.  In an address to the nation tonight, President Obama will commemorate an important milestone in U.S. involvement in Iraq: the end of America's combat mission.  But this speech should also be measured by what it signals for the future.  September 1st will mark a new era in U.S.-Iraq relations - a comprehensive partnership that places diplomacy, trade and development alongside security. Yesterday, the Associated Press described how the Obama administration has "directed its diplomats to step into the void and help Iraq's weak government, economy and other institutions get back on their feet for years to come." The Washington Times' Eli Lake reported on the contours of this mission: "The State Department is setting up two new consulates in Iraq, one in the southern city of Basra and another in the northern Kurdish regional capital of Irbil. Political interface between the United States and Iraq that occasionally went through military channels now will be conducted through civilian-level diplomats."   Ambassador James Dobbins, who has served in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Haiti and Kosovo called the mission "unprecedented in scale." "I don't think State has ever operated on its own, independent of the U.S. military, in an environment that is quite as threatening on such a large scale," said Dobbins.

As the Center for a New American Security's Marc Lynch wrote this past March, the intent of this effort is "to develop a normal, constructive strategic relationship with the new Iraqi government, with the main point of contact the Embassy and the private sector rather than the military, and adhering in every way possible to the SOFA and to the drawdown timeline."  Thus, the transition out of combat operations is an important step in the process of building an enduring relationship with Iraq, to the benefit of both Iraqi and American security. [AP, 8/30/10. Washington Times, 8/18/10. NY Times, 8/19/10. Marc Lynch, 3/8/10]

U.S. can and should support Iraq as it confronts its persistent challenges, but Iraqis must be in the lead.  Few question the idea that Iraq will continue to face challenges going forward. In an interview with Anthony Shadid, departing U.S. Commanding General Ray Odierno expressed concern with Iraq's stalled political paralysis, saying "what I don't want is for them to lose faith in the system, the democratic system, and that's the long-term risk." And there continues to be instances of severe, deplorable violence.

Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, deputy Director of the Institute for the Study of War, and former command historian under General Odierno, recommended that the U.S. "remain actively engaged during this critical time in Iraq to support the democratic process and encourage the formation of a government that is inclusive and reflects the will of the people." For while there is a role for the U.S., it is ultimately up to Iraqis to determine the country's future.  Indeed, there are signs that Iraq's citizens are increasingly capable of tackling their county's persistent problems.  Middle East expert and Brookings Fellow Ken Pollack described this important, if tenuous transformation: "What has changed over the past 12 to 18 months is the level of violence in Iraq. There is much less of it: The civil war and the insurgency have been suppressed and the terrorists have been marginalized, so American troops have been able to pass the majority of their remaining combat responsibilities to the Iraqi security forces...Party leaders no longer scheme to kill their rivals, but to outvote them. They can no longer intimidate voters; they have to persuade them. And the smart ones have figured out that they must deliver what their constituents want, namely, effective governance, jobs, and services such as electricity and clean water." As Carnegie Endowment democracy expert Marina Ottaway recently wrote, "The United States has done what it can to promote democracy in Iraq. It's now in Iraq's hands."  [General Ray Odierno, via the NY Times, 8/29/10. Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, 8/3/10. Ken Pollack, 8/22/10. Marina Ottaway, 8/2/10]

Iraq's future depends on political and economic progress, not the limitless presence of U.S. military forces.  Some have questioned the logic of a military redeployment, arguing that developments in Iraq are too precarious, and require more sustained and significant military involvement. But progress will not be helped by keeping American troops in Iraq. According to U.S. Commanding General Odierno, "Iraq doesn't need more troops needs political and economic support." "For us it's about eliminating the environment that allows extremism to exist. We haven't eliminated that environment. That environment will get eliminated through economic and political progress," continued Odierno. In light of this, Marisa Cochrane Sullivan urged policymakers "to decouple the process of forming a government in Iraq from the American troop withdrawal."

In a piece for the New York Times' Room for Debate, CNAS Bacevich Fellow Brian Burton cautioned that Iraq's most pressing problems are not military problems, "nor are they problems for which the United States can impose solutions." Burton added: "For all of Iraq's issues, a major deterioration in the security situation is not one of them. Keeping any number of troops there for a longer period of time is not going to solve Iraq's governance crisis or provide better services...What U.S. policymakers should be thinking harder about is how to engage politically and economically with Iraq to forge a new, more constructive relationship." [General Ray Odierno, via the Washington Post, 7/13/10. Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, 8/3/10. Brian Burton, 8/3/10]

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