US commitment to Iraq will pay off across the Middle East -- and avert a historic error

Both those who supported the surge and those who pressed for withdrawal should support continued US involvement in order to consolidate Iraq's fragile political and security gains. Disengaging now could undermine the entire long-term strategic relationship.

After seven months of post-election political paralysis and infighting, an Iraqi government of sorts has emerged. And with a government finally in place, the United States and Iraq can now work toward defining their future strategic relationship.

Indeed, there are few more important factors for the long-term strategic contours of the Middle East than America’s relationship with Iraq. But today, there is a serious risk that waning interest in nonmilitary dimensions of US strategy in Iraq may undermine the entire long-term strategic relationship for which both the Bush and Obama administrations have fought.

The Obama administration has already withdrawn nearly 100,000 military forces, and under the terms of the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, the remaining troops are due to depart by the end of next year.

On Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirmed this deadline, saying Iraqi troops are capable or providing security. But given remaining gaps in Iraqi capabilities and the desire among most Iraqi leaders for a long-term security partnership with America, it would not be surprising if the new Iraqi government eventually asks for a modification of the agreement. It may want perhaps 10 to 20,000 US airmen, trainers, logisticians, and special forces to remain for a few more years. If this request is forthcoming, it could generate a lot of political heat back in Washington – but it shouldn’t.

Foolish budget cuts

Those residual forces are far less important to America’s long-term relationship with Iraq than the nature of the emerging civilian and political relationship. But even as that relationship is being forged, Congress has slashed $500 million from the budgetary request for the continuing civilian mission in Iraq – which will provide the foundation for our long-term strategic relationship – leaving a shortfall of more than $1 billion.

This presents serious challenges toward realizing the United States’ historic opportunity to establish an enduring and mutually beneficial relationship with a pivotal state in the Middle East. The relationship is two-sided and Iraq needs to play its own role. Building a long-term partnership with Iraq requires that they have an effective, inclusive, and legitimate government. But the agreement on a new Iraqi government leaves many urgent issues unresolved.

Key elements of power-sharing rely upon promises that may not be redeemed. The newly conceived National Council for Strategic Policies is meant to provide strategic oversight and a check on the powers of the prime minister’s office, but it has no constitutional status. Defining the balance of power at the highest levels will be challenging for a new parliament, and the inevitable political struggles will offer endless opportunities for new crises.

The cold truth

Until those problems are solved, the cold truth is that Mr. Maliki has now become the most powerful executive in the history of post-Saddam Iraq, with few institutional checks and balances.

Many other vital issues have also been left in limbo during the long months of political paralysis following the March elections. The status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories remains unresolved, as does crucial legislation governing oil and gas fields. The effective incorporation of Sunni groups into the political process remains an open question, as does the future of the millions of refugees and internally displaced persons and their lost property.

America’s contribution to dealing with these continuing problems will be primarily political and diplomatic, not military. A commitment to drawing down military forces should not mean political disengagement. Iraq is as important to the interests of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other regional players as it is to those of the US. Undoubtedly, those countries will continue to be deeply involved in Iraq whether or not Americans stay on the field.

Now is the wrong time to disengage from Iraq. The US-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement negotiated in 2008 by the Bush administration provides a comprehensive blueprint for a broad, long-term partnership that can keep us in the game – but only if both sides energize the agreement and the United States brings a real commitment to continued engagement, backed by real resources, to the table.

Both sides should support continued engagement

Today, those who backed the 2007 “surge” should be keen to see its gains consolidated, while those who called for withdrawal should be keen to make sure that as it happens, disaster does not follow. And while Iraq certainly needs to step up its political game, the US must also muster the bipartisan political strength and will to help build a stable Iraq that can be a partner to the US in a vital – and deeply troubled – part of the world. Those who gave their lives for this fight deserve nothing less.

Marc Lynch is an associate professor at George Washington University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. John Nagl is a retired Army officer who served in Iraq and is now president of CNAS.

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