What is a 'responsible' end to Iraq war? Obama must define it after this withdrawal.

Obama heralds the US success in meeting the August goal of withdrawing 90,000 US troops from Iraq, ending combat missions. But for the final pullout in 2011, will he also herald leaving behind a functioning democracy there -- which both Iraq and the region needs.

Iraq’s young democracy still faces a shaky future and ongoing terrorist attacks, but President Obama said Monday he will meet his Aug. 31 deadline for finally pulling out all US combat troops.

The likelihood of a civil war erupting in Iraq again, as it did in 2006, remains remote. And Mr. Obama plans to stick to his second goal of removing the remaining 50,000 noncombat troops by the end of 2011 (although an elite Special Operations force that targets terrorists will remain).

He admits that the war that began with the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein may not yet be over. “The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq,” he told a convention of Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta today. And his withdrawal schedule is similar to one set by the Bush administration after it successfully quelled sectarian violence with a surge of US troops in 2007.

But Obama marks this milestone for two reasons: He needs to shore up support among antiwar liberals at home just months before an election for Congress. And the Iraqi military has made good progress in taking over key tasks from US forces, displaying a sense of national unity that has so far eluded the country’s elected politicians.

Obama should keep some flexibility in the remaining withdrawal timetable, as he has in Afghanistan. Iraq’s elected leaders remain deadlocked in forming a new government five months after a national election for parliament. If they cannot manage the country’s first peaceful transfer of power as a sovereign country, then there is some risk that political tensions will badly influence the military leadership.

Afghans will be watching the conditions under which the United States leaves Iraq. To exit without a functioning democracy in place would send a signal that the US does not see democracy as a necessary bulwark against Islamic terrorism or against meddling by terror-supporting neighbors such as Iran.

Obama appears committed to leaving a functioning democracy in Afghanistan. He has tripled the number of troops there. Having opposed the US invasion of Iraq, his commitment to democracy there is not as clear. In fact, he opposed the 2007 surge.

To his credit, the president says he wants to bring the Iraq war to a “responsible end.” He did delay this drawdown of 90,000 troops by three months because of the political turmoil in Baghdad. And he has sent Bush-era US experts on Iraq back to the country to help end the political stalemate.

But to fully withdraw from Iraq next year if it still has a power vacuum and the same level of terrorist violence would be irresponsible. The Iraqi people have shown they want democracy, even if their leaders sometimes gum it up. The Middle East needs another stable democracy if that region is to develop a respect for basic rights and freedoms – especially those of women.

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