“So, what have you left us?”
Perhaps the response will be similar to what Ben Franklin told a woman in Philadelphia after she asked him what the 1787 Constitutional Convention had just given the Americans:
“A republic – if you can keep it.”
Creating a democracy in Iraq was only one of many rationales for the US invasion in 2003 (another was ending Iraq’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction.) But democracy is the one reason on which both Mr. Obama and George W. Bush could find common ground in their respective efforts as presidents to arrange for the head-held-high exit of troops by the end of 2011.
On Wednesday, Obama praised US soldiers for this “moment of success,” which he defined as ending a dictatorship and “leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”
His comments echo those made by Mr. Bush two months before the invasion: “If we liberate the Iraqi people, they can rest assured that we will help them build a country that is disarmed and peaceful and united and free.” (In that same talk – long before the Arab Spring – Bush also said: “A free Iraq can be a source of hope for all the Middle East.”)
At the time, 6 out of 10 Americans supported going to war with Iraq. But as the final US troops now leave, another poll shows 60 percent of Americans say the withdrawal will lead to “all-out civil war.”
Iraqis themselves have the same worry. That’s why Obama is leaving behind a robust civilian presence in Iraq that can provide continuing counterterrorism intelligence as well as weapons and training for Iraqi forces. To help build the country’s defenses, for example, he wants to sell 18 more F-16 fighter jets to Iraq.
Still, democracy remains wobbly in Iraq despite several successful elections. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has yet to include enough Sunnis, Kurds, or secular leaders in government to create stability.
Or as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta put it: “Iraq will be tested in the days ahead – by terrorism, and by those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself.”
He also said the United States “will be there to stand by the Iraqi people.” Indeed, the US still has much at stake in Iraq after the loss of 4,487 American lives and another 32,226 wounded. The mismanagement of the war after the invasion also contributed to the needless killings of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
The US military command had hoped to keep 20,000 troops in Iraq for another year or two. But it may just be that this withdrawal will help Iraqi leaders take more responsibility for their country’s future.
Without occupying troops, Mr. Maliki might be better able as sovereign leader to invite back American help, if needed. The US, after all, plans to leave a large force in nearby Kuwait and to remain a close partner.
Whatever still divides the 30 million Iraqis – religion, oil wealth, ethnicity – can hopefully be worked out through the democracy that they helped create. It is now up to them, not the Americans, to define “mission accomplished.”