Obama's Difficult Choice on Iraq: Democracy Over Security

The U.S. decision to honor Iraq's barely functional political process, even when it doesn't make the smartest choice, might be the best thing for both countries

obamairaq oct21 p.jpg

Obama walks to the White House podium to announce the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq / Reuters

President Barack Obama's announcement today that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year is about much more than just American troop deployments. His administration faced a tricky dilemma in Iraq. He could leave the troops, knowing they would play an important role in Iraqi security and in counter-terrorism. Or he could bow to the troubled and often dysfunctional Iraqi Parliament, which has not formally requested that the Americans stay. Ultimately, Obama seems to have chosen long-term diplomatic interests over short-term security interests. It's not the kind of calculus one usually sees from the U.S. in the Middle East, but it might be exactly the right approach for Iraq -- and, in the long run, for the U.S. as well.

Iraq sorely needs more U.S. military and intelligence assistance in the war that is still ongoing there, and its leaders know it -- privately, many of them say they want the U.S. to stay. Even Muqtada al-Sadr, the religious leader whose allied militias actively and aggressively fought the U.S. before Sadr joined Iraqi politics, recently announced he would accept U.S. trainers. But, publicly, Iraqi political leaders are unable to come out in favor of U.S. troops staying -- anti-Americanism remains a significant force in the country that suffered tens of thousands of deaths after the U.S.-led invasion, and Iraqi public opinion is firmly against a continued U.S. presence. The Obama administration said it would leave troops only at the invitation of the democratically elected Iraqi government, but that was probably never going to happen.

Back in the U.S., Obama is under tremendous pressure from Congressional leaders and others to keep troops in Iraq. And Baghdad political leaders (other than Sadr, of course) who see the value of the troops but can't endorse them would probably not make too much of a fuss if they stayed.

There's something at stake in this decision, however, that's much bigger and more significant for Iraq's long-term prospects than whatever security benefit would have come from these troops. Iraqi democracy itself, ostensibly one of the reasons we invaded in the first place, is functioning right now, but just barely. It took months to form a coalition large enough for Parliament to govern, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's security apparatus is increasingly political, and Parliamentary parties still don't totally trust one another to operate within the law.

But there are political parties. They rule Iraq primarily through democratic institutions. And they appear to legitimately represent Iraqi society in all its political, ideological, religious, and ethnic forms. Just look at the troop withdrawal -- in the end, even the country's top Parliamentary leaders deferred to the clear wishes of their constituents. Remember all that Pentagon talk about "fragile and reversible security gains" during the war's slow crawl out of total civil war into mere bloodbath? Well, those security gains were ultimately about making political gains, which are themselves fragile and reversible.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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