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

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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.

If Obama left troops in Iraq, he would be helping that country's security but subverting its sovereignty and its political process. The perceived legitimacy of Iraqi politicians and of the democratic process itself would take a hit in the eyes of Iraqi voters, who in turn might become a little more skeptical about democracy and a little less likely to pick the ballot over the bullet. Despite the continued violence in Iraq and its still incredibly severe problems of every kind, there have been some small but very real miracles in that country's democratization. Civilians, often at enormous personal risk, have chosen to engage earnestly with the process, trusting this new system, volunteering for political parties, and running for office. Iraqi leaders who might have had wielded greater power if democracy had failed there -- especially Sadr -- have instead given up a great degree of their personal influence, trusting that they will be better off under a system that is meant to promote everyone's interests collectively.

But democracy is a process as well as a system of governance, and that process is at its most tenuous moment in Iraq. Research by the Center for Systemic Peace has found that transitional democracies are increasingly prone to violent conflict and outright collapse. Iraq is at a high enough risk of backsliding into chaos or dictatorship -- both of which are worryingly common for transitional democracies -- without Obama undermining its sovereignty and its leaders.

This isn't a surprising move from the Obama administration, which has clearly stated several times it will not keep troops in Iraq without formal government invitation. Since the summer of 2010, when Vice President Joe Biden led a sort of "reset" of U.S.-Iraq diplomacy, the U.S. has made a concerted effort to treat Iraq as an ally rather than as a subservient client state. When Iraq was deadlocked by months of Parliamentary bickering over forming a ruling coalition, the White House could have pressured Parliamentary leaders one way or another to quickly resolve the dispute. After all, the faltering Parliament made it more difficult for the country to make much-needed security and economic improvements. And Biden did travel to Baghdad several times during this difficult period. Still, he was careful to never interfere, respecting the Iraqi political process as independent and sovereign.

The decision not to interfere in Iraqi politics, even when it might be the best thing for both Iraq and the U.S. in the short term, was a hard choice in summer 2010 and it's a hard choice now. But it might be the best thing that the U.S. could do to help Iraq continue progressing on the long and difficult path to democracy. A truly, functionally democratic Iraq -- even one that is closer to Iran and further from the U.S. than it is today -- would ultimately be the best possible outcome to serve Iraq's 30 million people and to honor the memory of the 4,479 American troops killed there.