As Iraqi election officials tally the votes from Sunday’s parliamentary elections, the Obama administration faces some difficult choices in the weeks and months ahead. Despite the apparent success of the election and the limited violence associated with it, there is the potential for uncertainty in the coming months as Iraqi parties wrangle for control of a new governing coalition.
The Obama administration appears tempted to claim political credit and move on. Last month, Vice President Biden said that Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” President Obama, in his Rose Garden remarks after voting ended on Sunday, said that “the future of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq,” and repeated previous promises that by the end of next year, all U.S. troops would be out of Iraq.
This comes as some question whether the United States should renegotiate, or at a minimum extend, the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement that mandated this U.S. withdrawal from the country and instead allow for a continued U.S. presence in Iraq beyond 2011. There has been a marked improvement in the security situation in Iraq, but Iraq’s future remains uncertain, especially if the U.S. moves out of Iraq too quickly. It will be interesting to see whether the administration is willing to take such action if conditions on the ground deteriorate and if so, how it will reconcile this real world need with the desires of a Democratic base that was promised an end to the war in Iraq by a candidate who ran touting his opposition to the war.
In Sunday’s Washington Post, there was a hint that even if Iraq does not progress as quickly as many hope, the administration may not display the political courage it showed last year when President Obama decided to send additional troops to Afghanistan, contravening the wishes of his base. Karen DeYoung, quoting an unidentified senior administration official, wrote:
"If Iraq were to fall backward into some kind of chaos," the administration official said, "in the first instance it would be bad for the Iraqis." "Given the huge investment that was made in troops and treasure over the years, I imagine some would say we need to do something to prevent it," he said, adding that there are contingency plans for slowing or reconfiguring the U.S. withdrawal. "But I don't think there'd be any great appetite for going back in."
This is a troubling sign that “one of the great achievements of this administration” might be squandered if the going gets tough in Iraq. This seems shortsighted given the thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars the United States has sacrificed in setting Iraq on the path to a secure democratic future. Even setting aside the scale of the U.S. commitment thus far, the United States has a strategic interest in ensuring Iraq’s success and in continuing to remain involved in Iraq’s security.
If President Obama and Vice President Biden are serious about preserving their supposed accomplishment, the Obama administration should begin to lay the groundwork for an extended U.S. presence in Iraq, rather than continuing to focus on a withdrawal timeline driven solely by politics.