Barack Obama's original support base, the anti-war movement, still insists on a
full and speedy withdrawal from Iraq, a position also backed by
prominent figures of the Left. To them, Iraq is a political version of
the "original sin" that can only be expiated by a clear US defeat and
But the president-elect no longer needs such people, at least not for now.
And Obama, cast by history in the role of a war president, probably
won't want to have America defeated and humiliated on his watch,
however happy that would make his old supporters.
One thing is certain: America can't terminate its military presence
in Iraq in the 16-month timeframe Obama suggests. It took it almost 10
months to complete the buildup for the initial invasion in 2003 - and
going into a country is always easier than coming out. When you go in,
your strength increases each day as new units and material come. When
you leave, on the other hand, your strength decreases daily, as fewer
units and material remain to protect your positions and cover your
retreat. The retreating army needs an agreement with a force strong
enough to ensure its safety as it departs.
Obama might note that the United States needed only two years to
get half a million men out of Vietnam (versus the 130,000 troops in
Iraq). But the US withdrawal from Vietnam took place thanks to an
agreement with North Vietnam and Vietcong and (in a broader context)
the Soviet Union and China. There was also the million-strong South
Vietnamese army and police to cover the retreat.
In Iraq, however, there is no agreement with al Qaeda and the
dormant (but always dangerous) Shiite militias and death squads or
their patrons in Iran, who regard killing Americans as a religious
duty. Once they perceive that the Americans are running away, they'll
almost certainly do whatever possible to make their retreat bloodier
and more humiliating.
The newly created Iraqi army also isn't yet strong enough to ensure
the retreating Americans' safety. Once persuaded that the Americans no
longer count in the equation, the new Iraqi army may join the other
side or split into rival ethnic and sectarian factions.
The only way America can withdraw from Iraq without humiliation is
to help Iraqis complete the creation of a government and an army strong
enough to cover the American retreat. And that can't be done in 16
As the United States emerges from its election fever, Iraq heads
toward its own. Municipal elections are scheduled for the end of this
year, clearing the decks for the general-election campaign next year.
(The actual voting day could be in January 2010.) It may well take 16
months before the new Obama administration concludes an agreement with
a new Iraqi government expected to be formed by mid-2010.
In Iraq, Obama has a choice.
He could manufacture an American defeat or work to translate the
military victory that's already been achieved into long-term political
gains for both Iraq and the United States.
What matters in Iraq isn't the number of US troops on the ground.
Everyone in Iraq and in the Middle East understands that America can't
be defeated on the battleground - that the only force capable of
defeating America is America itself.
Thus, all depends on the signals coming from the new Obama administration.
If the perception is that, for domestic political reasons, it
prefers defeat, there'll be enough forces in Iraq and throughout the
region to help him secure it. If, on the other hand, the new
administration opts to consolidate victory, again it would find many
forces inside Iraq and in the Middle East ready to help it achieve that goal.
One encouraging sign: Starting last summer, Obama has stopped
talking of withdrawal without any ifs and buts. Instead, he has spoken
of "drawdown" and "redeployment," while trying to soothe his
"anti-imperialist" constituency by insisting that America won't seek
military bases in Iraq.
That is all well and good - as long as Obama understands that US
national interest demands a firm commitment to building a new,
democratic Iraq that is capable of holding its own against domestic and