One Year Later: Did Obama Win the Iraq War?

President Barack Hussein Obama was inaugurated a year ago, and this is a good time to review his major foreign policy success.

It is, of course, important that he has repaired the reputation of the US in much of the world and replenished the stock of ‘soft power’ that has been so important a part of US success and leadership. His approval ratings in Western Europe and even in Saudi Arabia were in the 80s and 90s this summer. Veteran journalist Tom Fenton confirms that he remains enormously popular in Europe, and that the public there understands that he could not turn US policy around on a dime.

But Obama’s biggest practical foreign policy success has been in keeping to his withdrawal timetable in Iraq. Most observers have paid too little attention to this, among his most important decisions. When he became president, his top generals, including Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, reportedly came to him and attempted to convince him to modify the withdrawal timeline adopted by the Iraqi parliament as part of the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated shortly before he took office. They did not want US troops to cease patrolling independently in mid-June 2009. They did not want to get all combat troops out by summer 2010. They wanted to finesse the agreement. Reclassify combat troops under some other heading, they said.

Overturning the SOFA or dragging Washington’s feet about it would have produced rage in Baghdad. It had the potential for undermining the government of PM Nouri al-Maliki, and for reinvigorating both Sunni Arab extremists and Shiite radical movements such as the Mahdi Army. It would have made other Arab regimes suspicious of US motives. It would have been a mistake as epochal as the Bush administration’s decision to build up a heavy US military footprint in Afghanistan, which restarted the war there and provoked a major insurgency that continues to this day. In Iraq, a country crawling with armed, nationalistically minded groups and dotted with arms depots, such a move would have been a catastrophe. Obama did the right thing. He overruled his generals and began returning to Iraq its sovereignty.

This issue is important regionally because polling shows that Arab publics say that ending the US military presence in Iraq is the single most important thing the US could do to improve its relations with that region. What they saw as US atrocities in Iraq motivated many of the terrorists active after 2003. Ending the US military role there will bring a sea change. (Only 4% of Arabs say that they are exercised by the issue of Afghanistan, so that is not the same thing in their eyes).

Over Gen. Ray Odierno’s objections, in June 30, 2009, US troops ceased independently patrolling major Iraqi cities. Iraqis celebrated this change as ‘sovereignty day.’

The Iraqi military and police, over which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had largely gained control, proved able to keep order about as well as had their American and British colleagues. In July, 2009, with the US no longer patrolling, attacks and deaths declined by a third, and went on down from there. Despite two dramatic bombing waves in the capital, in August and November, the situation has in most places calmed down on an everyday basis. Flashpoints such as Mosul and Kirkuk remain, but had been violent when the US military was there, too.

Most Americans do not realize that US troops seldom patrol or engage in combat in Iraq anymore, accounting for why none were killed in hostile action in December. The total number of US troops in Iraq has fallen from a maximum of 160,000 during the Bush administration’s ‘surge’ to about 110,000. After the early March parliamentary elections, another big withdrawal will begin, bringing then number down to 50,000 or so non-combat troops by September 1.

Critics of Obama often charge him with failing to end the Iraq War. But there is no longer an Iraq War. There are US bases in a country where indigenous forces are still fighting a set of low-intensity struggles, with little US involvement. Obama is having his troops leave exactly as quickly as the Iraqi parliament asked him to. Most US troops in Iraq seem mainly to be in the moving business now, shipping out 1.5 million pieces of equipment.

The last 4,000 Marines will hand over responsibility for al-Anbar Province, once among the more violent places on earth, to the US Army on Saturday, and shortly thereafter the Marines will depart the country.

US narratives of how Baghdad and environs relatively speaking calmed down leave out the victory of the Shiites in the civil war fought 2006-2007, and the ethnic cleansing of most Sunni Arabs from Baghdad. Despite the continued possibility of terrorism, the demoralized and defeated Sunnis seem unlikely to be able or willing to organize for a repeat of the civil war any time soon. (Sunni Arabs are probably less than 20% of the population, whereas Shiites are about 60%, something the Sunnis long denied, a denial that made them overconfident they could defeat the majority). In the meantime, Iraqi military capacity seems just barely adequate to security tasks outside a few hotspots such as Mosul.

Contrary to the consensus at Washington think tanks, Obama is ahead of schedule in his Iraq withdrawal, to which he is committed, and which will probably unfold pretty much as he has outlined in his speeches. The attention of the US public has turned away from Iraq so decisively that Obama’s achievement in facing down the Pentagon on this issue and supporting Iraq’s desire for practical steps toward sovereignty has largely been missed in this country.

Not only will the US drawdown in Iraq greatly improve the image of the US in the Arab world and allow for more cooperation with Arab countries, but it will probably help US-Turkish relations, as well. Turks often blame the US for backing Iraqi Kurds and allowing a resurgence in Kurdish terrorism via the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), to some 5,000 of whose fighters Iraqi Kurdistan has given safe harbor. The US will soon be out of that picture, and Turks and Kurds will have to pursue their relations on a bilateral basis.

Obama was handed a series of catastrophes. He has done better in handling some than others. But his decision on Iraq was the right one, the one that allows the US to depart with dignity, and allows Iraqis to work out their own internal problems. It is in this sense that Obama won the Iraq War.

End/ (Not Continued)

14 Responses

  1. Not so fast. Could be US troops are pulling out for possible on- the-ground deployment in America if some system collapses, and/or to be out of retaliation's way if we bomb Iran?

  2. Hmmm – not so sure about this upbeat spin you're giving things, Juan. We're scraping the bottom of the barrel if we're having to write up a withdrawal from a combat zone, Iraq, as a 'major foreign policy success' – look no further than AfPak to get a clue as to Obama's real idea of foreign policy. The Generals still get to play with their toys in a different arena. The consequences are potentially even worse than Iraq.

  3. But have the Americans not built substantial permanent bases in Iraq manned by U.S. soldiers?

  4. As a close follower of ME news based in Europe, I'm 100% with Juan Cole on this one. But I can't blame American posters for reacting as they do – afaik both the SOFA and the US military's compliance with its clauses are hardly ever mentioned in US media! Can't help wondering why not – perhaps entering into a treaty with an Arab nation then actually COMPLYING with the obligations foreseen in it are felt to be somehow … un-American?

  5. Sorry, all I know is that Obama wars are being ferociously waged at ferocious cost. There is no success because of the Obama wars that are being waged more fiercely than by President Bush.

  6. How did you call it win the war in Iraq, it is not true.
    There are 4 million Iraqi refugees outside and they can not go back. Sunni has no jobs, get arrested most of the time. Is this the democracy the American talked about? Do not forget that most of the refugee from 1991 still in your State in Michigan, they can not go back, they can only go for a visit. Is this democracy.
    No Professor this is not what the Iraqi want or promised with

  7. In response to your headline.

    Not if our stated goal of bringing 'democracy' (small 'd' intentional) to Iraq is the measure of 'winning:

    "If you think it's going to be easy to get out of Iraq with an 'American Democracy' in-place you might note the Iraqi government just banned 500 Sunnis (the American fostered group 'Sons of Iraq') from the government and absorption into the Iraqi military." [More]

  8. Ah, but permanent bases are different than armed conflict. We have permanent bases all over the world.

  9. I don't want to give Bush any credit but Obama is just carrying out the SOFA of his predecessor.

  10. Wiener boy Bush is the one who yapped about making Iraq a Democracy. That is as much an impossibility now as it was when he was yapping that lie to the stupid American people.

    Obama said he would end the war in Iraq which, as Dr. Cole correctly points out, he has done. Obamas detractors can't stand that so they have to bad mouth it. Of course.

    davr

  11. The SOFA is meaningless, it was a deal between Bush and his doorman Maliki.
    This withdrawal planned by Obama is more serious, because he made a promise to his own voters.
    And the electorate of the United States is much more relevant to the war in Iraq than the puppet moron Maliki.

    For example: if McCain had won the election, he would have just instructed Maliki to amend the SOFA to extend the occupation for another 100 years.

  12. "For example: if McCain had won the election, he would have just instructed Maliki to amend the SOFA to extend the occupation for another 100 years."

    And Maliki in turn would have told him to go take a long run off a short cliff

  13. For all those people who claim that the Iraq has been won, I say this: go to your nearest travel agency and book a vacation spot for a two week trip to Iraq.

    Don't worry about any language barriers, I have heard Blackwater (or Xe) has fluent English speakers.

  14. I keep hearing deluded progressives talk about obama 'lies' on leaving Iraq, this is a nice change of pace.

    Hell, just a few days ago i watched hamid dabashi repeat this and another one – apparently obama promised not to escalate things in afghanistan. Now I know dabashi is a progressive, but how dumb does a columbia professor has to be to watch a multi-year campgaing of obama saying he'll 'win' afghanistan and escalate drone attacks and believe the opposite? Amazing.

    Now I'm reading about the US occupying Haiti, I thought this was too crazy even for the left but the link above proved me wrong. Maybe the US should pull out of haiti completely and let them deal with the earthquake themselves, though I'm sure then the 'humanists' will condemn cruel america for not helping.

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