The President Should Declare Victory in Iraq

Despite an otherwise misguided foreign policy, President Obama’s management of Iraq has been comparatively judicious. Like Bush, Obama has not done all he could -- or should. The Iranian problem is being ignored; Tehran’s influence in Iraq has not been adequately countered. But overall, Obama has quietly sustained the Bush-Petraeus surge/de-escalation plan of 2007-08 and has respected the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government. For supporters of a stable, peaceful, and democratic Arab ally, this administration’s continuity of Iraq policy should not go unappreciated.

Now the U.S. combat role is coming to an end. In a recent speech to Disabled American Veterans, President Obama restated the August 31, 2010, deadline of “[changing] our military mission from combat to supporting and training Iraqi security forces.” The usual ascetics are involved, too. On August 31, the official title of the war effort will be renamed from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn. We should welcome this change in taxonomy. The war as we once knew it -- or at least as Obama defines it -- will be over.

But the United States should go one step further. At month’s end, President Obama should travel to Baghdad and declare victory in the second Gulf War.

Would this be a premature declaration, Obama’s “mission accomplished” moment? Though battered and beaten, the enemies of a free Iraq will continue to wield a veto on when “combat operations” come to a conclusion throughout the theater. Those caricaturized neocons had it right: self-government in Iraq undermines Khomeinist circles in Iran, Ba’athist dictators in Syria, and Wahhabi princes in Saudi Arabia. So long as these regimes exist and fund terror, they will continue to fight the United States -- using Iraq as a proxy battlefield. There could be another al-Qaedist insurrection; Iran could intervene militarily. There are a whole host of bad things that could happen in 2011 and beyond.

But these possibilities should not dissuade the United States from declaring victory now, in 2010. Those hypothetical events would constitute a new affair, a different epoch. This war has lasted more than seven years -- March 2003 through August 2010.  In ’06, all seemed hopeless. In ’07, the strategy was changed and it has been a positive (though uneven) trajectory since. While violence remains, together with the Iraqis we are nevertheless entering a new era. This is a good thing. From an American perspective, Iraq is the new Israel: an ally worthy of defense; under siege from a common enemy; destined to be part of the broader, regional conflict between freedom and tyranny for the foreseeable future.

Tens of thousands of brave Iraqis have bled and died fighting alongside U.S. troops against Islamic terrorists. As we withdraw from Iraq, President Obama should make it known to the region that we will remain committed to our friends. We are in deep need of a show of strength. Wouldn’t it be nice to see Obama go to Baghdad, stand with Iraq’s motley crew of political leaders (Allawi, Maliki, etc.), along with Secretary Clinton and Generals Odierno and Mattis, and state in front of an audience of rowdy U.S. and Iraqi soldiers the triumph over Saddamist cultism, dictatorship, insurgency, and jihadist terrorism?

This is important for history. Wars don’t just “end.” They are won or lost. And history, as they say, is written by the winners.  This is one scenario where we should actually encourage President Obama to make the perception a reality. There is a particular worry, however, and that is Obama’s unbecoming tendency to make everything about him. Consider his speech to Disabled American Veterans:

As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end.  Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy… And I made it clear that by August 31, 2010, America’s combat mission would end.  And that is exactly what we are doing -- as promised and on schedule.

… By the end of this month, we’ll have brought more than 90,000 of our troops home from Iraq since I took office -- more than 90,000 have come home.

This is just a sample, but you get the drift: “I pledged,” “I announced,” “I made clear,” “Since I took office,” “What we’re doing, as promised and on schedule.” It’s all about him. It’s all about his setting and then subsequently meeting his own expectations -- and us acknowledging that and appreciating him for it. He’s talking about a war where thousands of people have died.

The balance of the Middle East hinges on its outcome. And Obama can’t get over himself. It’s very un-presidential. Every time Obama talks about the second Gulf War, he reminds us that Iraq was an unnecessary “war of choice,” whereas his war, the good war in Afghanistan, is the war of “necessity.” This is very tedious statesmanship. In any hypothetical victory speech, Obama would be wise to put aside this kind of politicking.

The commander of Iraq’s military recently said U.S. forces need to stay in Iraq another decade. “If I were asked about the withdrawal,” Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari told the BBC, “I would say to politicians: the U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020.” The idea that the Iraqis won’t be “ready” to protect themselves for another decade is simply preposterous. Such sentiments may have generated sympathy three, four, or five years ago. But not today.

The U.S. military has given the Iraqis a chance to be free. Donald Rumsfeld would use a paternalistic analogy: the Iraqis were learning how to ride a bicycle without training wheels, and we were guiding them with one hand on the seat. Eventually we would let go of the seat and they would either balance themselves and ride, or fall. If they fell, we would be there to help them up.  But we couldn’t ride the bike for them. We should stand with Iraq in solidarity, but should not encourage our new allies to remain entirely dependent on us.