As U.S. troops begin their seventh year in Iraq, they face a changed landscape both in Iraq and at home. In Iraq, an agreement between the Baghdad government and the United States now largely dictates how long U.S. troops will stay there and what they will do. At home, the distressed state of the economy has pushed the war in Iraq far from the front page.
Perhaps the biggest change, however, is the clear-eyed view of the war by the Obama administration. Even before the 2003 invasion of Baghdad, the U.S. public was told that the war would be quick and inexpensive. Neither was true. Despite years of setbacks and escalating violence, Americans were told that victory was coming. It has yet to arrive. Although conditions in Iraq have improved in the last year and a half — thanks in large part to Gen. David Petraeus, who was guided by the idea that U.S. forces should work with, not against, local leaders and residents — bomb attacks still are too frequent.
The result is more than 4,200 U.S. soldiers killed and nearly $1 trillion spent. There have been positives: Iraqis have elected national and local governments, infrastructure has been rebuilt and violence is down to nearly pre-war levels.
But the question remains: Was it worth it, especially when the justifications for the war — that dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was working with al-Qaida — were not true?
The majority of Americans don’t think so and Barack Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops contributed to his victory in November.
Earlier this month, President Obama outlined his plan for Iraq, which included removing combat troops within 18 months. About 50,000 soldiers will remain in the country to continue training Iraqi security forces and provide counter-terrorism efforts. Democrats who wanted a fuller withdrawal were upset by the large number of soldiers who will stay in Iraq.
How quickly U.S. soldiers leave Iraq and what duties are assigned to those who stay will be determined more by an agreement signed late last year by the Iraqi government and the Bush administration than by officials in Washington. That agreement says U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by 2011. It also restricts the mission of U.S. troops.
Although his flexibility in Iraq is limited, President Obama’s more honest assessment of the U.S. role there is welcome.
“We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries,” he said at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base last month. “We cannot police Iraq’s streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq’s union is perfected. We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military, and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars.”
The president also put Iraq in the right diplomatic perspective. How does it fit with U.S. efforts to forge a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians? How about with the mission to root out al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
As it answers those questions, the Obama administration must wind down the war in a way that ensures the safety of Iraqis without further jeopardizing American interests.