December 12, 2011

IN THE opening statement of his press conference Monday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Obama managed to assert no fewer than five times that the war in Iraq is ending. No doubt the president’s reelection campaign hopes that Americans will absorb that message; but we wonder about the thoughts of Iraqis who were listening. The conflict in their country, after all, is greatly reduced but not over: Al-Qaeda continues to carry out terrorist attacks, Iranian-sponsored militias still operate, and a power struggle between Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq and Mr. Maliki’s government goes on. Many Iraqis worry that, after the last U.S. troops depart this month, the sectarian bloodletting that ravaged the country between 2004 and 2007 will resume.

Those concerns, as well as the hope of checking Iran’s influence, prompted U.S. commanders to recommend that a follow-on force in the tens of thousands remain in Iraq next year. Iraqi politics, and the agreement struck by the Bush administration mandating a full withdrawal at the end of 2011, made that tricky — but a conflicted Obama administration never tried very hard to strike a deal with Mr. Maliki. Now, having promised in 2008 to end the war “responsibly,” Mr. Obama seems to feel obliged to prematurely declare the war over — and to oversell the regime that U.S. soldiers are leaving behind.

On Monday, the president portrayed Iraq as a democracy and model for the Middle East whose economy is set to grow more rapidly than those of India or China. He described Mr. Maliki, a Shiite who spent years in exile in Iran, as a nationalist whose stated “interest is maintaining Iraqi sovereignty and preventing meddling by anyone inside of Iraq,” adding, “I believe him.” Leaving to historians the question of whether the war was a mistake, Mr. Obama said, “What we have now achieved is an Iraq that is self-governing, that is inclusive, and that has enormous potential.”

As supporters of the war, we wish all that were true. But Mr. Maliki’s government increasingly appears headed in a troubling direction. Rather than remaining “inclusive,” Mr. Maliki has been concentrating power, especially over the security forces, in his own hands and excluding minority Sunnis, with whom he promised to share authority. He recently ordered the arrest of hundreds of people he accused of being tied to Saddam Hussein’s former Baath Party. Though he may have, as Mr. Obama said, domestic reasons for doing so, he has set himself apart from the rest of the Arab League by refusing to break with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, a key Iranian ally.

Mr. Obama’s virtually unqualified support for Mr. Maliki consequently was unsettling. The president said that the U.S. “goal is simply to make sure that Iraq succeeds, because we think a successful, democratic Iraq can be a model for the entire region.” That is true. But success will require continued and concerted U.S. engagement, not rosy declarations about a mission accomplished.