Have We Forgotten Iraq?

By Dan Balz
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The celebrations in Iraq marking the pullback of U.S. combat forces from Baghdad and other cities stand in stark contrast to the reaction in the United States. Here the transfer of power has been met almost with public indifference, overshadowed by everything from Michael Jackson's death to the fate of President Obama's domestic agenda.

A year ago, in the heat of the presidential campaign, the issue of whether U.S. forces should stay or go produced pointed debate and disagreement between Obama and John McCain. Now, the transfer of authority for protecting the cities from U.S. to Iraqi forces has been greeted with near-universal acceptance -- if also with some trepidation over what may happen next.

Obama marked the moment with brief remarks yesterday afternoon at the White House, saying that the Iraqi people were "rightly treating this day as a cause for celebration," while noting that Iraqi leaders have many political issues to resolve. He praised U.S. forces for all they have done there.

The president also took note of the recent attacks and killings in Iraq. "There will be difficult days ahead," he said. "We know the violence in Iraq will continue." But he said he remained confident that the forces behind the bombings will fail. He concluded by saying, "There is more work to be done, but we've made important progress."

The pullback from the cities is not, technically, a withdrawal. The United States still has roughly 130,000 troops in Iraq and will for many months. The real drawdown will not begin in earnest until after the national elections in January 2010. But symbolically, yesterday's handoff marks the beginning of a new and conclusive phase more than six years after U.S. forces invaded.

Public opinion long ago showed that a majority of Americans had concluded that the invasion ordered by President George W. Bush was a mistake. Bush's troop increase, which he initiated in early 2007 in the face of much opposition, has been judged successful in contributing to a reduction in violence. But the Bush administration's management of the war in the years between the invasion and the "surge" has been widely judged a failure.

Debate may continue to rage over the war and the roles Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld played in what became the most politically divisive conflict since Vietnam. Critics remain unforgiving of what that trio did. Defenders think Bush may yet be partially vindicated for seeing the conflict through. But the debate is no longer at the center of American politics. The nation grew weary of Iraq.

As a political issue, Iraq has faded into the background, despite the sizable troop presence that remains there. The war's potency as a flash point in the political debate diminished rapidly in 2008 as the economy went into a tailspin. McCain made little headway in trying to discredit Obama as unready to be commander in chief, and the Arizona Republican's resistance to setting a timetable for withdrawal generated no traction for his candidacy.

Obama's ordered troop withdrawal has stirred little public debate. In part that's because the Iraqis are as anxious for the United States to leave as many Americans are to see the end of the U.S. commitment. Under Obama's plan, combat forces will be gone by the end of August 2010. The remainder of U.S. forces, perhaps as many as 50,000, will leave Iraq by the end of 2011 under an agreement with the Iraqi government.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signaled his desire to establish a timetable for the departure of U.S. forces last summer. That hastened the ultimate agreement between the two countries. Maliki's statements in recent days, in which he has claimed victory in ending the "occupation" of his country, underscore the mutuality of interest in drastically reducing the U.S. footprint in Iraq, even if his remarks were targeted to his own country.

The fact that yesterday's deadline passed with so little public comment does not negate the fact that it represents the first big test for Obama's policy. In the days leading up to the deadline, there were a series of bombings and attacks, leaving more than 250 people dead. And yesterday, a car bomb in Kirkuk killed more than two dozen people. On Monday, four American soldiers were killed in combat. Iraq is not fully secure.

Administration officials have insisted, and the president reiterated yesterday, that the spike in violence was expected as the handoff took place and insurgents attempted to exploit the transition. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has publicly expressed his confidence that Iraqi forces can keep their cities secure. Other military leaders have done the same in private to the White House. If they are wrong, there may be questions about what kind of country Americans are preparing to leave behind. Obama could find himself under pressure to adjust the withdrawal timetable.

The president needs a quiet transition in Iraq, given the fullness of his foreign policy agenda. He and his advisers are continuing to wrestle with whether and how to adapt their Iran strategy in the wake of the post-election demonstrations there. Encouraging opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while trying to engage the Iranian leadership over its nuclear ambitions is more complicated now than it was a few weeks ago.

North Korea remains a dangerous problem, albeit a more straightforward one than Iran. Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to consume the administration's energies, as does the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Obama can only hope that the Iraqi security forces are strong enough to meet their new obligations.

Obama's approval ratings on Iraq are among his highest on any issue he is dealing with. The decision to withdraw, on whatever timetable, the sharp reduction in American casualties and the general war-weariness after six years of involvement there have combined to create a political calm over the issue that so convulsed the country.

Unless there is a spectacular reversal there, what happens in Iraq may play out largely outside the consciousness of the American public, despite the lives lost in the war and the fact that so many troops remain stationed there. Who would have thought that was possible not so very long ago?

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