Will Iraq be an Obama achievement or nightmare?

Supporters wave Iraqi flags at a campaign rally for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Basra on Saturday.
Supporters wave Iraqi flags at a campaign rally for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Basra on Saturday. (Nabil Al-jurani/associated Press)
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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, February 22, 2010

During the years when Iraq was at the center of U.S. foreign policy, pundits and policymakers would regularly and prematurely proclaim that the following six months would be crucial to the war's outcome. Now, at last, that forecast is warranted: The next six months in Iraq could decide whether the country emerges as a democracy friendly to the United States, a cleric-dominated satellite of Iran or a cauldron of sectarian conflict -- and whether Barack Obama can pull off the "responsible withdrawal" he has promised.

How odd, then, that Iraq -- where the United States has invested $700 billion and the lives of more than 4,300 soldiers over the past seven years -- is no longer a top priority for the White House, the State Department or nearly anyone in Congress.

Two Americans who understand how big the stakes are -- U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and top commander Gen. Raymond Odierno -- were in Washington last week to explain. Iraq's March 7 election and what follows it, Hill said, will "determine the future of Iraq . . . and also the future of the U.S. relationship with Iraq."

Said Odierno: "We have an opportunity in Iraq today that we might never get again in our lifetimes . . . to develop a democratic Iraq that has a long-term partnership with the United States."

Compare that with Obama's account of Iraq in his State of the Union address: "We are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. . . . We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August." That pledge means that even while Iraq passes through this crucial turning point, U.S. forces will be reduced from 98,000 now to 50,000 on Sept. 1.

Obama went on to say that the United States would support the elections and would "continue to partner with the Iraqi people." But it's hard to escape the impression that a president who built his campaign on opposition to the war still undervalues Iraq's enormous strategic importance and the dangers embedded in its political transition.

Hill, in a news briefing, and Odierno, in an appearance at the Institute for the Study of War, pointed out some of them. According to Hill, if the contracts Iraq recently signed with international oil companies go well, Iraq will become an oil producer on a par with Saudi Arabia. The survival of Iraq's democratic system, Odierno said, could have a far-reaching impact on regimes across the Middle East. "Some of them," he added, "don't really want the democratic process to succeed because of the pressure it might put on their own government."

First among these is Iran, which has a simple strategy for the coming months: Turn the elections into a bitter sectarian battle -- and thereby ensure that the next government will be led by its hard-line Shiite allies.

To an alarming extent, the campaign is succeeding. Tehran's leading agent, as both Hill and Odierno noted, is Ahmed Chalabi, a Shiite who in 2002 played a major role in persuading the Bush administration to go to war. Now he has managed to have hundreds of candidates eliminated from the election on the mostly bogus grounds that they were or are loyalists of Saddam Hussein's Baath party. His targets are not just Sunni leaders but secular nationalists -- the two most important banned candidates are leading members of cross-sectarian alliances. The success of those tickets would be a triumph for Iraqi democracy -- and a huge setback for Iran.

Chalabi aims to become prime minister of the next government, which would be a disaster for Iraq and for Washington. And worse outcomes are possible. Also angling for power are Bayan Jabr, a Shiite who oversaw the interior ministry when it was infamous for torture and death squads; and Ibrahim Jaafari, who as prime minister oversaw the eruption of the sectarian war of 2006-07.

The Obama administration can hope one of the nationalists ends up on top; it can hope that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki survives, since he has been willing to stand up to Iran. The government-formation process, which may last months, will be the most critical period for the use of remaining U.S. leverage. Once a coalition is in place, the challenge, as Odierno described it, will be lining up that administration as a U.S. ally, which in turn will require that "we are very aggressive in the beginning of showing what the advantages are." Iran will be pushing hard in the other direction.

There is at least one person in Washington who seems invested in all this: Joe Biden, to whom Obama last summer gave the job of managing Iraq. Biden recently drew some ridicule from the right when he said that Iraq "could be one of the great achievements of this administration." Yet the vice president is right: If the administration can see Iraq through the next six months successfully, it will record an achievement whose long-term importance is unlikely to be matched by anything else it does abroad. If it does not -- then Washington will awaken to an Iraq that once again has become an endless nightmare.

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