“The tide of war is receding,” President Obama said today. He’s right to withdraw our troops from Iraq by the end of the year.
I am sure some longtime supporters of the war will criticize him for pulling out too quickly. But as Obama pointed out, we have been at war in Iraq for nine years. The situation there will never present a perfect time for withdrawal. We still have our commitment to Afghanistan. He is far better to stick both with his own promise and also to the agreement President George W. Bush reached before he left office to have our troops out by the end of this year.
Moreover, the administration seems serious about building the U.S. civilian presence in Iraq. Whether you were for the war or thought it was a mistake, as I do, the United States should want to do what it can to preserve the progress Iraqis have made toward building a more democratic nation. The best U.S. role is assisting in institution-building, not in maintaining an indefinite U.S. troop presence.
It’s also not clear to me how large a difference leaving a modest number of troops there would make. The risk is that they could get entangled in violence, which could then create pressure to send more troops and create an unhealthy, even dangerous, spiral. It’s time to end our engagement.
It was appropriate that Obama made this announcement immediately in the wake of Moammar Gaddafi’s death. It’s worth noting that our intervention in Libya, which did not place U.S. forces on the ground, was not only successful but also left the United States far more popular among the Libyan people. Gaddafi would not have fallen without outside intervention, but he was ultimately brought down by the Libyans themselves. Is this not a far better model for democratization?
My colleague David Ignatius made this point well in an important column:
What was good about President Obama’s cautious, back-seat approach to Libya was that it denied Gaddafi the final, apocalyptic confrontation with the United States that he craved. Sorry, Moammar, but America was just part of a NATO coalition this time. Indeed, the denouement in Libya has been a good argument for halfway measures (or at least, half-visible ones). . . .
Obama deliberately kept the United States in the background even when critics began howling for a show of American “leadership.” And most important, he was patient through the summer, rejecting the counsel of those who argued that he must escalate U.S. military intervention to break the stalemate or, alternatively, bail out.
“The United States is moving forward from a position of strength,” Obama said today. The truth is we will be stronger for ending an intervention in Iraq that has cost us so much in lives, injuries and money. On this matter, at least, we really have “turned the page” that Obama spoke about so often in his campaign.