As America looks back on this 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Iraq looms large — and usually not in a good way. At best, it’s regarded as a distraction, a needless conflict that took America’s focus away from Afghanistan and al-Qaeda. At worst, the Iraq war is decried as a fiasco, the United States’ “greatest strategic disaster,” as retired Gen. William Odom, the former National Security Agency director, once put it.

There is no question that Iraq, as it stands today, has fallen short of American — and Iraqi — hopes and expectations. And there is no question that the costs of the war, for both sides, have been greater than anticipated. Even so, Iraq’s achievements — including the establishment of representative institutions against all odds — are hardly minor. The country could still become mired in a civil conflict that destabilizes the region. But it is equally or even more conceivable that, with relatively small amounts of continued U.S. support, the greatest strategic benefits of the Iraq intervention will materialize in the next several years. And these benefits would more than justify an ongoing U.S. military presence there.

This belief about Iraq’s strategic potential is not based on the naivete that underpinned many optimistic assessments before the war, and it is rooted in firmer ground than the desperate hopes of someone, like me, who has devoted much of the past decade to U.S. efforts in Iraq. While by no means inevitable, there are at least three ways in which Iraq has only just begun to show its strategic value.

First, Iraq can offer a great deal toward ensuring that the nascent transitions from dictatorships to more accountable governance in the region succeed over the long term. Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans — and perhaps eventually Syrians and Yemenis — have an advantage over Iraqis in the sense that they carry none of the baggage that comes with having a regime removed by the armed forces of an external power. But they will face many of the same challenges tackled by the Iraqis over the past eight years: how to hold members of the former regime accountable without stripping society of the expertise needed to rebuild the country; how to manage a political transition amid competing pressures for both quick results and inclusive processes; and how to deal with elements of the former regime determined to unseat the new order.

For sure, Iraqis — and we Americans — did not meet these challenges without mistakes and missteps. But Iraq’s lessons can help other countries of the Arab world make smoother, more successful transitions. Even before the Arab Spring, Arab intellectuals had begun looking to Iraq’s experience to gain insights into their own challenges.

Second, Iraq, perhaps paradoxically, is now one of the Middle Eastern countries best positioned to maintain ties with the West and with the United States in particular — no small matter in a region where U.S. strategic allies have almost literally disappeared overnight. The eight years since the ouster of Saddam Hussein have been traumatic both to Iraqis and Americans. But at the same time, the shared experience has built relationships and sympathies between the two populations that run deep. Even Americans who lament the U.S. intervention in Iraq must realize that their country made a large investment there and that there are benefits to some sort of ongoing relationship.

The Iraqi view of the United States is more complex. Even while there is real resentment, in private many Iraqi officials recognize that a continued relationship is important to the future stability and prosperity of their country. This mutual understanding is enshrined in the Strategic Framework Agreement of 2008, which pledges robust, nonmilitary cooperation between the two nations for the long term. A close U.S.-Iraqi relationship may be an important asset as other countries in the region draw further away from the United States, rejecting the policies of their former authoritarian, but pro-American, regimes.

Finally, and most compelling, there is the role that Iraq may play in averting a major global energy crisis in the coming years. The world economic recession eased pressure on global oil supplies and provided relief from the climbing energy prices of 2007 and 2008. But a quiet trend of 2010 was that growth in global oil consumption grew at the second-fastest rate ever, 2.8 percent, while growth in global crude oil production lagged behind at 2.5 percent. If demand continues to outgrow supply, it will be only a few short years before global spare capacity of oil — one of the indicators most closely tied to prices — gets dangerously low, and jittery markets push prices up and up. Assuming the world escapes another dip in economic growth, this outcome would probably materialize even without any additional geopolitical hiccups, such as political unrest in Saudi Arabia or a military confrontation with Iran.

Iraq is one of a very small number of countries that could bring oil online fast enough to help the world meet this growing demand at a reasonable price. In fact, major energy institutions and international oil companies are already assuming that Iraq will significantly increase its oil production in the coming decade. The International Energy Agency expects Iraq to nearly double its production in the next decade, from roughly 2.5 million barrels per day to 4.8 million barrels per day; BP’s 2030 global assessments are based on similar assumptions.

Such assessments are not pie in the sky. Yes, the claims made in 2003 that Iraq would pay for its own reconstruction with oil turned out to be woefully inaccurate; the country struggled to maintain its production in the face of decrepit infrastructure and a determined insurgency for nearly six years after the invasion. But in the past two years, Iraq has made impressive, if incomplete, progress in developing its vast oil resources. It has signed 11contracts with international oil companies geared toward increasing production more than four-fold to over 12 million barrels a day — more than Saudi Arabia produces today. Few analysts expect Iraq to reach these levels, because of infrastructure bottlenecks and political obstacles. But most still expect a significant increase in production, and they acknowledge that without it, the global economy could be in trouble.

If lessons from Iraq’s difficult experience help stabilize the region, if Iraq remains one of a rapidly dwindling number of Arab countries willing to cooperate with the United States publicly and privately, and if the development of Iraq’s oil resources help the world avoid another energy crisis, some may recalculate the strategic ledger on the U.S. intervention in Iraq.

These potential strategic contributions make a compelling case for maintaining support for Iraq at a time when most Americans are more than ready to let the Iraqis sink or swim on their own. Iraq no longer needs the enormous volumes of U.S. financial, political and military assistance of the previous eight years. But, as a fragile state whose institutions are still vulnerable, Iraq could benefit greatly from a relatively small, continued investment of resources and time.

While the military component of this investment need not be large, it is critical to shoring up Iraq’s nascent armed forces against extremist threats. And in demonstrating America’s continued interest in Iraq’s trajectory, this assistance would buttress Iraq’s political and security institutions.

The Obama administration and Iraqi leaders are grappling with the question of whether all U.S. forces will leave Iraq by the end of 2011, as stipulated in the current bilateral security agreement. The alternative is a different legal arrangement for a small number of U.S. troops — perhaps 10,000 — to stay and help Iraq’s security forces train and deal with challenges that they still cannot adequately address on their own.

Recent news reports suggest that the Obama administration has already decided to limit the number of American troops it would keep in Iraq to as few as 3,000. This is disheartening on several levels. First, troop numbers should come out of negotiations with the Iraqis over the necessary missions — not as a fiat from Washington based on domestic politics. Second, it is not clear what such a small force could accomplish while still protecting itself. And finally, it calls into question whether the Obama administration really understands the opportunities and imperatives it is presented with in Iraq.

Meghan O’Sullivan served as President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. She is now the Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Former Bush aide Meghan O’Sullivan says Iraq may help stabilize the Middle East — and the global economy