|REVIEW & OUTLOOK|
July 9, 2008; Page A14
A year ago, the conventional Beltway wisdom had it
that Iraq was a failed state. Today, the same wisdom holds that it is
less chaotic but still fragile, dependent entirely on a U.S. presence
to survive. But judging by recent comments from Nouri al-Maliki, even
this view may be out of date.
Addressing Arab ambassadors in Abu Dhabi on Monday,
the Iraqi prime minister made headlines by saying his government was
"looking at the necessity of terminating the foreign presence on Iraqi
lands and restoring full sovereignty." Mr. Maliki has also been playing
hardball with the Bush Administration in concluding a status-of-forces
agreement by the end of the year, when the current U.N. mandate
authorizing the U.S. presence in Iraq expires.
Mr. Maliki's comments are an assertion of confidence
in his country's stability – and not without cause. Fully nine of
Iraq's 18 provinces are now under domestic security control. Al Qaeda
is being smoked out of its last urban refuge in Mosul. The Iraqi army
has performed with increasing skill and confidence against Moqtada
al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which has also been ousted from its urban
strongholds. Iraq will take in some $70 billion in oil revenue this
year. T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oil magnate, told us yesterday that
Iraq could double its current production, to five million barrels a
day, in coming years.
More important, Iraq seems to have been able to
consolidate the security gains achieved by the surge, even as the last
of the surge brigades deployed in 2007 are now returning to the U.S.
That makes further reductions in U.S. force levels look increasingly
plausible, a further validation of President Bush's "return on success"
Mr. Maliki's comments were also designed for domestic
Iraqi political consumption – another sign of that country's robust
democratic debate. With elections scheduled for the autumn, Mr. Maliki
wants to show he's nobody's pawn, especially not America's. The
Sadrists continue to play the nationalist card, even as they are
themselves pawns of Iran. The rise of Iraqi nationalism is inevitable
and largely welcome as a unifying national force. Remember all of those
who said an Iraqi Shiite government would merely be a tool of Iran?
The Prime Minister is also making it clear to his Arab
neighbors that his government is not about to collapse. Apparently,
they believe him: Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have
announced plans to break the Arab diplomatic embargo of Iraq and return
their ambassadors to Baghdad; the UAE has also forgiven $7 billion of
Iraqi debt. Perhaps Saudi Arabia and Egypt will follow.
The significant question now is the pace and extent of
any U.S. withdrawal, and the nature of any long-term U.S. military
presence. Despite Mr. Maliki's comments, Iraqi National Security
Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie was quick to add that the call for a
timetable for U.S. withdrawal was "conditioned on the ability of Iraqi
forces to provide security," according to the Associated Press. In
other words, Mr. Maliki is not endorsing the Barack Obama agenda of
immediate U.S. withdrawal starting on January 20.
Our view is that Iraq and Mr. Maliki would benefit
from striking a security agreement this year while Mr. Bush is still in
office. Despite Iraq's impressive security gains, Iran can still do
plenty of mischief through its "special group" surrogates. The U.S. can
help deter Iranian trouble, especially with Iraq elections scheduled
for this year and next.
Inside Iraq, a significant long-term U.S. presence
would also increase the confidence of Iraq's various factions to make
political compromises. And outside, it would improve regional stability
by giving the U.S. a presence in the heart of the Middle East that
would deter foreign adventurism. This is the kind of strategic benefit
that the next Administration should try to consolidate in Iraq after
the hard-earned progress of the last year.
Our sense is that, with the exception of the Sadrists,
all of Iraq's main political factions want the U.S. to remain in some
significant force. Iraq is now a democracy, however, and perhaps as
their confidence grows the Maliki government and Iraq public opinion
will think differently. But that kind of withdrawal timetable should be
mutual – and not imposed by a new U.S. President acting as if the Iraq
he'll inherit in 2009 is the same as the Iraq of 2006. That would mean
U.S. forces could be withdrawn with honor, and in victory.
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