Monday, October 24, 2011

The Beginning of Wisdom?

After decades of Saddam's iron grip and 8 years of a major American military presence, Iraqis can be forgiven for wanting--against their better sense--to be truly on their own:

For the first time in decades, Iraqis face a future on their own, with neither Saddam Hussein's iron fist nor the United States' military might to hold them together. This has been both their dream and nightmare: They wanted American troops (the occupiers) to go, but they wanted American troops (the protectors) to stay.

Iraqis know they need us. But they fear trading one ruler who controls them for another. So fine, Iraq is proving they can tell us to go. And we are proving that we stay only when asked (as we say is our policy). I hoped our announcement of final departure would trigger some second thoughts on being eager for us to go. It would be one thing if our departure meant that Iraq was truly free of foreign influence.

But Iran, Syria, the Sunni Arab world, and al Qaeda wreck that happy fantasy. We broke their backs but they didn't take defeat as permanent and seek to bounce back. Perhaps the many Iraqis who did want us to stay but were too timid to defend our role will be emboldened by our imminent departure to persuade the rest that our influence--a positive one of rebuilding and creating democracy--can counter all the other influences that seek to break apart a prosperous and democratic Iraq before it can really get started.

We have time before the end of the year arrives. And the Iraqis even have time after that to correct the error before it can be fatal. I just hope that if the Iraqis ask us to stay, that President Obama will be willing to walk back his triumphant withdrawal statements in the middle of a reelection campaign.

UPDATE: The signs of fear are there already:

The speaker of Iraq's parliament on Monday accused neighboring nations of meddling in Iraqi affairs and signaled it will only get worse if the country is seen as vulnerable after U.S. troops leave at the end of the year.

And our Secretary of Defense is reminding people that even post-withdrawal, we have a lot of power in the region (as I've noted):

Speaking to reporters in Bali, Indonesia, Panetta noted that an estimated 40,000 U.S. troops will be stationed across the Mideast even after the Iraq withdrawal, including about 23,000 in neighboring Kuwait.

"So we will always have a force that will be present and that will deal with any threats from Iran," Panetta said.

Of course, I also want our troops inside Iraq to set limits on how Iraqi factions maneuver for power. Our troops provide a comfort level that nobody can afford to resort to arms to settle political differences. That's what Panetta needs to fear about our departure.

Let's hope wisdom follows.