Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin is on a reporting trip to Tunsia and other spots in the middle east. She filed this report.
President Obama has long pledged to get all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011, an end date that President Bush had negotiated with Iraqis. On Friday he announced he'd do just that, making it sound like good news.
But in reality the announcement was a gloss on a negotiating failure. This ending was not what Obama or his military commanders had intended. The Pentagon wanted to leave at least 3,000 to 5,000 as trainers for an Iraqi military that is still far from ready to defend its borders.
That remainder was also meant to symbolize - both to Iran and to Iraqis - that the United States remained firmly invested in Iraqi's future welfare. And Iraqi leaders wanted these trainers to stay. But neither side got what it wanted - which exactly sums up the totality of the Iraq war.
The plan ran aground because U.S. and Iraqi negotiators could not agree on language that exempted U.S. soldiers from prosecution for any misdeeds committed on Iraqi soil. Iraqi leaders refused to endorse immunity because of public anger at previous offenses committed by U.S. contractors, who had no legal check on their actions. Pentagon officials insisted on immunity lest Iraqi politicians backed by Iran try to make difficulties for U.S. soldiers.
It's a shame the two sides could not reach agreement, because Iran is the winner. Moreover, the lack of any U.S. military presence puts more of a burden on the huge number of U.S. civilians who will remain in Iraq, protected by around 5,000 U.S. civilian contractors. It is hard to see how those civilian contractors, mostly ex-U.S. military, will function under the new circumstances.
It's even harder to see how the enormous numbers of embassy personnel will operate, given the hostility of some Iraqi militias to their presence. I wonder if they will have any chance of expanding the broad range of U.S.-Iraqi cultural and economic ties that were envisioned by a Strategic Framework accord we signed in 2008; it will be hard for them to leave their huge embassy without being accompanied by armed guards.
Iran winds up the winner in Iraq - the beneficiary of the failed Bush occupation of the country, which produced a Shiite-led government beholden to Tehran. While Iranians pour into Iraq - as pilgrims, investors, and intelligence agents - the United States will be hamstrung in its efforts to build enduring relations.
This last chapter may be a loss for Obama, but the botched Bush war was a terrible loss for Iraqis, Americans, and the region. The chaos it caused made many Arabs cynical about U.S intentions and competence. It also soured many on democracy, especially if imposed by foreign forces. One reason fifty percent of Syrians still support President Bashar al-Assad is that they fear his fall will lead to the same kind of mayhem they witnessed in Iraq.