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Time to leave Iraq

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President Barack Obama's announcement Friday that American troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year was greeted with jeers in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail from Republicans who said the U.S. was ignominiously bowing to pressure from Iraqi politicians. Ironically, these were many of the same GOP leaders who once hailed former President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, which he cast (at least after the fact) as part of a doctrine of spreading the universal values of democracy and self-determination to the region. But Republicans can't have it both ways. If the democratically elected government we fought so hard to help establish now wants us out, we must respect its decision and leave.

American military leaders would have liked to keep a residual force of up to 18,000 troops in the country past the Dec. 31 deadline for withdrawal set by the Bush administration. Its mission would have been to provide backup for Iraq's fledgling security forces and run counter-terrorism operations the Iraqis lack the capability to mount. Though the White House whittled that number down to 5,000 to 10,000 in negotiations with Iraqi lawmakers, the deal still came apart after the Iraqis refused to grant U.S. personnel immunity in their courts.

Iraqi lawmakers surely knew the issue of immunity was a poison pill the Pentagon would never stomach. But as elected officials, they also knew they needed to respond to popular sentiment among constituents who have grown tired of the U.S. presence and show they were willing to stand up to the Americans. In the new democratic Iraq, as elsewhere, all politics is local.

Granted, the Iraq war was begun under false pretenses — Saddam Hussein never possessed the weapons of mass destruction President Bush claimed as the original rationale for launching the invasion — and for the first three years of the war, the U.S. military strategy was often ill-conceived and poorly executed. Rather than promoting democracy, our presence initially prompted a collapse into civil war and the rise of a vicious al-Qaida affiliate that had never before gained a toehold in the country. It took eight years, more than 4,000 American lives and $1 trillion — and, of course, millions of Iraqis killed, injured or displaced — to enable Iraq's fragile and imperfect democracy to emerge.

Yet, fragile and imperfect as it is, Iraq is capable of standing on its own. In the estimation of U.S. officials, Iraq's army and national police are now strong enough to maintain order in most parts of the country, even if they still can't do some things as well as U.S. forces. They will continue to need help in developing their intelligence capabilities and building an air force. But much of that work can be done by the thousands of American private contractors still in the country and by the token force of 160 or so uniformed personnel who will remain after our combat troops depart. The Obama administration also plans to bring Iraqi officials to the United States for training, or to take advantage of assistance from other allies in the Middle East.

Whether the Iraq invasion had anything to do with the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring that toppled authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya this year is debatable at best. But whatever the cause, Mr. Bush's vision of an emergence of democracy in the region is coming to pass. The besieged regimes of Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, along with the recent death of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, suggest even more transformations may be in store. President Obama's strategy of encouraging democracy movements in the region while avoiding unnecessary U.S. military involvement has actually strengthened our influence there.

Yet the reaction of Mr. Bush's fellow Republicans to President Obama's plan to withdraw from Iraq has hardly been to proclaim "Mission accomplished." Rather, they accuse him of failing to show sufficient resolve by not browbeating or bullying the Iraqis into accepting an open-ended U.S. troop presence there. But that's no way to win friends in the region. Better to simply accept that Iraqis are capable of running their own affairs, even if they make mistakes and there are some things our forces can do better than theirs.

To be sure, a complete withdrawal presents risks to American interests, particularly if Iran once again tries to wield its influence in Iraq. But we dishonor the only positive outcome of our misadventure there if we fail to respect the wishes of Iraq's leaders and people. We'll best serve our own interests as well as theirs if we just leave Iraqis with the message that if they get into a jam and need help, all they have to do is ask.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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