Obama Should Listen to Iraqis, Not Lecture Them

If Obama just asked Iraqis on his flying visit, he would find they think the US is part of the problem and should leave them to it

Sandstorms are unpredictable, but in the case of Barack Obama's rushed trip to Iraq
the one that hit Baghdad just as he was landing on Tuesday afternoon
was highly unfortunate. US officials were forced to cancel the
president's helicopter flight to the Green Zone to meet Iraqi leaders.

sensibly, they decided not to allow Obama to travel the roughly
eight-mile journey by road. Their decision illustrated just how
insecure the Iraqi capital remains in spite of considerable
improvements in the last two years. It also meant that Iraq's prime
minister and president had to take the risk of going to see the foreign
visitor rather than the other way round.

The Obama trip had been
designed to draw a contrast with George W Bush's several unannounced
visits mainly consisted of talking to US troops. It was also meant to
convey an image that Iraq was now a sovereign rather than an occupied
and client country. Instead, the truncated four-hour visit's message
was that little had changed in US-Iraqi relations.

initial view of the need to invade Iraq was, of course, different from
Bush's. During the election campaign he tossed aside the Bush/Blair
mantra that there should be "no artificial timetable" for withdrawing
foreign troops. He gave a clear promise that combat troops would leave
within 16 months. But Bush was forced to change his line last autumn
thanks to growing confidence on the part of Iraq's prime minister,
Nouri al Maliki, and mounting pressure from the Iraqi parliament. They
persuaded Bush to sign an agreement for troops to leave Iraq's cities
by July this year, and to leave Iraq altogether by the end of 2011.

when Obama took office he inherited a US policy that was not so
different from what he had had been advocating. Where there has been
change, it tends to go in the opposite direction. While broadly
sticking to his promise to pull combat troops out in 16 months (the
date of August 2010 he now favours is actually 18 months), he has
raised serious doubts about sticking to the 2011 deadline. Now he
suggests some US forces may stay after that time, for training or
counter-terrorism purposes.

More worryingly, Obama is
increasingly adopting a narrative of the US presence that sounds like
the Bush version. US troops, Bush always used to say, are in Iraq to
defend democracy and provide security until the Iraqis are ready to
step up to the plate. Obama now says the same, and expresses concern
that as US troops start to leave Iraq violence may resume. It's
comforting and paternalistic stuff, designed to paint a picture of
neutral peacekeepers nobly holding the ring until the natives grow up
or come to their senses.

Undoubtedly, Obama has a difficult role
to perform as commander in chief. It's hardly to be expected that he
would tell US troops to their face at the optimistically named Baghdad
airport headquarters Camp Victory that they have been risking their
lives for nothing. But he could have hinted that while most soldiers
did their duty with professionalism and discipline, the political
leaders who sent them there were mistaken and ill-informed.

the same token, it makes domestic political sense for Obama to say he
wants to conduct the US withdrawal "in a responsible fashion". But he
should not fall for the Bush-style argument that "I have a
responsibility to make sure that, as we bring troops out, we do so in a
careful enough way that we don't see a complete collapse into violence"
- the phrase he used to students in Istanbul shortly before flying to

Why doesn't Obama consult Iraqi opinion? The latest
poll, by the BBC and ABC in February, shows that nothing has changed in
the longstanding majority view that the occupation forces (British as
much as the Americans) have not been a bastion of security. They have
been the problem more than the solution. Sixty-nine per cent said they
had "done a bad job". Forty-six per cent think they should leave Iraq
before the end of 2011, while 35% said the timetable is right. Less
than 20% want them to stay longer. One reason is that Iraqis by a 53%
majority view the US as still running the country. Another is that 59%
already think Iraqi forces are capable of providing sufficient security.

is true that sectarian tensions and violence between Sunnis and Shias
still exist in Iraq (a phenomenon that was insignificant during
Saddam's era and the previous two or three decades). It is also the
case that clashes between the Sunni Awakening Councils and the
Shia-dominated army and police have recently broken out, largely
because of a hasty government policy of disbanding the councils, many
of whom earlier led the anti-US resistance.

But the Iraqi public,
and the main parties in parliament, express confidence that violence
can be contained. On Tuesday Obama told US troops rather haughtily that
it was "time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their country". He
should listen rather than lecture. Iraqis have been trying to give the
US that very message for quite some time.

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