It will take many weeks of coalition building after Sunday's election before we know who rules Iraq, or whether the country will unite or splinter along sectarian fault lines, but for the United States it will mean success or failure. The outcome will shape Iraq's post-America future.
Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group posed the vital, worst-case scenario question. "If you got back to a situation of chaos and of uncontrolled violence in Iraq, would that lead the administration to say we've done our best, it's now up to the Iraqis, we're leaving? Or, on the contrary,'' Malley asked on National Public Radio, "would it persuade the administration that it needs to stay a little bit longer, act a little bit more forcefully?''
Suicide bombings have been on the rise, shaking Iraq's veneer of stability. Most of the vital questions between Sunnis and Shi'ites, and the ever-restless Kurds, such as the division of resources and territory, and the balance of political power, have not yet been answered. There have been hints from the military that the administration might have to delay President Obama's pledge to have all US combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August, followed by a total withdrawal before 2012.
This would be a mistake. The president should stick to his schedule and leave on time. A delay, such as he is making concerning the closing of Guantanamo, would not be in the interest of the United States or Iraq.
It is tempting to think otherwise. Who could not sympathize with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he said no matter what you thought of getting into the war, surely it is wise to insure the best possible outcome.
What difference would it make if American troops stayed just a little longer? Why snatch defeat from the jaws of victory if staying just a few months or a year more would make the difference?
In the first place, the United States has a Status of Forces Agreement on which it would have to renege and renegotiate.
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Secondly, the Iraqis do not want us to stay. But most important of all, it is time for us to take our hands off the bicycle. Iraqis are perfectly capable of plotting their own destiny now. Yes, we broke all the china, but we have owned the china shop long enough now. It is time to give it back to the original Iraqi owners to run.
The present half-in, half-out status is resulting in grotesque situations, such as when American forces are involved in joint arrests with Iraqi forces which the American forces have neither planned nor approved of. The risk of American might being used for domestic political purposes suppressing opponents is all too obvious.
In colonial situations there is always the temptation of the colonizers to think that the great white father knows best, and whatever they do is in the best interest of the colonized. It is almost impossible not to fall into this trap of thinking, and it reaches its most counterproductive state when the colonized people begin to believe it themselves.
Newsweek magazine alluded to this recently. "Many US officials see themselves as the key players who hold everything together, massaging egos and nudging adversaries closer together.'' Some are even revising the withdrawal schedule, the magazine reported.
This attitude may be understandable, but it is destructive because it builds up a sense of dependency that enfeebles the very people we are trying to help.
Newsweek's cover, showing a picture of George W. Bush and the famous "Mission Accomplished'' sign, read: "Victory At Last, the emergence of a democratic Iraq.'' It is a judgment as premature as the sign was back in 2003.
Although the original mission of a democratic Iraq as a light unto nations that would undermine autocracy throughout the Middle East is unlikely, the genie of Iranian influence is not providing a model for Iraq's future, as many feared. "Politics has broken out in Iraq,'' as Vice President Joe Biden said, and, for richer or poorer, the time has come to let Iraqis make their own choices.