President Obama should not bow to the Beltway voices urging him to keep U.S. troops longer in Iraq.
At a speech at West Point on Saturday, May 22, Obama said: "We are poised to end our combat mission in Iraq this summer." His statement, which the cadets greeted with applause, is a reaffirmation of his pledge to have all U.S. combat forces leave Iraq by Aug. 31. Any remaining armed forces are required to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 in accordance with the binding bilateral Security Agreement, also referred to as the Status of Forces Agreement.
But Washington pundits are still pushing Obama to delay or cancel the U.S. disengagement, calling on him to be "flexible" and take into consideration the recent spike of violence in Iraq. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed and injured during the last few months in what seems to be an organized campaign to challenge U.S. plans.
While most Iraqis would agree that Iraq is still broken, delaying or canceling the U.S. troop removal will definitely not be seen as "flexibility," but rather as a betrayal of promises. Iraqis believe that prolonging the military occupation will not fix what the occupation has damaged, and they don't think that extending the U.S. intervention will protect them from other interventions. The vast majority of Iraqis see the U.S. military presence as a part of the problem, not the solution.
Linking the U.S. withdrawal to conditions on the ground creates an equation by which further deterioration in Iraq will automatically lead to prolonging the U.S. military presence. Some of the current Iraqi ruling parties want the U.S. occupation to continue because they have been benefiting from it. Some regional players, including the Iranian government, do not want an independent and strong Iraq to re-emerge. And other groups, including Al Qaeda, would gladly see the United States stuck in the current quagmire, losing its blood, treasure and reputation.
Connecting the pullout to the prevalent situation would be an open invitation to those who seek an endless war to sabotage Iraq even further, and delaying it will send the wrong message to them. By contrast, adhering to the current time-based plan would pull the rug from under their feet and allow Iraqis to stabilize their nation, a process that may take many years but that cannot begin as long as Iraq's sovereignty is breached by foreign interventions.
If the Obama administration reneges on its plans, it will effectively reward those responsible for the bloodshed and further embolden them. Such a decision would most likely have serious ramifications for the security of U.S. troops in Iraq, and will impede the security and political progress in the country.
And delaying the U.S. pullout will not only harm the U.S. image around the world, which Obama has been trying hard to improve, but it will also be the final blow to U.S. credibility in Iraq. The mere promise of a complete withdrawal has boosted Iraqi domestic politics and enhanced the U.S. perception in the country.
Unless Obama delivers on his promises, many of these achievements will be lost, and Iraq will be sent back to square one.