The American people want this war to end, and he wins credit, fairly or not, for following through on his promise to end it. And if Iraq descends into chaos and civil war, or if Iran somehow manages to consolidate power over its restive neighbor, Obama can claim, justifiably, that these things wouldn’t have happened had people listened to him in 2002. But he doesn’t have to say it. Others will say it for him. Nearly every news story reporting on this week’s events have reminded viewers, listeners and readers that the president opposed this war. That one fact translates to a relatively favorable perception of the president’s handling of foreign policy, generally.It's easy to worry about Iraq if you saw Ted Koppel's inaugural report for NBC's "Rock Center" last week. Some 16,000 Americans are staying behind in our fortress embassy and consulates, keeping an eye on both Iraq and Iran. The terrorist threat remains acute. Cleric Moktada al-Sadr, allied with his fellow Shi'ites in Iran, promises that his militiamen will be gunning for Americans. Koppel's report makes clear that you need an advance team and two motorcades to go out for a pack of cigarettes.
Will the Iraqis protect our personnel against the dozen or more insurgent groups that are intent on tearing down the country's fragile government? Can Iraq's Shi'ites, Sunni, and Kurds figure out how to coexist and collaborate? Most analysts sound pessimistic.
Analysts are, of course, changeable. Most sounded giddily optimistic during the Arab spring. We were assured that the region's secular-minded young people were using Facebook and Twitter to grasp for democracy, inspired neither by the U.S. project in Iraq nor the lure of Islamism. As the year ends, the picture isn't so clear. "The Economist" and New York Times counsel readers not to panic as the Muslim Brotherhood and more extremist Islamists win a majority of seats in Egypt's unfolding parliamentary elections.
Pro-democracy advocate Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, counsels patience:
Nothing is instantaneous in politics. To think of elections as a panacea, let alone a sure road to real democracy, is to evince a failure of historical imagination. The proper role of the free world is not to encourage or to stop elections. Its role should be to formulate, and to stick by, a policy of incremental change based on creating the institutions that will lead ineluctably to pressure for more and more representative forms of government. The free world should place its bet on freedom — the hope and demand of Tahrir Square — and work toward a civil society defined by that value.
That sounds more or less like what George W. Bush tried to achieve in Iraq. History's judgement about whether he was right to do so by force of arms, in a war that left 4,500 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis dead, still depends to a considerable extent on the condition in which history finds Iraq in a quarter-century. For now, maybe advocates of a form of Arab democracy in which sectarianism takes a back seat should take another look at what the U.S. and Iraqis have tried to accomplish. Obama didn't support the war, and Preble is probably right that his political fortunes wouldn't be harmed if Iraq foundered after a decent interval. How much better for everyone -- both U.S. presidents and especially Iraq -- if it didn't.