President Obama delivers a speech today marking the end of combat operations in Iraq as the number of U.S. troops falls to 50,000 by the end of the month. Politico describes this as “the first steps of a U.S. victory lap on the war.” Meanwhile, Iraq continues to suffer from chronic electricity shortages, terrorists have stepped up their attacks this summer, and, most worrying of all, Iraqi politicos agree there is no chance of a government being formed before the fall. These worrisome trends on the ground shouldn’t obscure the amazing progress that has been made since 2007, but they should warn us against the kind of complacency the administration has fallen prey to in the past.
Having 50,000 troops remain in Iraq for at least another year still gives us considerable leverage to influence events in a more positive direction — if we have smart representatives capable of doing that and if they have the support they need in Washington. General Ray Odierno, the senior military commander (who, unfortunately, is about to depart), has done a tremendous job, but he has been let down by his diplomatic partner, Ambassador Chris Hill, who had never served in the Arab world before being appointed last year and has taken a curiously hands-off attitude toward the Iraqi political process.
The good news is that Hill is on the way out and a more experienced ambassador, Jim Jeffrey, who has served in Iraq before, is due to arrive soon. He is smart enough to bring back a few key staff members from the “Dream Team” that helped General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker manage the surge:
Brett McGurk, an Iraq adviser to then-President George W. Bush who was among the key negotiators of a 2008 bilateral agreement, recently arrived in Baghdad. Sadi Othman, who was Gen. David H. Petraeus’s main interlocutor with Iraqi politicians during the surge, has been asked to return to work for the incoming U.S. commander, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III. Ali Khedery, who was an adviser to then-U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, will work temporarily for the next ambassador, James F. Jeffrey.
General Austin, the new military commander, doesn’t have the same level of experience in Iraq as Odierno, but overall this is a big upgrade of the American presence. Still, it’s not enough to have better representatives on the ground; success in Iraq will also require high-level engagement of the sort that the White House has conducted only intermittently. President Obama needs to pay closer attention and not simply hand Iraq off to Vice President Biden. It is still possible for our hard-won achievements in Iraq to be dissipated if the president is more interested in taking victory laps than in pushing the country forward.