While I was traveling in China, President Obama announced that American troops will soon be withdrawn from Iraq, and the State Department is following suit. The New York Times reports that a number of planned diplomatic missions in Iraq will be scaled back or closed, partially for budgetary and security reasons:
Those plans have now been shelved or indefinitely postponed, and pleas from some Iraqi leaders to open diplomatic offices in the Shiite-dominated south, where Iran wields outsize influence, were summarily rejected.Taken together, the shrinking of the United States’ military and diplomatic ambitions underscores the reality that a post-America Iraq is taking shape more rapidly and completely than many Iraqis and Americans had envisioned. That has heartened many Iraqis and Americans, weary of more than eight years of war and occupation, but left others fearful. […]The discussions over the last year about America’s future role in Iraq, both within the United States government and between the two countries, have laid bare the diminishing ability of the United States to shape outcomes in Iraq, as well as a relative lack of interest in a Congress consumed by domestic issues.“I guess very thoughtful people believe there should be some residual presence in Iraq,” said Mr. Hill, who now runs the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. “But there are many Americans who don’t want to hear the word ‘Iraq’ and are not really behind a continued presence.”
This draw-down emphasizes one of the biggest mistakes of the Iraq endeavor — our failure to engage with the people of Iraq and its civil society. Although the military aspect of the mission were of course important, our goals went far beyond simply defeating Saddam Hussein — we wanted to ensure that his rule would be replaced by a more open society that could benefit both America and the region as a whole.The Bush administration’s poor leadership in getting us into the war and the spectacular error over WMD that tipped the scale for intervention ensured that the war would be a divisive force at home. Worse, the chaos, disarray and bad planning that turned the early stages of the occupation into a dismal mess and opened the door to the bitter Iraqi civil war both embittered and damaged Iraqi society while deepening the gulf between American intellectuals and civil society activists and the Bush administration.Nobody is to blame for this alone, but the result is a terrible loss for the US and for the people of Iraq and the whole Middle East. Our universities and our civil society groups should have jumped into Iraq. Far more Iraqi students should be studying in the US. More Iraqi faculty should be teaching or engaging in research here. If security conditions didn’t permit contact in the country, we should have brought more Iraqis out to mix with international civil society.The Saddam tyranny had cut Iraq’s intellectuals, educators, professionals and journalists off from the world. We could and should have done more about that. This would have helped Iraqis think through the questions they faced in reconstructing their society, but in no way would it have imposed an American agenda on them.Unfortunately, we missed many opportunities to do this. After deposing Saddam, we should have done much more to help Iraqis rebuild the cultural and economic institutions of the country. Above all, we should have done more to promote the non-bureaucratic, people-to-people exchanges and cooperation that over the centuries Americans have done best.True, there were serious security problems with this kind of cooperation. One Team Mead associate was shot four times as he returned from participating in a democracy building program with Iraqi students and there were plenty of other incidents of this kind.These days, the security situation is still dire but more could be done — as the Times article notes, the State Department had ambitious plans for on-the-ground diplomacy in Iraq. Yet this is too little, too late; nearly a decade has passed and opinions on both sides have hardened. Many Iraqis now want Americans out as soon as possible, and many Americans feeling war fatigue and concerned with the situation at home are more than happy to oblige.It is not quite too late; both supporters and opponents of the war should be able to agree that the US ought not walk away from Iraq without doing the best we can to provide the next generation of Iraqis with the educational tools and skills that will help them rebuild their shattered society. Limited as our postwar diplomatic role is likely to be, American institutions and individuals can still do our best to help Iraqis rejoin the world on the best possible terms.It is surely the least we can do.