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Turning the Page in Iraq

A Necessary Step to Rebalance America’s Global Strategy

SOURCE: AP/Susan Walsh

President Barack Obama listens as Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during a news conference in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington on December 12, 2011. As the last of our troops pull out of Iraq, the administration needs to stay focused on lingering concerns in the country and the region.

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See also: U.S.-Iraq Relations Enter a New Era by Peter Juul and The Iraq War Ledger by Matthew Duss and Peter Juul

President Barack Obama continues the process of getting America’s priorities right on national security by overseeing the withdrawal of the last of our troops in Iraq this month. But his administration needs to stay focused on lingering concerns in the country and the region. The United States should help shape Iraq’s future role in the Middle East and it should offer necessary support to the Iraqis who risked their lives working with America.

Time to move on

If you want a preview of the debates likely to occur over the upcoming days about the Obama administration’s policy decisions on Iraq, listen to this program from a few weeks ago on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.” Legendary journalists Ted Koppel and Bob Woodward and retired Gen. Jack Keane criticized President Obama for “giving up” in Iraq and letting Iran “win.” But listeners who called into the show—all Iraq war veterans—held the opposite view: They agreed that America did what it could for Iraq and it was time to move on to other challenges in the world.

Most of America has moved on from Iraq. According to this recent poll the vast majority of Americans (90 percent) says that the United States either achieved its goals in Iraq (50 percent) or would not achieve its goals in Iraq no matter how long we stayed (40 percent).

But the disconnect displayed on “Talk of the Nation” between the Beltway and the rest of the country—as well as the split between the pundits who call for wars with no end in sight and those who served in the trenches of those wars—has become a common feature in America’s national security politics.

President Obama is helping close the chapter on one of the most acrimonious and divisive debates in our country’s history by bringing some closure to the Iraq war. The president is also leading the country in an effort to rebalance its priorities overseas and at home. If the United States had remained overinvested in Iraq as many of the Obama administration’s critics argued, it would have presented great opportunity costs for the United States on many other fronts in the world, including Asia and the broader Middle East.

This rebalancing of the U.S. national security agenda—previewed nearly two years ago when the Obama administration released its national security strategy in 2010—is a necessary step for restoring America’s power and credibility in the world. For far too many years the United States was stuck in the alleyways of Iraq and as a result lost sight of the wider trends in the world.

Staying engaged in Iraq

But as the United States shifts from being overinvested in Iraq and rebalances to focus on broader challenges in the world, it needs to strike the right balance and deal with some unfinished business in Iraq and the region.

As my Center for American Progress colleague Peter Juul argues in this article, the Obama administration should plan to offer long-term assistance to Iraq on several fronts. Even though the war is coming to a close, the United States needs to continue to invest in diplomatic and security cooperation efforts to shape Iraq’s emerging role as a leader in the region.

The United States also has a moral obligation to address the challenges faced by thousands of Iraqis whose lives are currently threatened due to their work and affiliation with the United States since 2003. Several analysts and advocates, including George Packer of The New Yorker, Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Kirk Johnson of The List Project have called attention to this problem. I co-authored this CAP policy report in 2009 with suggestions and research on previous examples of the United States intervening to help allies endangered by security conditions in their particular countries.

The Obama administration hasn’t implemented a comprehensive and effective policy to address these lingering security threats for some of the United States’ closest allies inside of Iraq—those who risked their lives as translators, advisers, and partners in the U.S. efforts there.

The Obama administration is taking the right strategic step in Iraq—one I personally called for and supported for several years. It is a necessary step for U.S. national security interests. But as the our country continues to shift its policies it needs to help shape Iraq’s future role in the region and offer necessary support to Iraqi allies who put their lives on the line while working with the United States.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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