Obama's frustrating, unfocused speech on Iraq.

Military analysis.
Aug. 31 2010 11:14 PM

Lost in a Muddle

Obama's frustrating, unfocused speech on Iraq.

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Many of the "benchmarks" that President Bush set in January 2007, as indicators of Iraqi progress toward political stability, have also remained unfulfilled. The Iraqi factions have not yet agreed on a formula for sharing oil revenue, moderating de-Baathification, writing a new election law, disbanding militias, or making good on minority quotas in regional elections.

The idea behind these benchmarks was a good one; the problem was that President Bush never enforced them, never used America's leverage to offer rewards and penalties to Iraqi successes and failures. And now that U.S. troops are pulling out (again, at Iraq's insistence and by international law), our leverage is diminishing still further.

In the latest edition of the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam Iraq, dated Aug. 24, Michael O'Hanlon and Ian Livingston write:

The … impasse over the March 2010 parliamentary elections, especially the dispute over barring some 500 candidates (mostly Sunni) from running in that process, has not only jeopardized Iraq's future political progress, but partially reversed recent accomplishments … [and has resulted in] backsliding on several key matters.

The Iraqi "surge," which Bush ordered in 2007 (and which Obama is now trying to emulate in Afghanistan), reduced the violence in Iraq and did what its architect, Gen. David Petraeus, hoped it would do: create a relatively secure space in which Iraq's elites could settle their disputes through politics instead of civil war. The problem is that Iraq's elites haven't taken advantage of the space—haven't settled their disputes—and it's unclear whether they will manage the feat in the near future.

Much as the surge and—at least as important—the counterinsurgency strategy deserve credit for the creation of this secure space, there were other factors at play as well: the Sunnis' own rejection of foreign jihadists the ethnic cleansing of once-mixed districts; the erection of concrete barriers in the middle of large cities, such as Baghdad, to prevent hostile sects from mixing; and the fact that many Iraqis, including some of the most talented (technocrats, doctors, merchants, and so forth), have simply fled their homes—2.7 million to other towns in Iraq and another 2 million to other countries. (Fewer than 5 percent of them have returned.)

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There are hopeful signs, too: a restoration of services, in some cases to prewar levels; a rise in national income; the proliferation of cell phones, satellites, and computers; and an improvement in the quantity, quality, and (judging from local polls) the trustworthiness of the Iraqi military.

Still, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said earlier today in a blunter speech, to the American Legion:

I am not saying that all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq. … Sectarian tensions remain a fact of life. Al-Qaida in Iraq is beaten, but not gone. This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulations, even as we reflect with pride on what our troops and their Iraqi partners have accomplished. We still have a job to do and responsibilities there.

Obama did make a similar point in tonight's speech, though more brightly. "Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny," he said, "even though many challenges remain."