Iraq and the spin cycle

It will be interesting to see the gloss put on the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq by President Obama in his Oval Office address tomorrow night.

Let’s face it, the Democrats are in an election cycle and the president will repeat that he has kept his election promise to end the combat mission in Iraq by the end of August 2010 and to pull out U.S. soldiers by the end of next year.

But as the respected Iraq analyst Anthony Cordesman has pointed out in a recent post for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “The Iraq War is not over and it is not ‘won.’ ”

If President Obama does not want to commit the same strategic error as his predecessor, George W. Bush, who shifted forces from Afghanistan to Iraq, leaving a vacuum for the resurgent Taliban, he should tread carefully when considering the exit strategy from Iraq. Although the “advise and assist” role for the 50,000 remaining U.S. troops looks like an exercise in re-branding rather than a substantive change, the Obama administration should be wary of drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq to suit the domestic electoral calendar.

Iraq bears the scars of unintended consequences: The 2003 war deposed a feared dictator but saw the role of Iran reinforced; the constitution enshrined ethnic rights but revived sectarian tensions. Six months after elections, it still does not have a government. Corruption remains endemic, and al Qaeda in Iraq has demonstrated renewed vigor in recent weeks. The country still has no air force worthy of the name, and the Iraqi military commander, Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, is pleading with the U.S. to keep its forces there for another 10 years until the Iraqi army is able to defend the nation.

These are serious issues that should be weighed against the perils of occupation, which left 4,400 U.S. soldiers dead and 32,000 wounded. America has spent $750 billion on the war since 2003 and built the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, which should be indication enough of Washington’s long-term intentions. It is to be hoped that President Obama will be frank with the American people tomorrow night and not shy from confronting reality in the name of an election promise.

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