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Looking ahead as U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq behind

On Friday, Pres­i­dent Obama announced the United States would with­draw all of its troops from Iraq by the end of the year, ending the war in Iraq that lasted nearly nine years. We asked polit­ical sci­ence pro­fessor Denis Sul­livan, director of Northeastern’s Middle East Center for Peace, Cul­ture and Devel­op­ment, to offer insight on what fac­tors may have influ­enced this turn of events and the poten­tial global impact of this final withdrawal.

The war in Iraq has been ongoing for the last nine years. What circumstances — global or domestic — may have influenced Obama’s decision to finally withdraw U.S. forces?

I see at least three fac­tors guiding Pres­i­dent Obama’s deci­sion to with­draw forces. First, there are his per­sonal views. In 2002 and 2003, Obama was against the war in Iraq, even as Pres­i­dent Bush was trying to make the case for it. As Obama cam­paigned for pres­i­dent in 2007 and 2008, he “pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a respon­sible end.”  Now he is ful­filling that pledge.

Second, the Status of Forces Agree­ment (SOFA) — which Bush nego­ti­ated in 2008 prior to leaving office — called for this very thing: the with­drawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by December 31, 2011. How­ever, this agree­ment was being rene­go­ti­ated between Iraq and the United States, and there was a chance that its terms could be changed, keeping some troops in Iraq past Jan­uary 2012. With Friday’s announce­ment, we now know that the SOFA agree­ment stands.

A third factor in Obama’s deci­sion is the con­tin­uing costs of the war. Not only has America sus­tained more than 4,400 sol­diers killed in Iraq and another 32,200 seri­ously wounded, but also, as of today, Amer­ican tax­payers have been sad­dled with a nearly one tril­lion dollar price tag for the Iraq war, with an addi­tional $2 tril­lion of future com­mit­ments, debt pay­ments and oppor­tu­nity costs. This $3 tril­lion war might soon be over from an oper­a­tional point of view, but there is much more to be done beyond this crit­ical withdrawal.

What will be the global response to the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq?

The United States’ allies will sup­port our country and the Iraqi gov­ern­ment; our adver­saries will say we were forced out. Those who are nei­ther enemy nor friend will likely focus on the pos­i­tive devel­op­ment for the people of Iraq, who have lost more than 115,000 cit­i­zens, in addi­tion to thou­sands of sol­diers since our inva­sion and occu­pa­tion in 2003. Many people around the world will prob­ably give high marks to Obama for ending the direct role of the U.S. mil­i­tary in Iraqi affairs. Hope­fully, world atten­tion, and espe­cially Amer­ican atten­tion, will now shift back to Afghanistan, with the goal of the United States with­drawing from that shat­tered country as well.

What impact will this withdrawal have on U.S. relations with Iraq and the Middle East?

A com­plete troop with­drawal from Iraq by December will make an enor­mous and pos­i­tive impact on our rela­tions both with Iraq and other nations in the Arab world, and poten­tially even Iran. With no U.S. troops in Iraq, there will be no phys­ical tar­gets (Amer­ican men and women in uni­form; bases; joint U.S.-Iraqi secu­rity oper­a­tions) for extremist or mil­i­tant ele­ments that want to use anti-​​Americanism for their own agendas.  It also makes the polit­ical state­ment that America is no longer an occu­pying power.  More­over, with no U.S. mil­i­tary per­sonnel of any kind in Iraq, it sends the signal that we have reversed a dev­as­tating deci­sion and are seeking a new rela­tion­ship with both Iraq and the region as a whole. This is a most timely devel­op­ment as the United States and the world con­tinue to watch devel­op­ments of the “Arab Spring” or “Arab rev­o­lu­tions.” Per­haps now we can stop the direct med­dling in Arab cit­izen move­ments, sup­port them from the side­lines and work with them as part­ners as they reform their own polit­ical sys­tems and seek to grow their economies. America is better posi­tioned now, with Pres­i­dent Obama’s announce­ment, to be that eco­nomic partner and polit­ical ally.

– by Lauren Dibble

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