Late in the presidential race, after Senator John McCain suspended his campaign in the wake of the financial crisis, Senator Barack Obama remarked, "A president has to be able to do more than one thing at a time." Indeed, an administration's ability to balance competing demands is essential--especially in conducting effective foreign policy at a time when the nation is involved in two wars. The key foreign policy balancing act that President Obama will have to perform will be preserving security progress in Iraq while drawing down the U.S. military forces there in order to reinforce Afghanistan.
On a recent Iraq visit that included Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra, the security improvements were undeniable. The famed Dora Market in Baghdad was not only open for business--including jewelry shops without visible private security, a clear sign of dramatic change--but were guarded largely by the "Sons of Iraq" local security forces whose members were formerly the backbone of the Sunni insurgency. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) still has a strong toehold in Mosul but is elsewhere on the verge of defeat. The radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has made relatively little noise since the April 2008 battles in Basra and Sadr City, and his once-feared Jaysh al-Mahdi militia is dormant.
The Iraqi military and police have demonstrated increasing competence and decreasing sectarian tendencies. Violence, although still significant, has dropped to its lowest levels in years; there were days during an August 2008 visit when there were no reportable security incidents in all of Baghdad. Two years ago, people were fleeing the city in droves. Today, they are lining up to return home.
However, this is no time for triumphal declarations of victory or rapid pullouts. Iraq will continue to be a foreign policy challenge of the first order for the next administration. Though security gains appear increasingly durable, they must not be taken for granted. The emerging order in Iraq remains fragile, and crucial questions about Iraq's internal security, political system, and relationship with the United States remain unanswered. America has only begun to extricate itself from the Iraq war and "must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in," in the words of President Obama. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan over the past few years was abetted by the Bush administration's decision to focus on Iraq. That mistake might be repeated in reverse if the next administration fails to implement a coherent and cautious strategy to help maintain Iraq's stability while fleeing up the resources desperately needed to succeed in rebuilding Afghanistan.
While in retrospect the United States may not have had compelling reasons to launch its 2003 invasion, it has a clear responsibility to see that the gains it has purchased at such great cost are preserved. America's interest in a stable Middle East requires a stable Iraq. Iraq's near collapse in 2006 would have been dangerous for the entire region. Iraq sits at the heart of the Middle East atop a significant proportion of the world's proven oil reserves, as well as the fault lines between Sunni and Shia Islam, and between Arabs and Kurds. The effects of decades of Saddam Hussein's oppression and the horrific sectarian strife that peaked in late 2006 are still embedded in the fabric of Iraqi society, and they will not wear off any time soon. Iraq will not become a safe, model democratic state or a choice vacation destination in the short term. It will most likely remain, as Ambassador Ryan Crocker described it, "a traumatized society" for some time to come.
The path to further progress on reconciliation and development in Iraq is likely to be slow and filled with setbacks. Iraq's minister of foreign affairs, Hoshyar Zebari, once remarked that "the Shia are afraid of the past, the Sunnis are afraid of the future, and the Kurds are afraid of both the past and the future." American forces have effectively served as shock absorbers in these ethno-sectarian conflicts, but despite improved security, the Iraqi national government and local authorities have yet to make significant strides toward overcoming major political differences between the various groups and establishing a sustainable order.
In northern Iraq, American commanders continue to fight hard to clear AQI remnants. United States military officials described their efforts there as still in the "Clear" phase of the classic "Clear, Hold, Build" counterinsurgency strategy. Between running gun-battles in the streets of Mosul against what is left of AQI, they are working to keep the peace between Kurds and Arabs and prevent violent clashes between the forces of the national...