A Dicey Moment

President Obama has been pragmatic and prudent on Iraq. But let's not spend too much time celebrating transitions just yet.

President Obama has done a good job to date on Iraq policy. But he needs to be very careful in his speech Tuesday night. Technically, he did not necessarily fulfill his campaign promise on the Iraq War, and so it is important for him not to overstate that point. That, however, is a relatively minor issue, since he arguably has fulfilled the spirit of his campaign pledges so far. The crux of the matter is that, for him, the hard work on Iraq is actually happening right now. So, it is a dicey moment to spend too much time looking backward or celebrating transitions, even if some of that is warranted and appropriate.

First, a word on campaign promises. Before becoming president, Mr. Obama said he would have all the US combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months—though sometimes he also spoke of an even faster schedule, since he would occasionally state that he intended to pull out one to two combat brigades per month (and there were 15 in the country when he was inaugurated). In fact, after 19 months of the Obama presidency, we still have five brigades and 50,000 troops in the country, with their full suites of weaponry. They have been redesignated as advise and assist brigades, but their composition and their capabilities still have 85 to 90 percent overlap with traditional combat units. And they will continue to go on joint patrols, man joint checkpoints with Iraqis and otherwise continue many of the tasks that they were carrying out before. Also, in the absence of a peace treaty or ceasefire accord, we do not really get to decide here in Washington when combat is over.

All that said, Mr. Obama and his administration, most notably Vice President Biden, have been impressive on this issue. They adopted a careful version of a troop drawdown (I see all the above deviations from the actual campaign promises as good, not bad, because they demonstrate pragmatism and prudence). They steered Iraqis through a difficult election process this past winter with diligent behind-the-scenes diplomacy. They are building up a strong civilian-led mission for September 1 and onwards. And they have been working hard this spring and summer, albeit without success to date, to encourage the Iraqis to form a new coalition government.

But we have at least two serious problems, one smaller and one bigger, that now require more American attention. The first is that pulling all of our remaining troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011, as presently required under a U.S.-Iraqi understanding negotiated by President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki in late 2008, seems too risky. There are still too many unhealed sectarian wounds in Iraq, and too many unresolved issues like the territorial disputes in and around Kirkuk between Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs in Iraq’s north. Our calming presence is useful, as Iraqis themselves agreed in a recent poll by a considerable margin, and there is no military or strategic need to rush for the exits.

Alas, any renegotiation of that December 31, 2011 date requires a new Iraqi government—and there is no sign of one emerging. That is the second and bigger serious problem. Much of the challenge is due to a constitutional conundrum that we helped create. Iraq’s presidency is too weak, and is also up for grabs right now. Because it is weak, neither Mr. Allawi nor Mr. Maliki sees it as an acceptable consolation prize in their pursuits of the prime ministership. Because it is up for grabs, the Iraqi president cannot discipline the political process as parties seek to form a governing coalition. For example, he cannot give each major party two to three weeks to form a coalition, before retracting the offer and sequentially moving to the next party in the queue—as might happen in a different type of parliamentary system.

My colleague Ken Pollack recommends making the Iraqi president commander in chief of the security forces by constitutional review. That makes sense to me. If the constitution could be revised in the same voting process that codified a new coalition government, and accorded the presidency to whichever top Iraqi leader did not become prime minister, we might have a solution. Another approach, if the above proves too ambitious, is to create a “friends of Iraq” contact group that could temporarily (perhaps under UN auspices) play the role of referee in the coalition formation process temporarily—not because Iraqis are inherently incapable of doing so, but because we saddled them with an electoral system that is in need of emergency repair to get through this current growing crisis.

Either way the U.S. role is crucial. Whether Mr. Obama can get into such details in his speech or not, I hope the administration is starting to think in these kinds of terms.

Michael O’Hanlon is coauthor with Ian Livingston of the Iraq Index at www.brookings.edu/iraqindex.