Commentary: Obama's got good options in Iraq

The independent correspondent Michael Yon was in Baghdad late last week. He couldn’t believe the change.

"The war is over, and we won," he told Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who blogs at Instapundit.com.

In a phone call, Yon said he was with the 10th Mountain Division in south Baghdad, once a very bad part of Iraq. His report: The troops he accompanied had yet to fire their weapons on their current tour. Amazing.

It will be interesting to see what the new president does with this. Just last summer, despite the obvious success of the surge, Barack Obama was still stuck in late 2006. We have "no good options" in Iraq, he said.

Soon he will be the president and thanks to George W. Bush's determination not to lose a war, Obama will have quite a few good options. I wouldn't go so far as Yon and say categorically this war is over. It seems too either-or.

Things will be blowing up in Baghdad for some time. Indeed, the pace of suicide bombings has been on the rise in recent weeks. The tensions between Shiite and Sunni haven’t entirely vanished. And corruption, a very old problem in that part of the world, is increasing.

The New York Times reports that the Iraqis have been systematically firing auditing officials installed earlier by the U.S. occupation to root out self-dealing among government officials.

Despite these difficulties, it’s clear a stable, legitimate, democratic government has been established, one increasingly able to handle its own security and demanding to handle its own affairs in general.

Under a security agreement approved last week by the Iraqi Cabinet, U.S. troops must withdraw from urban areas by next summer and from the country as a whole in three years. The agreement must now be approved by the Iraqi Parliament.

Will Obama attempt to accelerate the withdrawal schedule? This is the vital question. Very soon, Iraq won't be Bush’s problem anymore. It will be Obama's, and any unraveling of the security gains obtained so far will be his responsibility.

The fact is, for all Iraq's difficulties, Bush has handed off a foreign-policy problem whose crisis is past. Iraq is now well along on the road to improvement. Obama's choice is whether to build on that success or fulfill the fantasies of the Netroots and demand an accelerated withdrawal schedule, despite the logistical difficulties that would entail.

Those difficulties came into clearer focus last week. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that removing the entire force could take two to three years. Obama has said he would like to see U.S. troops out in 16 months.

I wouldn't be surprised, however, if some substantial number of U.S. troops remain in Iraq well beyond the three-year deadline. Nothing would prevent the Iraqi government from making such a request if circumstances dictate, and the pattern of other U.S. deployments has been longer-than-expected stays.

Some deployments, as in Korea or Germany, have gone on for decades.

In 1995, troops were sent to Bosnia on a peacekeeping mission. They were supposed to stay for one year. Only recently were they sent home.

But as Yon noted, the direct combat role of U.S. troops in Iraq has radically diminished. Next summer our troops will withdraw from the urban areas altogether. They'll be available for backup missions, but Iraqis will be handling most of the security work.

In January, Iraqis will vote in provincial elections, further deepening the habit of democracy.

Will Obama seize the opportunity to develop a stable, moderate state in the Middle East, or squander it?

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