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Event report: Ending the Iraq War and Strengthening U.S. National Security



March 16, 2012

This event, Ending the Iraq War and Strengthening U.S. National Security, took place at the Center for American Progress on March 16.

Before introducing the keynote speaker, Rudy deLeon, Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy at CAP, briefly outlined how the end of the Iraq War has strengthened overall U.S. national security. It has allowed us to dedicate more resources to the fight against Al Qaeda, it has restored military readiness, and it has expanded our options to face other Middle Eastern threats. According to deLeon, the end of the war has also reduced the financial burden on defense spending and rebalanced U.S. national security overall. deLeon quoted President Obama from a speech the president gave in Fort Bragg, N.C.: “It’s harder to end a war than to begin one.” The U.S. has successfully removed all troops from Iraq, as promised; deLeon called this an “extraordinary achievement…nearly nine years in the making.”

Antony Blinken, deputy assistant to President Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, spoke of today’s Iraq as a place that is less violent, more democratic, and more prosperous than in recent times. Additionally, the United States is more deeply engaged there now than at any time in history. Obama and Biden came to office with a commitment to ending the war responsibly; a commitment that is twofold in meaning. “Ending the war responsibly” has not only involved bringing troops home after nearly a decade of war, but meant helping Iraqis build a “sovereign, stable, self-reliant country with a representative government that could become a partner in the region and not a safe haven for terrorists.” It has been nine years since the start of the Iraq War, and in the last three years, violence in Iraq has declined to historic lows, even after the U.S. completed its withdrawal of its troops.

Blinken also touched on the present and future relationship between Iraq and Iran. He believes that Iraq and Iran will become more entwined than the U.S. would have liked. Still, he stated that one thing we have learned from more than eight years in Iraq is that the vast majority of its leaders, including Prime Minister al-Maliki, are first and foremost Iraqi nationalists, and resistant to outside influences, including Iran. Baghdad repeatedly has acted contrary to Iran’s interests, including with the “support for the Arab League and UN general assembly resolution on Syria, its pressure on Iranian militants to dramatically reduce attacks, and the patience that it has thus far shown despite reputed pressure from Tehran during efforts to relocate the MEK residents of Camp Ashraf.” Many countries have stopped doing business with Iran and there is talk of outside military threats against the nation. The U.S. is employing a strategy for dealing with Iran; diplomacy backed by increasing pressure on Iran to succeed, but preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Blinken believes that given Iraq’s traumatic and very recent past that nearly tore the country apart, “discounting its progress toward a more normal political existence means turning a blind eye toward the facts.” Going forward, we have made many investments that will help us to fulfill our goal of maintaining a close strategic partnership in Iraq. The Strategic Framework Agreement has given us the resources to ensure international cooperation in a variety of spheres. The U.S. has provided Iraq with military resources to protect itself from external threats and has funded the Iraqi government’s anti-corruption, providing training on anti-corruption bodies. The U.S. has also helped build an Iraqi museum, helped preserve the historic site of Babylon, and assisted in the conservation of Iraqi antiquities. Blinken said that the U.S. hopes to bring 3,000 Iraqi students to the U.S. to study on Iraqi scholarships. Last, for the first time since 1988, the U.S. participated in the Baghdad International Trade Fair. The United States now seeks a normal relationship with Iraq, based on common interests and a common goal for a better future.

Blinken discussed regional immigration as a key strategy for Iraq and integration into its region. Blinken described Iraq as being “frozen out” in the past, but its relationship with other Middle Eastern countries is now starting to thaw. Saudi Arabia has created an ambassador to Iraq, and Iraq has sent some of its senior officials to Saudi Arabia. Jordan and Kuwait are also starting to engage with Iraq. Blinken hopes to see further progress with an oil law that will decide allocation of resources. The lack of a law continues to create tension and uncertainty for potential investors. Still, the U.S. will continue to work closely with Iraq to improve their oil production and protect their investments. Blinken sees the upcoming Arab League summit that is scheduled to take place in Baghdad as a “remarkable development.”

Blinken noted that Iraq has been divided by sect and ethnicity in the past. These sectarian and ethnic tensions have led to violence, but that is not the case today. There has been a dramatic decrease in violence within Iraq and between Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. Iraqis do not abandon the political process, but rather, they use it to resolve their differences, nationally and internationally, in order to move forward. Blinken recognized that our relationship with Iraq is still strained, as there are currently thousands of Iraqis who have worked for our military, but have yet to receive visas to come to the U.S. If we do not address this issue, it would give future allies reason not to want to work closely with the U.S. and to distrust us. When asked about this problem, Blinken confirmed that the U.S. will make good on its obligation to these individuals, but it may take some time, as there is a potential for some extremist groups to try to obtain visas, and we must be conscious of this security issue.

Lastly, Blinken spoke about what the end of the Iraq War means for Afghanistan. According to Blinken, when Obama took office, he faced three challenges: two wars, a resurgent Al Qaeda, and alliances that had been “frayed to the breaking point around the world.” The end of the Iraq War has made a clear bypath for ending the war in Afghanistan. It has also given the U.S. an opportunity to deal with the other two challenges. Blinken emphasized looking at the big picture and the trends. The big trend in Iraq, despite day to day trends, is the emergence of politics as a way of doing business for all of the Iraqi blocs and factions. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is working on handing over to the Afghans responsibility and the ability to govern themselves.

Full video of the event:

Jaclyn Escudero
SPSSI Spring Intern

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