The phrase might be a little over-used but this truly was a symbolic visit. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Washington on the eve of another announcement that heralds the end of the war. NATO’s training mission in Iraq will end on 31 December. The alliance would have liked to have stayed on but no agreement was to be found.
NATO’s end date is the same as the one being meticulously followed by the United States. Barack Obama is welcoming US troops back onto American soil, and he will do so personally at Fort Bragg in North Carolina on Wednesday. Soldiers are literally lining up in their thousands to leave Iraq behind.
Iraq’s security apparatus has depended on the US military presence until now. Its security forces were trained by the United States. They are now being left to fend for themselves. Theirs alone is the job of creating stability, or maintaining the fragile calm now in place. After over eight years of war, Iraq is proud to call itself a sovereign country.
There was a lot of spin at the White House on Monday. “A new day is upon us”, said the US President. For him, Iraq is now a “sovereign, self-reliant and democratic” country. This might largely be true but hidden behind the optimism is a relationship that has a long way to go.
The United States military would have liked an extended stay in Iraq. But Iraq’s current leaders said no to a few conditions from the US side. The biggest stumbling block was the US demand for amnesty for its troops under Iraqi law. They didn’t get it and that’s where it all ended. A date was set.
In Washington, there are plenty of dissenting voices. For the influential Republican Senator John McCain both Barack Obama and Nuri al-Maliki “have failed” by allowing “domestic political considerations” to take over. Many Republicans see the withdrawal from Iraq as a hasty and premature exit.
Diplomatically the United States is dealing with a country that wants to sort itself out before judging its neighbours. Iraq might be a model for democracy in the region but it is not willing to follow US foreign policy. The case in point is Syria: al-Maliki, speaking through a translator, said he does not have “the right to ask a president to abdicate”. That’s what the Obama administration has done, and it needs Iraq to follow suit. But it will be a while before Iraq turns into a diplomatic player on the big stage.
The biggest question of them all remains. Was it the right decision to go into Iraq in the first place? “History will judge” was the reply from the US President.
Nuri al-Maliki, meanwhile, left Washington with the keys to the new Iraq. In just over two weeks’ time, the last US soldier will have made his or her way home.