Vice President Joe Biden, who traveled to Iraq this week to mark the formal end of United States combat operations there, has claimed that peace and stability there could be “one of the great achievements” of the Obama administration. Of course, the largest share of credit belongs to the brave men and women of the American military, who have sacrificed so much and persevered through so much difficulty. Credit also goes to the Iraqi Army and police forces who have fought bravely and increasingly well, and to Iraq’s people, who have borne a heavy burden. But it is good that President Obama and his administration also claim credit, because success in Iraq will need their support.
My hope is that the president understands that success in Iraq will be defined not by what we withdraw, but by what we leave behind. At a minimum, we need Iraq to be a stable country, at peace both within its borders and with its neighbors. And we should help Iraq to one day become a leader of political and economic progress in the Middle East.
The aftermath of another American war is instructive. Fifty-seven years ago, an armistice ended the fighting in Korea — another unpopular conflict, far bloodier than the Iraq war, although shorter. Civilian casualties were horrendous, and the United States and its allies suffered more than half a million military casualties. The South Korean Army took the heaviest losses, but the United States also paid a high price: 33,739 killed or missing in battle and 103,284 wounded.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower won the 1952 presidential election, in part, on a promise to end the war. According to a poll taken in April 1953, three months before the armistice was signed, 55 percent of the American public thought the war had not been worth fighting, whereas only 36 percent thought that it had.
Yet when the war was over, the United States did not abandon South Korea. We had done so in 1949, when our post-World War II occupation of Korea ended, opening the door to North Korea’s invasion the following year. This time, instead, we kept a substantial military force in South Korea.
The United States stuck with South Korea even though the country was then ruled by a dictator and the prospects for its war-devastated economy looked dim. With all its failings, South Korea was nevertheless a haven of freedom compared with the bleak and brutal despotism of North Korea.
We also understood that stability on the Korean Peninsula was critical for the peace of an entire region — a region that involved Japan as well as the Soviet Union and China. Most important, abandoning South Korea would have risked squandering all that had been gained.
Although South Korea has assumed the principal responsibility for its own defense, there are still 28,500 American troops on the peninsula. Our continued commitment prevented another war and today South Korea is a remarkable economic success story. A series of democratic elections, starting in 1987, have made it a political success story as well.
Some similar considerations apply to Iraq today. First, Iraq occupies a key position in the Persian Gulf, a strategically important region of the world — a position that is all the more important because of the dangerous ambitions of Iran’s rulers.
Second, whatever the failings of Iraq’s democracy, it bears no comparison to the regime that other hostile elements would impose. With all its imperfections, Iraq today is more democratic than South Korea was at the end of the Korean War, and more democratic than any other country in the Arab Middle East (with the possible exception of Lebanon).
We have withdrawn so many of our troops and relinquished a combat role because Iraqi security forces have been able to take on most of the security burden. Their numbers have grown from about 320,000 in December 2006 to more than 600,000 at the end of last year; they are also becoming more capable.
Of course, numbers are only part of the story, and Iraqi security forces still need assistance from the American military. Not surprisingly, the enemy has increasingly focused its attacks on Iraqi soldiers and police officers as the United States withdraws, although Iraqi losses are still far below what they were earlier in the war. Since June 2003, about 10,000 Iraqi security forces have been killed, twice the total of the United States and the entire international coalition.
Even as our combat commitment ends, our commitment to supporting Iraq must continue. That means continued political support, including offering our help in resolving the current stalemate over forming a government. (It’s worth remembering that much of the difficulty the Iraqis are encountering arises from a Constitution and electoral system that the international community helped design. Moreover, this example of peaceful negotiations to create a government is something new in the Arab world.)
Our commitment must also include continued material support, particularly in the form of military and technical assistance. And though we have agreed to withdraw all our troops by the end of next year — a pledge that we must honor if the Iraqi government so desires — we need to remain open to the possibility of a mutually agreed longer-term security commitment or military presence for deterrence and support.
It is well worth celebrating the end of combat operations after seven years, and the homecoming of so many troops. But fully abandoning Iraq would damage the interests of the United States in the region and beyond. Maintaining a long-term commitment, albeit at greatly reduced cost and risk, is the best way to secure the gains that have been achieved with so much sacrifice.
Paul D. Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the deputy secretary of defense from 2001 to 2005.