Let me say at the outset that I am writing this from Baghdad where I have been living and working for the past twenty months. And, unlike some of those US government workers at the embassy who can spend 18 months in Iraq and never leave the embassy compound, I have been in various regions of the country (Baiji, Kirkuk, Erbil in the north, Basrah in the south) working with customers in the oil industry. So I have what may be an uncommon perspective.
First of all, Mario Loyola’s observation, quoted by Paul, is spot-on. Obama’s decision to pull all the troops out according to the agreement was a massive mistake and has greatly reduced US government influence in the country. His administration and cheerleaders will argue that he had no choice, that that was what the Iraqis wanted.
However in the months leading up to the deadline for pullout, various Iraqi politicians and institutions would float ideas in the domestic media for a small US force to remain in Iraq for “security and training purposes.” The number of remaining forces was always a variable – 10, 15, 20 thousand – at this point these were just ideas that could have been developed further (had Obama been so inclined).
Invariably, the hard line factions that wanted foreign troops completely out would then make their own demands that no changing of the agreed upon time frame for pullout was acceptable and threatening to reconstitute their militia forces if any troops remained after December 31.
My guess is that had the US wanted to remain in Iraq, that they could have backstopped and supported the politicians who were floating ideas to have US troops remain. It was only with US backing and prodding that these politicians would have been strong enough to push forward. As it was, with zero official support for such an idea, the anti-U.S. factions were the loudest voices and they carried the day. And security within the country remains shaky at best, while as Mr. Loyola notes, American influence has been greatly diminished.
Addressing the issue of the Iraqis being ungrateful to the US and refusing to do business with the US – again, it is not that simple. I have dealt with many companies and one of the common refrains/complaints I get is “where are the Americans?” The Iraqis would like to do business with American companies – they hold US firms in high regard and think we have some of the best technology and know how. But if we do not come to Iraq, how can they do business with us? Instead, they increasingly turn to the Chinese, Koreans, Eastern Europeans, anyone who is willing to come and work in Iraq.
My company has a long history of working with the Iraqis dating back to the 1970’s. During the sanctions period we followed the rules and were unable to maintain commercial contact with our customers. After 2003, we were able to reengage but initially this meant all meetings were held outside Iraq and no visits to customer sites in Iraq were considered. However, we realized that if we kept following this business model we would eventually lose out to competitors that were willing to put boots on the ground in-country and the decision was made to open an office in Baghdad in the fall of 2010.
I volunteered for the assignment as I believed that if Iraq was to survive and thrive it was no longer a military question. The US and coalition forces had performed brilliantly in the military phase to defeat Saddam and give the government to the people of Iraq. It goes without saying that mistakes were made in the years of transition. After the success of the surge, however, it was apparent that if Iraq was to be successful, the Iraqis would have to engage with the West. And this meant western businesses had to be willing to engage with Iraq. I agreed with the decision of President Bush to overthrow Saddam and now it was my turn to help with the integration of Iraq into the western commercial world.
So where are the rest of the US companies? Iraq is open for business. It is difficult, make no mistake about it – the bureaucracy, the corruption, the constantly changing security situation. We used to be a nation of risk takers, willing to take the long view. If that mentality remains, then you need to look at Iraq.
Are we universally liked and welcomed? Absolutely not, but I have met enough great people in this country – Shia, Sunni, Christian – that I still have hope. I am encouraged by the number of young people I have met who when, asked the question – would you prefer the security of the days of Saddam to the current situation? – reply “Absolutely not!” Under Saddam they had no hope. Now, although life is difficult, they have a chance to work hard and make a better life for themselves and their families.
Iraq a failure? Not yet – in my opinion it still could go either way. However, without engagement from the west, there is no chance for Iraq to be successful in remaining a relatively open, democratic, society. And that is what keeps me going to work in Iraq every single day.
We thought Aaron’s message might be of interest to readers and are posting it in its entirety, very slightly edited.