Thursday, May 26, 2011

Outstaying their welcome?

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has expressed his hope that Baghdad will ask US troops to stay beyond their scheduled departure. This conflicts with President Obama’s previous pledge that the US will continue to support Iraq whilst bringing all US troops home. There are currently about 47,000 Americans in uniform in Iraq, all of whom are scheduled to leave by December 31 under an agreement worked out in 2008, shortly before Obama became President.

Gates said that a prolonged US military presence could help sustain security capabilities and other gains Iraq has made in recent years, and would send a signal of reassurance to other Arab countries facing civil unrest. Iraq could become a model for a multi-sectarian society in the Arab world “that shows that democracy works”. His comments observed that, whilst Iraqi political and military leaders acknowledge that they need further US military support, popular sentiment is strongly against an extended US presence and complicates seeking continued military help.

But surely, as a country which has had democracy essentially imposed on it from the outside, wouldn’t Iraq would make a weak example of functioning democracy? Wouldn’t Tunisia or Egypt – both countries in which democracy rose from within – set a better example? Additionally, the indication that popular sentiment might be less important than the opinions of those in power goes against the whole principle of democracy. The unpopularity of US presence should simplify and strengthen the military’s commitment to leave by the scheduled date. Gates has conceded that “we’ll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis” – but just who he is talking about when he refers to “the Iraqis” is unclear. If Gates is willing to listen to the requests of officials over the overwhelming consensus of the civilian population, the US’ fight for so-called “democracy” in the Arab world may prove to be fruitless.

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