Historians will determine whether former President George W. Bush erred in his decision to invade Iraq. But President Barack Obama will be judged on a potentially more important question: Did he make the former U.S. foe an ally in a region where Washington needs all the friends it can get?
Anthony Blinken, deputy assistant to President Obama and national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, made clear Friday at a forum in Washington that the Obama administration is going to great pains to ensure Iraq develops into something other than another Middle East nation that is hostile to American interests.
"While the war in Iraq is over," Blinken said, "our work with Iraq continues."
He repeatedly mentioned diplomatic efforts that State Department and White House officials--including Obama and Biden--have taken since the last American soldier left the country last December to keep the peace in Iraq. Obama administration officials have met in person and burned up the phone lines to urge Iraq's Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish ethnic groups to forge a compromise on sharing the nation's oil revenues.
U.S. diplomats and White House officials have done the same with their counterparts from the highest levels of the Iraqi government when violence has broken out there, urging Baghdad's leaders to do whatever they can to tamp down unrest that might hurtle the nation back into political chaos, Blinken said.
Both Bush and Obama administration officials were long concerned about other Middle Eastern governments shunning Iraq's new government. Baghdad was for many years after Saddam Hussein was ousted from power something of a regional outcast.
But that is beginning to change, Blinken said, describing a "thawing" effect. Officials from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates--all American allies--have recently visited Iraq, he noted.
Blinken also touted a visit this week to Kuwait by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during which the two nations settled a Saddam-era dispute.
Kuwait alleged the former Iraqi leader's forces stole 10 airplanes and millions of dollars of equipment when they invaded in 1990. During the 12-year dispute, Iraq's national airline was unable to fly to Great Britain, and its assets in Jordan were placed under a deep freeze.
It is no surprise that a senior National Security Council official would tout the diplomatic overtures to Iraq by some of Washington's best friends in the region.
After all, Washington's top irritant not named al Qaeda--Iran--is increasingly trying to influence Baghdad's thinking.
Blinken acknowledged Iranian meddling in Iraq's affairs, and noted that reality is unlikely to change.
To that end, "the U.S. has gone to great lengths to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, including using its status as an occupying power and Iraq's main source of aid, as well as through information operations and more traditional press statements highlighting Iranian meddling," several Middle East scholars wrote in a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report. "However, containing Iranian influence, while important, is not America's main goal in Iraq. It is rather to create a stable democratic Iraq that can ... emerge as a stable power friendly to the US and its Gulf allies."
The CSIS scholars note what is the conventional wisdom: "America's ability to achieve this goal remains highly uncertain."
Back in Baghdad, Iraqi lawmakers continue the years-long work of trying to fashion an oil revenue-sharing deal with which all three major groups can be satisfied.
"The vice president likes to say that oil can be the glue that holds Iraq together," Blinken said, adding the Iraqis "have a long way to go."
Iraq currently is producing about 27 million barrels a day, and is on pace to soon increase that output by 3 million barrels, Blinken said.
Obama and his aides clearly know the administration will be judged by voters and historians alike for its handling of post-war Iraq.
Historians will decide whether invading Iraq was a strategic success or stumble, Blinken said. But he noted Iraq is "less violent" and "more democratic," as well as "more prosperous," than it has been in decades.
And, as Blinken's appearance at a public event dedicated to a situation many Americans have forgotten, the administration clearly is gearing up for campaign-trail attacks from the president's Republican foes about any incident in Iraq.
In an op-ed published this month, GOP operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie hit Obama for a "lack of regular close contact with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which has destroyed relationships with America's erstwhile allies." The GOP duo wrote this "is simply the most jarring, inexplicable example of this president's hands-off approach."
Blinken and other White House officials, however, describe a president who is involved in every major administration discussion and decision on Iraq, and say Obama personally reaches out to Iraqi leaders as situations warrant.