A Decent Outcome for Iraq

Fouad Ajami Sees a Substantial U.S. Presence in Iraq for Many Years

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Shiites break their Ramadan fast in the holy city of Najaf.

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Peace has not come to the streets of Baghdad, but the center holds. Our very American "benchmarks" for measuring the progress of Iraq can't capture the reality of that land. There is no "oil law," it is true, but the oil bounty is being shared equitably across the regions. The Iraqi government, through a relentless insurgency, maintains and meets a payroll for 3.4 million of its citizens. And in the provinces, there is a scramble for budgets and economic projects. "A year ago, we could not give money to the provincial governors; they could not use it. Now they are in competition for funds, and economic life stirs," Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, who oversees the service sector of the government, said to me.

We ask of the Iraqis "national reconciliation" and bemoan their inability to offer it in ways we can recognize, but a broad, subtle national accord is settling upon the land. The Kurds want (and have) their autonomy but have no eagerness to break out on their own to face alone the schemes of the Iranians, the Turks, and the Syrians. The Shiites have prevailed in the war for Baghdad; primacy in the government is increasingly theirs. The Sunni Arabs know that they have lost their war against this new Iraq, that the bet they placed on al Qaeda and neighboring Sunni Arab nations has been lost.

New realism. Beyond their pride, and the fury of their feuds, Iraqis of all stripes have now come to terms with their country's desperate need of American protection and patronage. Ignore the pollsters who tell you that Iraqis have had their fill of the American presence. There is a realism that comes to men and women who know calamities, and this realism teaches Iraqis that this American project is their country's chance for a way out of a history of grief and terror.

In late August, on a day of unsparing heat, I shadowed Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, our second most senior commander in Iraq, as he toured a Baghdad neighborhood that had once been a Saddamist stronghold. In a market undergoing extensive renovation, he was besieged by petitioners. Men spoke to him of their plans for this market; a new restaurant was being readied with a front porch overlooking the river, and its owner pressed his case for a generator to provide the electricity he needs. A man with some flair and humor pointed to his old, dusty car and asked if the Americans, in their power and benevolence, might replace it with a new one.

It has not been pretty, this expedition to Iraq, and the man in that neighborhood will not get a new car. But the American determination to see this war to a decent outcome, and the fatigue of the Iraqi protagonists, have transformed the landscape. We have been burned before, and progress has often vanished like a desert mirage, but there can be no denying the change that has come to Iraq. The dispatches cite a recent "downward trend in violence." In September, 1,654 civilians were killed, a 29 percent decline from the 2,318 killed in August. The U.S. military fatalities dropped to 63 from 84 in August. A fight still rages in Iraq. This is not a country at peace, and all its furies have not burned out, but a measure of order has begun to stick on the ground.

It appears that the American debate has been transformed as well. There is to it the quiet that follows a big storm. Two men of great talent and devotion came home to report about Iraq—our military commander, Gen. David Petraeus, and our diplomatic envoy, Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They told of achievements, and of frustrations. Above all, they delivered a sobering message about the consequences of failure: We are there under Arab and Iranian eyes; we can't quit the place, cede it to chaos and radicalism. And there came a startling and overdue message delivered by President Bush that there will be an "enduring" U.S. presence in Iraq. The Pax Americana, which has "security arrangements" with the regimes in Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, will now add Iraq into its orbit.

We shall not have anywhere near the current 160,000 military personnel, but there shall be a substantial U.S. presence for many years to come. In public, Iraqi leaders say that they don't wish to see their country as a battleground between America and Iran. But behind closed doors, there is an acceptance by Iraq's political class of an American presence on the Iran-Iraq frontier. We may sugarcoat the truth, but Iran shall be monitored from Iraq. And the American presence in Araby—historically in Sunni lands—now extends to a republic led by Arab Shiites.