WILLIAMS: Obama’s unfinished business in Iraq

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Mission accomplished. Two words. A phrase that haunted one president is now the calling card of success for another.

While President Obama technically claimed no victory in his national Oval Office address last week, the subtext was clear — in this election-charged season, your president has delivered on a campaign promise.

For the better part of this decade, Americans have struggled with their own identity crisis on this war. It was always easy to be “for the troops.” Yet many succumbed to the frustrations we all felt just before the surge started to push back against rogue militants (sentiments we see emerging again today as we surge forces into Afghanistan). They collectively threw up their hands in disgust. Seeing no end in sight, doubters blamed President George W. Bush and his cowboy attitude toward Saddam Hussein and his country.

Barack Obama was all too eager to oblige that sentiment, stoke those frustrations and ride the utter regret to the White House. But what President Obama saw upon assuming office was not the easy solution Candidate Obama projected while on the campaign trail.

Fast forward two years and three months later on some date plucked out of thin air: We now have a commander in chief ready to move on, whether or not Iraq is.

“We have met our responsibility,” Mr. Obama sternly stated last week. “Now it is time to turn the page.”

You can say that again. This administration would like nothing more than to turn the page on its Iraq policies, and hope the American people never find out the real mess Mr. Obama has left in his wake as the last combat brigades withdraw.

In his remarks, Mr. Obama deftly wove his way around the sticky situations that remain in Iraq, focusing instead on the apple pie issue of combat troops withdrawing, and a relative peace that, for the time being, persists in that country.

It is true that Iraqi security forces are slowly but surely assuming field-ready status, preparing to take over responsibilities for major security functions. Once again, the U.S. soldier has done his job, training those who would take his place.

But the larger problems facing Iraq is its government, or lack thereof. Following the bumbled, clumsy elections in March that produced no clear winner, the country’s leading parties can’t even agree on a coalition government. It’s the Middle Eastern equivalent of banana republics we saw in the 1980s — a “fig republic” that only pretends to be in power while the Iraqi people struggle for basic necessities such as power and clean water.

These are the true tests of “democracy building” that Mr. Obama and even Mr. Bush publicly long for. And they are found wanting.

Whether or not he says so, Mr. Obama now owns the issue of Iraq. The withdrawal of combat troops on some arbitrary timetable was his idea. Yet his failure to secure the diplomatic side of this calculus will cost his administration dearly if Iraq continues down this path or, worse, slips into a sectarian civil war.

If we’re not careful, what will result is a return of American forces to the country to clean up a radioactive mess.

To succeed in Iraq and truly prepare the nation for the democracy we all want, the president must do three things:

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