President Barack Obama's end to the United States' fighting war in Iraq will understandably be met with scepticism. Some 50,000 American troops remain in the country to provide a military keel to a fragile Iraqi civilian regime. And didn't George W. Bush once declare an end to major military operations in an ill-advised bit of political theatre? Nonetheless, the former American president did send a clear signal that his country's invasion and occupation of Iraq was an act his country regretted, that getting out was a personal priority and, importantly, America wasn't going to leave without a thought to the consequences.
The withdrawal will be a positive on a number of levels. Resentment over the American invasion has been one of the key drivers of widespread anti-Western sentiment in the Arab Muslim world. Combined with the restarting of the Israel- Palestine peace talks, Iraq withdrawal will help attenuate the world's most dangerous ‘clash of civilisations'. Barack Obama was lauded for his Cairo speech. But polls show that Arabs want him to match words with deeds before they are prepared to repose any real hope in him. The Arab Muslim world is a deeply wounded civilisation. Arabs see their leaders and their societies as corrupt and decrepit, falling behind even as countries from China to Brazil surge forward. This is why Arab youth are prepared to seek guidance from the likes of Osama bin Laden or even historical rivals to the Arab world like Turkey or Iran. Bush saw the imposition of democracy on Iraq as a means to start a civilisational healing. And the Iraq of today can be said to be representative, though many miles short of being a stable liberal democracy. But the cost of Bush's gamble has proven to be enormous and Obama is rightly seeking to clean up the resultant political debts.
The Iraq withdrawal should not be interpreted as a model for Afghanistan. Iraq was a war of choice. Afghanistan is a war of necessity. America could withdraw from a Vietnam or an Iraq knowing neither country would become a base for attacks on the US. That is almost certainly not the case in Afghanistan. An Iraqi withdrawal is a limited gamble because
a wrong turn would be bad mainly for Iraqis. The wrong turns in Afghanistan are globally destabilising in their implications.
It is hoped that Obama will not make a similar speech about Afghanistan any time soon.