President Obama, who has virtually omitted Iraq from foreign policy discussions since he outlined his pullout plan three months ago, should take note. In a January interview with Al-Arabiyya, the president pledged to improve U.S. ties with Muslim countries through both perception and policy, underscoring the importance of language and “mutual respect” (which likely led to his administration abandoning references to the “war on terror”). He is slated to give his first major address from an Arab capital on June 4th in Cairo, and he has hatched the idea of convening a “Muslim summit” to help address simmering U.S.-Arab tensions. But the opinion poll results should serve as a stark reminder that none of these gestures will matter as much as the fate of Iraq. “Ultimately,” Obama admitted to Al-Arabiyya, “People [in the Muslim world] are going to judge me not by my words, but by my actions.”
But it is still unclear what exactly Obama’s actions will be. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has touted a “smart power” strategy for engaging the broader Middle East, has yet to articulate the administration’s political strategy in Iraq—and what it plans to do with the massive, Vatican City-sized U.S. embassy in Baghdad and its 1,000-plus employees. While a slight majority of Zogby respondents cited “withdrawal from Iraq” as the best way to improve the United States’ standing among Arab nations, a growing chorus of American policy wonks, military strategists and concerned Iraqis are advocating for an extended U.S. deployment. The Arab opinion poll came at the heels of a new report by Stephen Biddle, a leading defense analyst and adviser to Gen. David Petraeus during the U.S. military “surge”, who argues that American forces need to maintain their presence in Iraq to preserve surge-era security gains—tenuous as they may be. President Obama, meanwhile, has long declared that he reserves the right to intervene militarily to suppress any “potential genocidal violence” within the fractured nation.
While a precipitous withdrawal remains Obama’s most palatable option, questions linger over how the administration might be perceived—by both the Arab world and the American public—if Iraq devolves into chaos after the U.S. exits. Only 6 percent of Zogby respondents said that Iraqis are better off after the war; a perception that invokes, quite ironically, Obama’s inauguration warning to Muslim leaders that “you will be judged on what you build, not what you destroy.” Could a desire to build in Iraq—to quell “separation anxiety”, ensure effective reconstruction and salvage a modicum of stability from the U.S.’s back-breaking investment of six long years, billions of dollars, and over 4,000 dead soldiers—compel the president to reconsider his strategy? Either way, as Americans debate the impact of their policies on public attitudes of the United States, one thing is clear: Iraq still matters.