The lack of controversy over the August 31 transition ending combat operations in Iraq is a testament to the U.S. military. Though few are willing to declare it, America won the war in Iraq. Twice.

But the region still poses great threats for the U.S.

As President Obama made clear in his speech on Monday, his administration’s plans remain dominated by politics and naive assumptions rather than coherent steps to shape the Middle East and advance U.S. interests.

As the sun finally sets on Operation Iraqi Freedom on the last day of August, and a combat force is downgraded to a 50,000-strong security force, American servicemen can take pride in a great accomplishment:

- They deposed one of the world’s most evil and dangerous regimes with a masterstroke military operation.

- They then snatched victory from the jaws of defeat after an insurgency threatened to deal America its worst blow since our loss in the Vietnam War.

- They liberated a country of 25 million and gave them not one, but two chances at democracy.

The cost was significant, the greatest of which was that some 4400 of their brothers and sisters in arms did not come home alive.

American citizens should also do something we do too infrequently today, which is to marvel at the greatness of America.

The accomplishment in Iraq should remind us that our nation, while imperfect like any of man’s endeavors, remains the greatest force of freedom in history.

Some Americans, like President Obama and his allies in Congress, may view America as unexceptional and see our history as something for which he should apologize.

But our accomplishment in Iraq, for those who choose to see it, should warm the hearts of patriots who know the real story of America is to dare mighty things.

Whether or not the Iraq War was worth the cost is a question that should now pass from the realm of politicians to that of historians—assuming conflict is not reignited by Obama administration incompetence.

But what the U.S. does now in managing threats and opportunities in the region is a key policy question of the day, which will impact our freedom, our economic future, and whether we prevail in the war against terrorists and Islamists.

As with all new democracies, Iraq has many trials in its present and future. Nearly five months after the last election, there is still no new government in Baghdad.

The leadership contest between former premier Iyad Allawi and current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki contributes to uncertainty as to whether the Iraqi government will trend toward fairness and separation of mosque and state or the opposite.

The legislative process is halted. A government that removes obstacles to economic development, includes all major Iraqi groups and dissuades them from violence remains a work in progress for Iraqis, not a reality.

Waiting in the shadows is Iran. The Tehran regime, now edging closer to a nuclear arms capability, was responsible for the deaths of perhaps thousands of American soldiers in Iraq. It is a top priority for Tehran to turn Iraq into an ally or client state, as it has done with Syria and Lebanon.

Rather than dealing seriously with these challenges, the Obama administration is flailing.

Mr. Obama’s Iraq policy is impaired both by fantasy and neglect. The fantasy is that Iran wants a stable Iraq. Middle East experts in the State Department’s Foreign Service and the CIA have peddled this fiction since Saddam Hussein was deposed, all evidence to the contrary.

It is an assumption that has gotten many American soldiers and Iraqis killed and continues to ensure poor policy.

The neglect part comes in the form of the Obama administration’s dithering and detached approach to Iraq.

This presumably had its origins in the liberal prophesy that America would lose the war there—a presumption shared by then-Senator Barack Obama.

Once in the White House, managing Iraq policy was so unimportant that President Obama delegated the task to his vice president. His chosen ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, fresh from comprehensive failure in dealing with North Korea, chose to exert no effort in shaping the post-election political jousting in Baghdad.

This persists with little active U.S. diplomacy. Meanwhile, Iran continues its machinations in Iraq with considerable freedom and latitude that will likely increase as the U.S. military presence declines.

This ought to be reversed. The incoming U.S. ambassador, James Jeffries, could be guided to use the full weight of his office to help Iraq achieve a government that works for its people.

U.S. influence over political processes in Iraq is hardly infinite, but it can still be considerable when wielded deftly.

Iran’s activities in the country should be checked using all means. More attention needs to be paid to building the pillars of democracy in Iraq, which are just as important as elections. Cultural exchanges that link Iraqis with Americans and help build civil society in Iraq are important.

Finally, and most critically, the U.S. and Iraq should find a way out of the year-end 2011 deadline by which all U.S. forces are supposed to leave Iraq. Otherwise this would leave the U.S. with its weakest presence in the Middle East since before the 1991 Gulf War and act as an open invitation to Iranian supremacy in the region.

We could soon find ourselves with fewer allies and multiplying problems.

The Islamist political enterprise that motivates terrorists and their sympathizers, once relegated largely to rogue and failed states with limited means, would be able to operate from secure bases in a newly powerful and rich Islamist empire.

Despite Mr. Obama’s reassertion of the withdrawal date in his Monday remarks, administration officials have begun quietly saying the U.S. would welcome an Iraqi invitation to discuss a U.S. presence after 2011 despite the deadline.

Such Victorian manners in courtship are hardly appropriate given the stakes and timeline. It is not a substitute for a coherent plan to check serious threats to U.S. interests, or to use the opportunity of a secure Iraq to make the region safer and freer.

Christian Whiton was a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is a principal at D.C. International Advisory and president of the Hamilton Foundation.

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