Admittedly, the administration's Libyan actions are yet to be convincingly explained and may constitute an unforced error that could lead to entanglement in a prolonged and unnecessary war. But Libya is nonetheless a historic sideshow. So far, not a single American casualty has been reported. And while our intervention may turn out to be a mess and an embarrassment, Libya's tangential connection to larger events makes it unlikely to become a geopolitical disaster.
On the other hand, in Iraq, we have lost a reported 4,443 troops killed and more than 30,000 wounded (many of them grievously and agonizingly mutilated). It has taken such a heartbreaking price, but we now have moved tantalizingly close to genuine success.
But if we now remove all of our remaining troops, and it all degenerates into tragedy, that decision will weigh heavily on the historic judgment of the Obama presidency.
And yet, according to the White House's own homepage:
"The President intends to keep our commitment under the Status of Forces Agreement to remove all of our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011."
That is consistent with his campaign promise, and it completes the execution of that agreement entered into by President Bush and the Iraqi government. But it has long been expected that the two governments would negotiate an extension of the time when our troops must leave because both Iraq's and most of our military and diplomatic experts do not believe that Iraq is ready to govern itself without the stabilizing effect of substantial continued American troops presence and activity.
But due to domestic Iraqi politics, their government has not yet asked for an extension. And if Obama sticks, legalistically, to his position, time may run out.
As a commendable editorial in last Sunday's Washington Post (calling for Obama to quickly negotiate an extension for our troop presence) pointed out, if our troops are forced to leave at the end of the year: "... military experts warn, next year Iraq will lack critical defense capacities: It will be unable to defend its airspace or borders, protect oil shipments or platforms in the Persian Gulf, or partner with U.S. special forces in raids against al-Qaeda.
"Perhaps most seriously, American soldiers who have been serving as de facto peacekeepers in the city of Kirkuk and along the sensitive border zone between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country will disappear. Many experts believe that in their absence violence could erupt between Kurds and Arabs."
And in this month's prestigious Foreign Affairs Magazine, Emma Sky (chief political adviser to Gen. Raymond Odierno, commanding general of the Multi-National Force-Iraq from 2008-2010) described the fragile nature of the newly reformed Nouri al-Maliki coalition government and warned that "should Washington fail to provide such (troop) support, there is a risk that Iraq's different groups may revert to violence to achieve their goals..."
One of the greatest dangers to Iraq -- as both anti-war and pro-war advocates agree -- is that Iran may come to dominate the Iraqi government. That risk has just increased in the last few months as the murderous Shiite militia leader-turned-political leader, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has returned to Iraq from Iran, cast his party's 40 votes for the coalition government and extracted as price for his votes (as reported by Maria Fantappie, a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut) "control of the ministries of municipality, water, and housing and construction. They also temporarily run the ministry of planning. Through these positions, the Sadrists control the provision of water, irrigation systems, and the building of national infrastructure -- including much-needed housing, public buildings, roads and bridges.
"... The kingmakers of the new government now have the chance to become key players in the government itself by capitalizing on the ministries under their control."
The danger from this is that if the stabilizing, confidence-building American troops are removed from the power equation in Iraq, the Iranian pawn, al-Sadr, may convert his community-level service portfolio into renewed sectarian violence.
How and when we leave Iraq is now vastly more important than how and why we entered Iraq. Both our interests in the Middle East and the interests of the Iraqi people hang in the balance to Obama's judgment. It would be a tragedy if we lose all after paying so much.
As the 19th-century British poet Arthur Hugh Clough, wrote (in one of Winston Churchill's favorite poems):
"SAY not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain."