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Leaving Iraq

Public diplomacy scholar Nicholas Cull considers whether Obama’s withdrawal of combat troops will improve America’s image abroad.

In a move President Obama framed as the fruition of a campaign promise, all U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraq this week. Remaining in the country are 50,000 soldiers dedicated to peacekeeping and training Iraqi security forces; this last contingent is scheduled to withdraw by the end of 2011.

Will the pullout improve America’s image abroad, particularly in the Middle East?

“The closest comparison is the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from South Vietnam in January 1973,” observes public diplomacy scholar Nicholas Cull of the USC Annenberg School. “That gave an immediate boost to U.S. standing in the world and especially in Europe.

“Of course, the long-term effect on world opinion hinges on what happens next in Iraq,” Cull notes. “If the country falls apart immediately, it will hardly reflect well on the United States.

“This said, there are plenty of other things that will be critical to U.S. standing in the world,” Cull adds. “The course of events in Afghanistan looms large. Also, the president needs to deliver on his promises to the Arab world made in Cairo in the summer of 2009.” In that speech, Obama spoke of the need to create an independent state for Palestinians. “Arab opinion is plainly frustrated by the lack of movement in the Israel-Palestine issue,” Cull says.

Nicholas Cull, chair of the Master’s Program in Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School, is an expert on the history of public diplomacy and U.S. foreign policy.

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