For current President George W. Bush over the past two years has slowly but definitely abandoned the neoconservative, neo-imperial delusions of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and their lieutenants. The real difference between Bush and Obama is that Bush abandoned those goals reluctantly, often while denying -- even to himself -- that he was doing so. Obama will be taking those steps deliberately and decisively.
The first impact of Obama's historic and decisive election victory last week looks likely to be ensuring the rapid and successful conclusion of the talks to reach an effective Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Maliki owed his appointment and survival to U.S. power but was increasingly biting the hand that fed him by defying the Bush administration. There should have been no surprise about this: Egyptian and Iraqi prime ministers in the quasi-democratic political systems run by the British Empire from 1919 through 1952 in Egypt and to 1958 in Iraq repeatedly tried to publicly oppose the very same British governments that propped them up in order to maintain some kind of credibility with their supporters.
Maliki is no different. But with his increasingly warm ties to Iran, he is genuinely eager to get the United States armed forces out of his country. A breakdown of relations between Washington and Baghdad would present the U.S. armed forces in Iraq with a vastly greater threat from the Shiite-controlled army and security forces they themselves have created than from the fading Sunni Muslim insurgency in the two central Iraq provinces of Anbar and Diyala.
Maliki and Obama fully agreed on the need for a rapid U.S. pullout from Iraq when they met in Baghdad in July. Maliki's support did not help Obama at all in the U.S. opinion polls. But it was of crucial importance in giving the relatively inexperienced young Illinois senator superior credibility to veteran Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., his opponent in the presidential contest, in the eyes of influential Washington policymakers.
Obama's determination to pull U.S. combat forces out of Iraq as quickly as possible does not put him on a collision course with the U.S. military establishment: Most of them have been happy to embrace the idea.
Obama in particular already has developed a warm relationship with Gen. David Petraeus, whose counterinsurgency policies in central Iraq have worked so well. Petraeus, who was elevated by Bush to run U.S. Central Command, knows he needs to get U.S. troops out of the five-and-a-half year quagmire of Iraq in order to have forces he can spare for the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. Obama feels the same way. If Petraeus can succeed in Afghanistan for Obama the way he delivered in Iraq for Bush, he knows Obama will make him the next Army chief of staff and chairman of the joint chiefs.
The Iraqis are still likely to try to hold out for more concessions than President Obama is ready to give them after he takes office. But the likelihood of a SOFA being successfully concluded within four to six weeks of Obama taking office remains high. Getting that agreement signed will be one of the new president's top priorities in foreign and national security policy.
Maliki will certainly now refuse to conclude a SOFA with the Bush administration until it leaves office, but that has consistently been his policy in any case. The stumbling block was the private determination by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, backed by deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, not to be boxed in by any kind of deadline for the full withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. But Obama has already proposed a 16-month pullout timetable for all U.S. combat forces in his election campaign, and that is one campaign promise he will remain determined and happy to fulfill.
Once the SOFA is signed, U.S. and Iraqi interests and ideas of the U.S. role in Iraq are likely to converge more closely under President Obama. However, there will certainly be risks for U.S. interests in Iraq and the Middle East once the SOFA is signed and after U.S. troops are withdrawn. It remains an open question whether Iraq can maintain and improve current levels of security and stability if U.S. troops leave the country on the Iraqi/Obama timetable.
Nevertheless, a clear U.S. withdrawal plan from Iraq may improve the prospects for a U.S. agreement to reduce tensions with Iran. Such an agreement realistically will not keep Iran contained. Tehran's determination to extend its power in the Middle East is far too fundamental a drive to be deterred or diluted by any probably fleeting "era of good feelings" with the United States.
However, some kind of American-Iranian understanding that may improve relations with Tehran remains possible. On the other hand, Tehran should not discount President Obama's determination to get it to abandon its nuclear ambitions either.
In any case, the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011 is no longer a pipe dream. It seems an increasingly probable goal that President Obama will be both able and willing to achieve.
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