As a Westerner watching the downtrodden people of the Middle East rise up against their oppressors, it is hard not to feel both inspired and optimistic for the future. This euphoria sometimes makes it easy to forget that the damage done by these regimes survives long after their demise. Decades of experience stuffing ballot boxes and torturing dissidents doesn’t disappear overnight. The leaders and institutions born in the fires of totalitarianism often make a show of reform when the political situation changes, but old habits are hard to break. This has proven true in Iraq, a nation with a particularly dark political heritage. Though Saddam Hussein’s secret police are gone and his cronies jailed or executed, their legacy still casts a shadow over the nation.

A report released Jan. 22 by Human Rights Watch describes how the Iraqi government “is slowly slipping back into authoritarianism as its security forces abuse protesters, harass journalists, and torture detainees.” Demonstrations for greater political and civil rights—inspired by events unfolding just outside Iraq’s borders—have repeatedly been met with violence. Hundreds of Iraqis accused of being Ba’ath party supporters are being held indefinitely without charge, and many hundreds more face torture and mutilation in secret detention facilities. Journalists have been threatened, beaten and even killed.

Many of the policeman walking these protest lines or cell blocks began their careers as thugs for a ruthless regime. Their jobs mandated a degree of viciousness and corruption only possible in the darkest of dictatorships. Though subsequent governments put on a show of cleaning house, decades of violence continue to inure Iraq’s security forces to repression and brutality.

More ominous is the clear erosion of democratic institutions by the very officials professing to uphold them. In December, Prime Minister al-Maliki effectively tore apart a power-sharing agreement between the two major Iraqi religious and ethnic groups when he attempted to arrest his Sunni vice president (the prime minister is a Shi’ite). Accused of financing a death squad which assassinated Sunni policeman, judges and other officials in 2008, Vice President al-Hashemi escaped into hiding and vociferously denied any role in the killings. His party, dominated by Sunni politicians, quit parliament for two months, and they still refuse to return to their cabinet posts, precipitating a political crisis which could easily inflame ethnic tensions and crush the country’s fragile democratic institutions.

As a country’s chief executive, al-Maliki is not unique in his attempt to consolidate his power. As the leader of a putative democracy, however, he is guilty of using appallingly undemocratic methods to do so. To him and his accomplices, leveling charges and wielding repressive security forces to pay back political enemies is business as usual, part of the essential “sausage-making” of Iraqi politics that stretches back to before the Saddam era.

How can one be sure that al-Maliki’s charges are false? Certainty is impossible in such a situation, but the timing of the accusation is revealing. Al-Maliki issued a warrant for Vice President al-Hashemi’s arrest on Dec. 19, just two days after the last American troops left his country. It is inconceivable that the vice president’s three-year-old crimes would suddenly come to light just moments after the American withdrawal. Why would they have waited that long?

Perhaps the charges could not stand up to an independent investigation by American authorities. Perhaps al-Maliki did not want American forces to return to the streets if his actions ignited ethnic clashes. Regardless, the timing suggests that the prime minister only felt comfortable taking action after American forces left Iraq. The current political crisis, and much of the repression that preceded it, resulted from the departure of the most powerful and consistent guardian of Iraq’s democratic institutions: the US military.

The departure was ostensibly unavoidable, the result of negotiations decided in 2008. These agreements had been amended repeatedly through previous years of occupation, however, and according to a Nov. 2 report by Foreign Policy magazine, it was widely understood by negotiators at the time that the deadline for withdrawal would be pushed back past 2011. “There was an expectation that we would negotiate something that looked like a residual force for our training with the Iraqis,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the publication.  There was even talk of a strategic partnership with the young Arab democracy, one which could effectively counter Iranian expansionism.

The debacle that followed stemmed from an inexcusable lack of willpower from the Obama Administration. Vice President Biden’s disinterested brokerage of power-sharing agreements failed, ceding the Iraqi government’s effective power to a militantly anti-American minority. President Obama’s continuing apathy towards the situation culminated in his decision to push for only a fraction of the troops requested by his military commanders, broadcasting his willingness to wash his hands of the whole situation. And as the last troops rolled across the border into Kuwait, the body of Iraqi authoritarianism stirred in its grave.

Thousands of troops still reside in Germany and Japan, places which resisted the pull of habit and rejected the familiarity of authoritarianism. Though the Germans and Japanese deserve the lion’s share of credit, the watchful eye and helpful hand of the United States helped prevent authoritarian excesses and encourage the growth of democratic institutions. The resulting peace lasted nearly 70 years.

Iraq’s predicament illustrates the consequences of ignoring this history. Tragically, the fragile democracy seems destined to slide back into sectarian conflict and authoritarian rule. The dedication our service members demonstrated to secure victory in Iraq is indescribable, the pain suffered by thousands of soldiers and civilians is inconceivable, and the carelessness of the Obama Administration in squandering this sacrifice is inexcusable.