We're really leaving Iraq
Some Iraq war critics are fretting about Obama's speech on Friday, and his plan to stay a little longer. But here's why there's no reason for alarm.
By Juan Cole
March 2, 2009 | On Friday, nearly six years after George W. Bush's swaggering "Mission Accomplished" speech, a new and humbler president addressed a cheering military audience and declared an end to the Iraq War. But some observers fear that President Barack Obama's blueprint, which extends the American presence for another quarter-decade, raises the possibility of a continued U.S. entanglement in that war.
In particular, Obama's plan to leave 35,000 to 50,000 support troops in Iraq between August 31, 2010 and December 31, 2011, has made the left of his party as nervous as a vegan in a butcher shop. Congressional leaders like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have urged that the number be reduced to 15,000. One can only imagine that the Democratic Party leadership wants to campaign for congress in fall 2010 on having ended the Iraq War, and retaining 50,000 troops there would make that difficult. So has Obama been reduced to "Bush Lite" on the Tigris? In his first detailed policy speech on Iraq, did he renege on his commitment to get out -- or did he skillfully calibrate his plan to avoid any of the booby traps Mesopotamia might still hold for an American president?
Obama cannot afford to make his calculations about Iraq solely with an eye to domestic American politics. He extended his original proposal of a 16-month withdrawal of active combat brigades to 18 months so as to leave more troops in place to help with the next Iraqi parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 2009. It is stil the case that Iraqi elections can only go forward if the country is locked down and vehicular traffic forbidden, preventing car-bombings and coordinated guerrilla strikes. It might be possible for the Iraqi military to provide security for national elections in 2013 should the country's future ruler or rulers deign to hold them, but the Iraqi military cannot hope to do so this year.
Iraq's military also continues to need logistical support from U.S. forces. Australian commander John Snell warned Agence France Presse, the French news service, of supply chain problems: "If we were leaving today, [the Iraqi army] will be able to defend itself but it would rapidly disintegrate." Iraqi national security director Muwaffaq al-Rubaie listed for AFP other realms in which the new Iraqi army cannot stand alone: "[S]urveillance of frontiers, the air force, the navy, sophisticated counter-terrorism weapons, and we need to make serious progress in intelligence matters." An Iraqi military that altogether collapses, as Snell foresees, would prove a disaster for Obama and might well necessitate a return of U.S. forces to Iraq.
Although Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has had military successes during the past year, in the southern port of Basra and in Sadr City (east Baghdad), against the Mahdi Army militia, these campaigns depended heavily on U.S. close air support. Iraq lacks an air force and it will take years to create one. One caveat about Obama's pledge to remove troops by the end of 2011 is that he cannot possibly be including the U.S. Air Force, which is almost certainly in for a longer mission, but can operate from bases outside Iraq. Without a navy, moreover, Iraq cannot prevent petroleum smuggling via the Persian Gulf, which drains billions from government coffers annually and strengthens militias against the state, and this sort of patrol will fall to the U.S. Navy for some time to come.
Some Republicans claimed that Obama's plan vindicated their Iraq policies, which is sort of like claiming that Captain Sullenberger's water landing in the Hudson vindicated the geese that knocked out the jet engines. That side of the aisle, moreover, has consistently hyped the wrong threats. John McCain, like an Arizonan Cassandra, harped on the small terrorist movement that styled itself "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia," and predicted that "If we leave Iraq there will be chaos, there will be genocide, and they will follow us home." Obama's compromise decisively rejects McCain-style fear-mongering and his quixotic quest for long-term bases.
The new president forcefully rejected Bushian mission creep. Obama admitted, "We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq's streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq's union is perfected." In other words, he is prepared to depart Iraq even if it remains somewhat divided, even if a drumbeat of subdued violence continues in its cities, and even if anti-Americanism retains a certain purchase on the population.
It would be wrong to overlook these simple words: "And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011." Though the word "troops" referred to the Army and the Marines, not to the Air Force and Navy, what Obama said on Friday was a firm pledge to leave. And by binding himself to a security agreement formally passed by the Iraqi parliament, Obama was eschewing unilateralism and the patronizing hubris that marked Bush's discourse on Iraq. The Iraqi and Arab press understood this point immediately, and led their accounts of Obama's speech with that sentence about removing troops. Obama was not signaling any diffidence about ending the Iraq War before the end of his term. He was attempting to provide for an orderly withdrawal that will ensure that U.S. troops are not drawn back in by a subsequent security collapse.
And let us say that professor Cole is right, that we will eventually disembark militarily from Iraq, while keeping our navy and air force around to give "support" for the Iraqi government. Assuming that not a single soldier was on the ground, how is having our navy anchoring in Iraqi waters, and our air force hovering over Iraqi air space "leaving Iraq"? Imagine if the Russians had air patrols over Washington DC and its navy harbored off our coasts. Would we not consider that a military presence in our country?
At this point, we need to look at things for what they are and stop deluding ourselves. Barack Obama lied through his teeth about getting the US out of Iraq. There is no real timetable. If anyone thinks we are going to take those 50,000 troops out by 2011, I have some beachfront property in Iowa to sell you. In fact, I will go so far as to wage that by January 2013, the start of Barack Obama's second term, if everything goes according to plan, the US will still have 35,000-plus troops in Iraq, and they will not be there for cleaning duty. They will still be located in Baghdad and population centers. What will Dr. Cole call them then, election enforcers? Wondering tourists? Armed social workers?
To be sure, there is the argument put forward by the generals, the same ones who have been telling us that all was well, and that even when they were finally forced to admit it was not it was still the right thing to do. The line goes something like this: We must remain in Iraq to make sure to right our wrongs, to stabilize the country, and that it does not fall into chaos. There are even quite a few Democrats, like Barack Obama and his Blue Dog Coalition/DLC friends who feel the same way.
The problem is that we are the ones who created chaos in Iraq by invading and occupying it. We are not responsible for Iraq anymore than we are responsible for what happens in the Urals. Imagine someone from the Social Democratic Party of Germany stating, in 1945, that the Germans had to stay in Poland to make sure it did not collapse and to right all of the culumnies that it committed inside of its territory. Would we take such an excuse seriously? This is about how seriously we should take General Petreaus when he asserts we should be keeping 50,000 troops in Iraq. We do not belong there now anymore than we did six years ago. If the Petreauses of the world do not like it, they can go join the Iraqi army.
If Iraq collapses, it is our fault for creating the conditions, not for refusing to perpetuate them. All of which is superfluous if we keep four divisions of our soldiers where they should not be. The difference is I am not going to lie to myself to give someone the benefit of doubt. If so, then there were really WMDs, yellow cake nuclear material, and Osama bin Laden directing his forces out of Saddam Hussein's basement. This is the ignorance of ideological blindness, when it allows people to make themselves think that a policy is something other than what it is. If we do not denounce this and hold Obama and his foreign policy adivers to account for these policy back steps, they are going to continue to lie us right into a situation where by 2016 (assuming the administration serves two terms) we will still have tens of thousands of troops occupying two very reticent Muslim countries in wars started by the people we thought we replaced.