The last American troops officially left Iraq before Christmas, mostly completing an American withdrawal by the end of 2011 which few thought possible when then-candidate Barack Obama promised it or even when then-President George Bush formally committed to it. Critics of the withdrawal have blasted Obama for putting politics over policy, risking the alleged gains of the "surge" in order to meet a campaign promise. Many of those who played a role in the desperate attempt to reverse Iraq's 2006 descent into civil war have entirely legitimate and justifiable fears for Iraq's future. But in fact, Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal from Iraq was probably better policy than it was politics -- and it was the right call both for America and for Iraq.
In many ways, it would have been safer politically for Obama to keep the residual force in Iraq which hawks demanded to insulate himself against charges of having "lost Iraq". But it would have been wrong on policy. It's not just that the U.S. was obligated by the SOFA to withdraw its forces, once it proved unable to negotiate the terms of an extended troop presence with the immunity provisions which the Pentagon demanded. It's that the remaining U.S. troops could do little for Iraqi security, had little positive effect on Iraqi politics, and would have soon become an active liability. This is the lesson of the last two years, when U.S. troops were reduced in number and largely withdrew to the bases under the terms of the SOFA. The American troop presence didn't prevent bombings and murders, didn't force political reconciliation, didn't usher in real democracy, and didn't significantly increase American diplomatic influence in the region. But nor did Iraq fall apart. Obama's gamble is that the same sequence will play out in 2012 and that he will have successfully left behind an Iraq which isn't perfect but which has avoided yet another catastrophe.
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The great debates about Iraq policy which consumed much of the past decade have largely faded from the public arena. The Obama administration has withdrawn more than 100,000 troops from Iraq, while the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in 2008 commits the U.S. to withdrawing the balance of its troops by the end of next year. Iraqi politics muddle along, while the security situation remains roughly stable with periodic spikes of spectacular violence but no signs of a resurgent civil war. But while the U.S. political debate about Iraq has faded, the importance of Iraq to American interests has not. It's therefore rather extraordinary that Congress has moved to cut $500 million from funding for the U.S. civilian mission in Iraq, leaving a shortfall of more than $1 billion.
Yesterday a wide array of Iraq policy analysts of wildly different perspectives converged on an appeal for the United States to remain committed to Iraq politically in order to deliver on a long-term strategic relationship beyond the military mission. I authored an op-ed with John Nagl, my colleague at the Center for a New American Security, arguing for a continued political engagement. Meanwhile, Brookings released a report entitled Unfinished Business, co-authored by Ken Pollack, Raad AlKadiri, Scott Carpenter, Fred Kagan and Sean Kane. There's a striking degree of analytical and policy convergence among people who used to be at sharp odds over Iraq. Nagl and I are colleagues at the Center for a New American Security but we sharply disagreed back in 2007-08 about the appropriate strategy for Iraq, as did many of the people involved in yesterday's Brookings Report. Nagl and I had not read the Brookings report at the time when we wrote the Christian Science Monitor op-ed. That we all converge on a roughly similar position today is significant - a "harmonic convergence" which the authors of the Brookings report nicely recount: "members of our group who had once been ready to do great violence to one another over their differences found themselves in violent agreement over what needed to be done." The conclusion of my piece with Nagl nicely captures this, I hope:
Today, those who backed the 2007 "surge" should be keen to see its gains consolidated, while those who called for withdrawal should be keen to make sure that as it happens, disaster does not follow. And while Iraq certainly needs to step up its political game, the United States must also muster the bipartisan political strength and will to help build a stable Iraq that can be a partner to the United States in a vital -- and deeply troubled -- part of the world. Those who gave their lives for this fight deserve nothing less.
It's being widely reported that a deal has finally been reached among the major Iraqi political blocs on the outlines of a new power-sharing agreement which would produce -- finally -- a new Iraqi government. There's still plenty of ways for this to go off the tracks, of course, but if the deal holds then it looks an awful lot like the outcome will be pretty much exactly the government which I and most everyone else expected before the elections... and an awful lot like the old government. The deal as reported has Nuri al-Maliki staying on as Prime Minister, Jalal Talabani staying on as President, Tareq al-Hashemi and Rafi Issawi staying on as Deputy Prime Ministers, and Usama Nujaifi taking over as Speaker of the Parliament. Ayad Allawi would be offered the position of head of a new National Council for Strategic Policies. The name being circulated for Foreign Minister -- Saleh al-Mutlak -- is intriguing and sure to be controversial, but that's the exception. Try not to remember that the March 2010 election had been touted as a triumph for "change."
Despite the inevitable arguments here in Washington, this outcome really shouldn't be seen as a victory for either Iran or the U.S. It is hardly a show of strength for Tehran that it was unable to impose its will on Baghdad's politics for 8 long months, and that the final composition of the government reflects most of Washington's key interests. Both Iran and the U.S. were backing Maliki by the end, but he wasn't either's first choice -- Iran would have preferred a more pliable candidate from the Shia list rather than the pugnacious Maliki, while the U.S. probably would have originally preferred Allawi. Neither got their first choice, neither will be terribly disappointed. Washington had clearly signaled that it wanted a broadly inclusive government, and that's what it seems to have gotten.
This afternoon at the Elliott School of International Affairs I moderated a really interesting panel on war reporting, co-sponsored by my Institute for Middle East Studies, Sean Aday's Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications, and Jim Lebovic's Security Policy Forum. The panel featured three major American print war journalists: Michael Gordon (of the New York Times) and Ann Scott Tyson and Rajiv Chandrasekaran (of the Washington Post). What emerged was a fascinating picture of strengths and weaknesses, of what war reporters could and could not accomplish --- especially the difficult of getting unfiltered access to local Afghan or Iraqi voices. And the panel brought out some thought-provoking points about how significantly Afghanistan differs from Iraq for the press corps... and not for the better.
There was a fairly sharp, and productive, divergence in the presentations of Gordon, on the one hand, and Tyson and Chandrasekaran on the other, about the ability of the media to cover Iraq, Afghanistan, and other such war zones. Gordon mounted a strong defense of the performance of the media in Iraq, arguing that it was the press which first noticed and drew attention to the chaos following the fall of Saddam and to the improvements following the "surge." He showed a striking slideshow of images from combat, and talked of his many embeds across Iraq as offering direct and systematic access to both the American and Iraqi sides of the conflict. All three journalists pointed to how much could be learned through embeds, from the body language and frank evaluations of the junior officers and soldiers and from the moods on the streets and bases -- and all had poignant vignettes demonstrating what a sensitive and determined journalist could do with such access.
At the same time, the Washington Post reporters both offered more guarded evaluations of what the press had been able to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chandrasekaran described a brief "golden age" after the fall of Saddam when journalists could get out into all parts of Iraq fairly freely, but as the violence mounted and journalists were targeted in the struggle access to many parts of Iraq or to many Iraqis became much more difficult. For years, journalists (even those not living in the Green Zone) were forced either to huddle down in offices and rely on stringers, or else go out into the field with the military as embeds. Both routes offered useful perspectives, but neither is perfect.
Tyson and Chandrasekaran were both frank about the limitations of trying to speak to Iraqis or Afghans from within a military embed (hopping out of a military vehicle and surrounded by large men with guns is not always the best way to strike up a conversation -- through a translator -- with locals). The U.S. military's decision to shift to a population-centric COIN strategy created more and better opportunities for such contacts, intriguingly. Both mentioned the great value of stringers, Iraqis who could get out into their communities, and who help constitute an effective overall team. Such use of stringers is essential but raises its own problems, of course - including, not least, their own safety. I pointed out my dismay at the number of books about Iraq written by even very good journalists which fail to quote or take heed of Iraqis themselves. Anthony Shadid was brought up several times as an exception, but what makes Shadid exceptional is that he is, in fact, exceptional in this regard both in terms of his Arabic language and his access (ditto Nir Rosen and a few others).
Both also acknowledged the reality of the Defense Department's control of access to embeds and of crucial information (a point Gordon disputed). Tyson mentioned at least one instance where she was not allowed to travel to a location in Iraq because it would have been a "bad news story", and the frustration of trying to get accurate and useful data from the military. Meanwhile, as I pointed out, the Pentagon's own media strategy must be taken into account -- the marketing of "good news" stories, the selection of embeds, the provision of the "right" shaykhs or former insurgents with a message to send, and so on.
Chandrasekaran -- just back from covering the Marja campaign -- noted some significant differences between Iraq and Afghanistan for war reporters. In Iraq, he argued, Baghdad was a central hub where a lot of the meaningful politics happened, while in Afghanistan Kabul is just a bubble and tells you virtually nothing about what's going on elsewhere. The infrastructure of stringers is far less developed in Afghanistan, curtailing that stream of vital information for reporters trying to make sense of the full range of voices and viewpoints. Tyson also pointed out differences in treatment of reporters by the British and other commands compared to the U.S. command. Both expressed concerns about journalists bringing their Iraq experiences and lessons learned to an Afghan context where they may not apply.
As usually happens when journalists come together, talk turned to the financial crisis of the press today and the resource constraints which this imposes. Both the Times and the Post have continued to devote significant resources to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even increasing the latter. But there's a lot fewer other papers able to do so, and to this point no clearly viable new media business model to fill the gap. Tyson pointed out how the Iraq focus had sucked attention away from Afghanistan for the crucial years of 2005-2008, a gap which the media was only now beginning to fill -- tellingly, following rather than leading the White House's decision about where to focus.
Finally, Gordon complained of the "lag time" between Washington-based analysts and reporters on the ground, and hit out against bloggers, pundits, politicians, and other analysts who weren't there on the ground. This struck me as something of a red herring -- war reporters and policy analysts do different things, have access to different streams of information, have different needs and make different contributions. Embedding with the military offers an unparalleled worms eye view, but it's only one part of a complex picture, and such experiences are only one of the multiple streams of information and context needed by serious analysis. One point which didn't come up in the discussion but perhaps should have is the significant difference in what can be learned between long-term war correspondents, present in the field for months and months and able to get out into the field and really learn their turf, and the "war tourists" coming in for a week's embed or a CODEL-style set of briefings and trip through a marketplace tour to be able to say they've "been in Iraq/Afghanistan." Those differences would make for a fascinating follow-on panel discussion -- which someone else should organize!
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declaring a great victory.
Tomorrow's scheduled U.S. pullback from Iraqi cities has provoked quite a bit of anxious hand-wringing from American analysts and probably premature celebrations from Iraqi officials. While I'm writing about this today because I just can't resist the sweet entreaties of our beloved editorial team, I don't actually think it's that big a deal. American forces have been drawing down in line with the Status of Forces Agreement expectations for months now --- it's not like tomorrow all of the Americans will suddenly click the heels of their ruby slippers and vanish in a puff of smoke. Tomorrow's deadline is far more important symbolically than practically. And here, the Obama administration and General Odierno's team deserve a lot of credit for their careful, rigorous, and publicly affirmed adherence to the agreement.
It's true that there has been an increase in the number of high-profile, high-casualty attacks over the last few weeks. The thing about spoilers is that they try to spoil. The key questions are whether the attacks trigger sectarian mobilization and security dilemma dynamics, seriously undermine confidence in the state and its ability to provide security, or drive momentum towards wider conflict. There's a lot of anecdotal evidence of mounting popular anxiety, but very little evidence of those kinds of conflict dynamics kicking in. For what it's worth, both Iraqi and American officials seem confident -- and remember when the judgment of the commanders on the ground was supposed to be considered sacred writ?
I'm not particularly an optimist on these matters, any more than I was in the past -- but I also see a rapidly declining ability or need for the U.S. to manage these issues. I think that there are still very serious issues surrounding the integration of Sunnis into the emerging Iraqi state and political system -- not just the endlessly dragging integration of the Sons of Iraq into the security forces and civil administration, but the selective targeting of key Awakenings leaders and other ongoing complaints. I also think that some amount of the recent uptick in violence is driven by the disenchantment of some of these Awakenings men, either actively or passively. But it seems clear that Maliki has decided that he can get away with selective repression and co-optation of the various Sunni forces, and will only change his approach if he determines that the price is too high. Maybe he's wrong, maybe he's right -- but that's for Iraqis to determine, not Americans.
Iraqi politics are going to continue to face all kinds of problems, as every analyst under the moon has pointed out. The Arab-Kurd issue, the continuing problems with government capacity, budget problems, and a host of unresolved issues remain. I think that the refugee/IDP issue remains the largest unresolved and virtually untouched issue facing Iraq -- those millions of people uprooted from their homes by force or fear who have few prospects of returning to their original homes, are largely disenfranchised in the emerging Iraqi political system, and who are almost completely unserved by Iraqi state institutions. But slowing down the American drawdown would not materially improve any of these issues. The best thing the U.S. can do is to continue to demonstrate its clear, credible commitment to withdraw on the agreed-upon timeline, and do what it can to help Iraqis adjust to the new realities.
File Photo: AFP/Getty Images
By Marc Lynch
This week's virtual book club about Tom Ricks's The Gamble and Obama's Iraq speech have brought out some really good points and arguments here on Foreign Policy.com. I wanted to quickly respond to some of them here as the week wraps up.
First, my esteemed co-blogger Christian Brose objects to my description of the Obama plan (offered in my response to Dan Drezner) as essentially the same one offered by Obama throughout the campaign except for two extra months. The plan is the same, he concedes, but reality has changed. That's fair, as far as it goes. Iraq in February 2009 is not the Iraq of spring 2007. But it's still the case that the plan which Obama presented on Friday is in most particulars the same as the one presented throughout 2008, save for those two fateful months added to the timeline for withdrawal of combat brigades.
The most interesting part of the story has to be how the U.S. policy debate evolved over 2007-2008 to make this consensus possible. The rough contours of Obama's plan evolved amidst a healthy, constructive debate over the course of 2007-08 between center-left and center-right pragmatists. Obama's commitment to withdrawal along a fixed timeline moved the debate in both the U.S. and Iraq -- just compare the early Bush positions in the SOFA negotiations in favor of an open-ended, long-term U.S. military presence with the final document's fixed deadline of December 31, 2011 for the departure of U.S. troops. The SOFA (which I have praised Bush for signing) cemented the strategic convergence around a time-line for withdrawal. That, along with his careful consultations with the military at all levels on how to safely implement his commitments, helped ensure the rough consensus we so amazingly saw last week.
But all of that just makes it even more amazing to look back to the presidential election campaign, where the intense political rhetoric tended to obscure the emerging policy convergence on Iraq policy. Obama's plan is, as Brose acknowledges, substantially the same as the plan he advocated in the campaign. During the campaign, McCain's people savaged the plan. Now the same people praise it as "an Iraq policy John McCain might have formulated." As a great man once said, you can tell the people you roll with whatever you want, but you and I know what's going on. (That's not aimed at Chris, just to be clear).
Second, Tom Ricks.
Much of what Ricks has said in response to his critics makes sense. I fully agree with his concerns about the long-term success of the surge, the continuing and deep political fragility of Iraq, and the impressiveness of the men who changed U.S. strategy in Iraq. Can things go wrong? Are conditions still fragile? Lord, yes. Will some U.S. commanders on the ground continue to worry that it isn't a good time to remove forces? Probably. But I disagree with his repeated claim that Obama is repeating Bush's mistake of over-optimism, and I think that his cavalier dismissal of the SOFA is dangerously wrong.
Obama's withdrawal plan was never based on unrealistic optimism, but rather on a healthy skepticism about what the U.S. could hope to accomplish, which should be music to the ears of the Tom Ricks who wrote The Gamble. Back during the election season, it was the ones who backed what I take to be Ricks's preferred strategy who tended to offer wildly over-optimistic views of progress in Iraq, the better to vindicate the surge. The people around Obama were far more skeptical and (in my opinion) prudent -- we were far more often criticized as "doom and gloomers" than as wild-eyed optimists. I've seen no evidence that anything has changed with the team now in place. These are tactically conservative, careful people -- if anything, too cautious for my taste.
As for the SOFA, though, we do really disagree. I think Ricks is just wrong, and dangerously so, to dismiss it as not mattering. It matters a lot to Iraqis, it is legally binding on the United States, and the new campaign plan is built around it. If the referendum fails in July -- a real possibility -- all the other plans are off and the U.S. will have to withdraw within a year. Ricks has the right to his perspective on this, and it may reflect what he has heard from many of his military sources, but I think this is a major flaw in his analysis. We shall see.
By the way, let's hear it for all the contributors to FP.com's Iraq week! These are good debates to be having and it's a delight to be part of it. I hope that the seeming bipartisan accord on the withdrawal plan can open the space for constructive policy debates about what is almost certainly going to be a tricky and difficult path out of Iraq.
UPDATE: Since Peter Feaver has now weighed in, let me add on a quick response to his thoughtful remarks as well.
First, Feaver argues that "with only minor modifications, his "new strategy" simply codifies the Bush plan and embraces the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by Bush." This is true only to the extent that Bush moved a long, long way before agreeing to the Status of Forces Agreement in its final format. The final SOFA, with its fixed December 2011 deadline, just looks nothing like the original conception of the long-term U.S. presence in Iraq originally envisioned when the negotiations began. Bush and his team deserve -- and received, from me at least -- great praise for accepting the new Iraqi and American realities, and signing on to a SOFA which lined up with Obama's stated intentions.
Second, Feaver worries about the inflexibility of the deadline and worries that it will tie Obama's hands in the event of future problems. But this isn't a bug, it's a feature. Part of the problem here is that Feaver sees this as primarily directed towards the domestic audience. But it's also, and I would argue more significantly, directed towards the Iraqis. Most Iraqis find it very hard to believe that the U.S. will really leave, and need clear, sharp signals to establish that this is in fact the policy. And then down the road there will be all kinds of vested interests in keeping the U.S. in Iraq which will look for ways to force that to happen. Obama's speech (after the long campaign) will now pay very high "audience costs" (to use the IR theory lingo) for revising the policy, which will help to raise the bar for changing the stance quite high and will establish the credibility of the commitment.
By Marc Lynch
I thought Obama's speech on Iraq this afternoon was outstanding.It laid out a powerful rationale for the new policy, sent a very clear signal to Iraqis about American intentions, placed American policy firmly within the context of the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated with the Iraqi government, and embedded the policy effectively into its wider regional context. I know that some on the left are worried about the 50,000 figure for the residual force and about the timeline, but I think those concerns are overblown.The plan Obama laid out today is entirely consistent with his campaign promises and -- more important -- is the right strategy for today's Iraq.
Here's what I liked:
So to the Iraqi people, let me be clear about America’s intentions. The United States pursues no claim on your territory or your resources. We respect your sovereignty and the tremendous sacrifices you have made for your country. We seek a full transition to Iraqi responsibility for the security of your country. And going forward, we can build a lasting relationship founded upon mutual interests and mutual respect as Iraq takes its rightful place in the community of nations."
No plan is perfect. I would like to have heard more about the pace of troop withdrawals, particularly in the early going. The role of the residual force could have been better explained. But I must say that I am far less concerned about the size of the residual forces than are others on the Left. Such a residual force was always a part of Obama's campaign platform, and -- more importantly -- is perfectly consistent with the Status of Forces Agreement, which does not require U.S. troops to leave until the end of 2011. Their mission will change, and they will play an important role in training and support for the Iraqi government and security forces. Nor am I at all bothered by the two month difference between the campaign promise and the timeline in the speech -- and can't imagine that anybody else is either.
Obama's speech today was all that I had hoped, especially after yesterday's conflicting reports. It very closely follows his campaign commitments.It maintains a clear timeline for withdrawal, and sends the clear, unambiguous signal that Iraqis and the region needed to hear while re-emphasizing America's commitment to engagement with the region. It puts Iraqis first and defines a normal, positive future relationship between governments and peoples. And it does this with a frank recognition of Iraq's continuing fragility and plethora of unresolved political fissures, and the tough road ahead. And most remarkable of all, he may even succeed in commanding a bipartisan and inter-agency consensus in support of this policy at home.
This speech is something for which I and many, many others have been waiting -- and working -- for a long, long time. There's much hard work to come, but the die is cast and the signal is clear.
Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Peter Beinart today bravely repeats the emerging would-be conventional wisdom. Rather than simply denounce everything Republican, he argues, Democrats should admit that the "surge" worked and -- uniquely echoing a thousand recent op-eds -- was President Bush's finest moment. I have a hard time imagining anything as tedious as rehashing those tired debates from the campaign about the "surge" -- perhaps we could have another round of arguments as to whether the surge brigades arriving in the spring of 2007 caused the Sunni turn against al-Qaeda in the fall of 2006? But in the interests of post-partisanship, I am willing to offer an alternative as Bush's finest hour in Iraq: the Status of Forces Agreement.
Signing a Status of Forces Agreement requiring the full withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq on a fixed three year timeline demonstrated a real flexibility on Bush's part. It demonstrated a pragmatism and willingness to put the national interest ahead of partisanship that few of us believed he possessed. It is largely thanks to Bush's acceptance of his own bargaining failure that Barack Obama will inherit a plausible route to successful disengagement from Iraq.
Conservatives now like to claim the SOFA as a "Bush-negotiated" success. But Bush entered the SOFA negotiations looking for something entirely different than what emerged at the end. The U.S. went into the SOFA talks intent on obtaining legitimacy for a long-term military presence in Iraq once the Security Council mandate ended. When negotiations began, it was widely assumed that Bush would extract from the Iraqis an agreement which made the removal of U.S. troops entirely contingent upon American assessments of conditions on the ground. There were widespread discussions of permanent U.S. bases and a Korea-style presence for generations, an assumption that the U.S. would retain a free hand in its operations, and an absolute rejection of an Obama-style timeline for withdrawal.
But Iraqi leaders, to most everyone's surprise, took a hard line in the negotiations. Their tough line was encouraged by Iran, no doubt, as stressed by many frustrated American commentators. But it also reflected Iraqi domestic considerations, including several rounds of upcoming elections and an intensely strong popular Iraqi hostility to the U.S. occupation under any name. The Iraqis were also helped by the calender. As negotiations dragged on, the December 31 deadline loomed large, threatening to leave the U.S. troops without any legal mandate to remain in the country and forcing the hand of American negotiators. Finally, the Iraqi leaders clearly kept a careful eye on the American Presidential elections and used Obama's stance to strengthen their own hand in negotiations.
And here's where I will offer some sincere praise for Bush and his team. When the Iraqis insisted on an Obama-style timeline for U.S. withdrawal instead of a Bush/McCain- style conditions-based aspirational time frame for U.S. withdrawal, he could have insisted on the latter. This would have fit with his administration's often-repeated preferences. He could have continued to push for this conception closer to the December 31 deadline, playing high-stakes chicken at the expense of American military planning for the coming year and at the risk of the Iraqi political system not having adequate time to ratify the deal.
But he didn't. To his credit, Bush agreed to the Obama-style timeline for U.S. withdrawal. Granted, he hedged -- he didn't authorize Ambassador Ryan Crocker to sign off on the deal until after the Presidential election (on November 18). But at that point he bowed to the political realities in the U.S. and Iraq and agreed to a SOFA which far more closely matched Obama's avowed vision for Iraq -- withdrawal of U.S. forces in three years, no permanent bases -- than his own. Thanks to this pragmatism, Obama can now work closely with the Iraqi government in managing the drawdown instead of spending his first months in office trying to wriggle out of an unacceptable deal. And this, I might speculate, is among the reasons why Robert Gates will continue as Secretary of Defense.
And thus I offer Bush's willingness to sign the SOFA mandating U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and not the surge, as his finest moment in Iraq.
Photo by Thaier al-Sudani-Pool/Getty Images
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.