Barack Obama Takes Charge: Time to Leave Iraq

The Bush administration’s time is draining away. President George W. Bush apparently believes that history will vindicate his policies, but a positive legacy is not likely to be. On the domestic side his record is a horrid mishmash of wild spending, massive corporate bailouts, civil liberties violations, and executive aggrandizement. On foreign policy the president’s program comes down to Iraq, Iraq, and a few other minor issues.

Alas, the administration’s case for invading Iraq was entirely wrong. Saddam Hussein didn’t possess weapons of mass destruction, had no connection to 9/11, and, like even worse dictators before him, such as Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, was contained and deterred by American military might. The humanitarian argument for the war dissolved amid horrific sectarian violence.

Yet President Bush refused to admit error or doubt about his tottering occupation policy even as Iraqi civil society collapsed. Through it all he sought to fashion a permanent, or “enduring,” occupation that would allow the US to maintain scores of bases – 58 according to leading Shia lawmakers – for use to intervene militarily throughout the region. His objective was shared by the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, who advocated an occupation running 100 or 1000 years.

Although President Bush hoped to commit the US to a permanent occupation, preventing future administrations from disengaging from Iraq, the Iraqis decided differently. While the Maliki government remains reliant on Washington’s military support, even more importantly it remains reliant on Iraqi popular support, and the vast majority of Iraqis want US forces to go. The Bush administration’s attempt to pressure Baghdad into accepting the lengthy presence of military personnel and civilian contractors immune from Iraqi law backfired, as Iraqis rallied against Washington.

After months of bargaining, the two governments negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to replace the current UN mandate, which expires December 31. But even after a draft accord was reached, rising popular opposition convinced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that pushing ahead was, he reportedly said, “political suicide.” Maliki told a fellow Shia politician that “We don’t call it a security pact but an agreement to withdraw the troops and organize their activities during the period of their presence in Iraq.” America’s October raid into Syria further raised Iraqi popular concerns with an extended US military presence.

Last month the Iraqi government demanded more than 100 amendments to the draft SOFA, including making more certain America’s departure date of December 31, 2011 and further limiting the immunity of US military personnel and civilian contractors under Iraqi law. With provincial elections scheduled for January, the timing is particularly sensitive for Baghdad: Prime Minister Maliki doesn’t want to appear to be bowing to Washington.

Although Washington has agreed to further concessions, the pact faces an uncertain future. With major Islamic holidays coming in December, which will further slow Iraqi decision-making, the two governments might not reach final agreement before the UN mandate expires. One option would be to extend UN authority, but Russia and China could demand concessions before approving any Security Council deal. Washington and Baghdad could forge an interim accord, but that might prove little easier than negotiating the SOFA. Without any legal authority for US forces to act, Washington has threatened to halt all operations (to “basically stop doing anything,” in the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates) when the UN mandate expires. The dispute creates another mess for the incoming Obama administration to clean up.

The right policy is an expeditious exit. Uncle Sam should not pass “go” or collect $100 first. Rather, Washington should begin a rapid drawdown of its forces and equally speedy closure of American bases. At the same time, the US should urge Iraq’s neighbors to meet and develop regional arrangements to promote Iraqi stability – which might win Iraqi and Syrian acceptance in the absence of a continuing (and to them threatening) American military presence. It doesn’t matter if the Maliki government secretly would like, contra the Iraqi population’s view, to keep its foreign guardians around a little longer for regime protection. The question is America’s interest, and America’s interest is to get out of Iraq.

However, it isn’t clear what the president-elect intends. Sen. Barack Obama’s insistence on an Iraqi withdrawal waned as the campaign advanced and Iraq fell out of the news. He once proposed a 16-month withdrawal, but his Iraq working group coordinator, Colin Kahl, wants US support to “hinge on continued progress toward political accommodation.” That is, Washington should continue attempting to micromanage Iraqi affairs, setting benchmarks, lobbying for different policies, meddling in Iraqi politics.

It’s a policy that has had only indifferent success in the past and isn’t likely to become more effective if Baghdad senses that Washington officials really want to stick around. For instance, Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary who advised candidate Obama on defense matters, has talked about keeping up to 55,000 (out of the current 146,000) US troops in Iraq in various advisory capacities. That’s the equivalent of a permanent occupation in disguise.

Former Pentagon official Larry Korb, now with the Center for American Progress, instead contends that “Unless we set a firm withdrawal date and make it clear that our open-ended support has a deadline, the Iraqis aren’t going to get serious about what they need to do.” He’s almost certainly right. But the fact that only withdrawal gives the US leverage isn’t the most important point. The US shouldn’t be worrying about having leverage over Iraq – getting Baghdad to pay more of the occupation bills, protesting Iran’s role in the country, pestering the Maliki government about its relations with other governments, or much else. Washington has defenestrated Saddam Hussein and armed the successor government. Now the US government should leave Iraq and allow Baghdad to decide its own policies.

Whether Iraq’s future is increased stability or civil war is impossible to know and is not under Washington’s control. Iraq’s relative quiescence today is due less to the US troop “surge” and improved anti-insurgency tactics than domestic Iraqi factors. Particularly important is the turn of the Sunni militias against al-Qaeda, shift of Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia away from violent resistance towards political activism, and nearly complete ethnic cleansing of mixed Baghdad neighborhoods – which left fewer religious minorities vulnerable to attack by sectarian militias.

However, millions of Iraqis remain refugees and there still is disturbing violence – Christians recently were targeted in the city of Mosul, for instance. Iraq’s relative quiet may be transitory. Washington’s arming and financing of the so-called “Awakening Councils” could prove to be the transition to more intense sectarian strife rather than a gateway to permanent peace. Baghdad’s relationship with the councils is difficult at best and any attempt by the central government to extend its sway over them could spark violent resistance.

Moreover, Sadr’s commitment to the political process may prove transitory if his party falters in upcoming elections. Iraq’s ruling council is fractious and unstable, and Sadr may not be the only ambitious religious and political leader frustrated by electoral outcomes and tempted to look elsewhere to assert himself. “From now on, violence will follow the politics,” one Western diplomat warned the Scotsman. No wonder that CENTCOM head Gen. David Petraeus declares Iraq’s gains to be “fragile and reversible.” Washington policymakers should hope for the best for Iraq, but must have no illusions about the likely outcome.

In any case, America’s role is finished. The Maliki government has sufficient military force to defend itself; the one certain outcome of any future hostilities is that al-Qaeda will lose, since even Sunnis hostile to the US and the Shia-dominated central government have turned on the terrorist organization. What the Maliki regime desperately needs is legitimacy, but that Washington cannot provide. Indeed, being forced to play the tool of America makes it harder for any Iraqi government to win the respect of its own people, as well as of neighboring states. This is why negotiations over a continued US troop presence have proved to be so contentious. Finally, Washington’s disengagement will prove to be the most effective push to Iraqi politicians to make the hard compromises necessary for Iraq to create and maintain some sort of peaceful political order.

However, the most important reason to get out is because it is in America’s interest to do so. Thankfully the human toll for both the US and Iraq has fallen sharply over the last year, but the financial bill continues to accumulate. Some $600 billion already has been wasted on Bush’s folly, and the war continues to cost about $145 billion a year. The Congressional Budget Office figures the ultimate price tag will hit $2 trillion. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes warn the cost could go substantially higher, perhaps to $3 trillion. The sooner the US gets out, the sooner Washington’s Iraq current bill starts shrinking.

In an attempt to complete the negotiations – made more difficult by the fact that the Maliki government, in contrast to the Bush administration, is committed to winning legislative approval for the troop accord – the administration yielded on some of Baghdad’s demands for revisions. But the agreement retains a continued US presence until 2011 with the possibility of a longer stay, especially for troops to train and support Iraqi forces.

President-elect Obama should announce that agreement or no agreement, the US military will be coming home from Iraq in 2009. He also should pledge to present any SOFA, whether reached by his predecessor or his own administration, to Congress for approval.

The war was tragic and unnecessary. America’s professed security objectives – ensuring that Iraq is free of WMDs and terrorists operating against the US – were accomplished even before the invasion. Having eliminated the Hussein regime, Washington should leave Iraq’s continuing transformation up to the Iraqi people. An enduring occupation, which presumes future US military intervention in the region, is in neither country’s interest.

The recent election was about change. And who, other than the bedraggled neoconservative refugees from the Bush administration, doubt that Washington’s Iraq policy needs to change? The US troops need to come home. Quickly. And completely.