Sunrise or Sunset for Iraq?

Operation New Dawn. That is the name the U.S. military will give its operations in Iraq when U.S. military operations in that country end this September.

Wait, what? Okay, once more, a little more slowly. The United States has nearly 100,000 military personnel in Iraq right now. In keeping with the January 2009 Security Agreement between Washington and Baghdad, the United States will withdraw all forces and contractors and turn over military installations to the Iraqi government by the end of 2011.

In order to meet this goal, the Obama administration will begin moving troops out of Iraq this spring. The president promised to remove all combat personnel by August. In September, the United States will reduce its troop levels to 48,000 troops and bring down the number of contractors from 120-130,000 to 75,000. That new arrangement will be dubbed Operation New Dawn.

Why Now?

Operation Dawn was first used in a memo [.pdf] from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to U.S. Central Command head Gen. David Petraeus last week. In the memo Gates says that the name change “sends a strong signal” and “presents opportunities to synchronize strategic communication initiatives, reinforce our commitment to honor the Security Agreement, and recognize our evolving relationship with the Government of Iraq.” Okay, but why in February, months before this transition even begins?

The announcement has some obvious liabilities. For one, it reminds the U.S. people that there is a war in Iraq – an expensive, bloody, and protracted conflict that the president campaigned to end. No one wants to be reminded of this conflict, especially when there’s another expensive, bloody, and protracted conflict in Afghanistan dominating the front pages of the newspaper.

Operation New Dawn also opens the administration up for renewed derision at its clumsy rebranding efforts. One can’t help but be reminded of the Obama administration’s efforts to replace the bombastic “Global War on Terror” and its robust shorthand GWOT with the tepid moniker “overseas contingency operations.”

In light of these and other drawbacks, the name change is happening now because – in part – Iraq is preparing for elections in the first week of March, and those preparations aren’t going well. Sunni groups might sit it out, violence is once again spiraling out of control, and voter turnout is expected to be light.

Against this less-than-bright-new-dawn rising, the United States military appears to be trying to remind everyone it is on its way out.

Just as the Pentagon is preparing its exit plan – or at least the rhetoric for its exit plan – pressure is mounting for the military to stay. In a recent New York Times op-ed, long-time journalist and critic of Iraq War policies Thomas Ricks wrote that staying might be the new leaving. “I think leaders in both countries may come to recognize that the best way to deter a return to civil war is to find a way to keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come,” he wrote. Kenneth Pollack of Brookings compared U.S. military forces in Iraq to a cast on a broken arm, saying “we can’t know for certain when Iraq’s bones have healed, we need to be very careful about how and when we remove the cast.” This is a compelling argument only if one forgets that the cast broke the arm in the first place.

A Real New Dawn

The name change, in addition to being “extremely cheesy,” is at best premature, according to Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born political analyst at Peace Action. For the Obama administration, New Dawn marks the beginning of U.S. forces withdrawal. But, he says, “The bottom line is that for the majority of Iraqis, the New Dawn will only rise when all U.S. forces are gone and the occupation over.”

March will mark seven years since the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. But Joshua Brollier, co-director of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, points out that the people of Iraq have endured 19 years of economic and military warfare at the hands of the United States. Thus, “it is hard to genuinely say what a New Dawn could look like for the people of Iraq, especially when it comes to U.S. involvement in the lives of Iraqis.”

Brollier contrasts the $150 billion that the United States will spend on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal year 2011 with the $330 million set aside for Iraqi refugee assistance. “If these excessive and ineffective combat funds were redirected to refugee assistance, locally directed projects, and much-needed infrastructure, maybe then a crack could open up for reconciliation and trust to be built between the people of Iraq and the United States,” he writes. “Changing our troop designation from combat brigades to advisers will not suffice; neither will a new name for more of the same.”

Brollier’s colleague Kathy Kelly reacted to the New Dawn name change by imagining what a real new dawn would look like for the Iraqi people: “Suppose Iraqis awakened to news that, as a clear sign of repentance for the suffering the United States has caused Iraqis, the U.S. plans to pay just and fair reparations, and that the funds would be directed away from U.S. military operations in Iraq and instead entrusted to an Iraqi reconstruction fund under the oversight of experts and world leaders who have demonstrated that they have no interest in exploiting Iraq’s people or its resources. That is a new dawn.”

Vice President Joe Biden recently expressed that he was “very optimistic” about and “impressed” by Iraq, and that it “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” But Operation New Dawn could well become known as “Obama’s Other War.” And that doesn’t have a very nice ring to it, does it?

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.

Author: Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate at the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative.