Between Iraq and a Hard Place

It took a lot of crust for House Speaker John Boehner to parachute into Baghdad for a weekend pit-stop and ignore what has been some of the worst violence and uncertainty there in a long time. Instead, he issues a statement about the “significant progress that has been made,” thanks to the “men and women in uniform,” who helped make Iraq “a different country.”

In the week before his “visit,” at least 65 people were killed or dead bodies found in several Iraqi cities, particularly Baghdad, where on Sunday April 17—as Boehner was presumably making his statement—a family of four was executed in the night, leaving a seven-year-old child behind, alive. Most of the week’s dead, according to reports, were victims of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), adhesive explosive devices (AED), bomb attacks or shootings. A total of 287 civilians were killed in March.

One day after Boehner left for another two-day “drop in” at the other American war zone in Afghanistan, suicide bombers driving two cars packed with explosives detonated their cache just outside the entrance to the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, killing 11 and wounding at least 19.

Meanwhile, protesters continue to rock the rest of the country, demanding basic services and an end to government corruption. At least 90 people were injured in Sulaimaniya in the northern semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan on April 18, as Kurdish government security forces, otherwise known as the peshmerga, cracked down on the crowd, using live ammunition and tear gas.

Boehner was either packed with a ton of nerve or a lot of Kool Aid, but the top Republican’s shopworn statement to the press following his “surprise” visit nevertheless invoked the animatronic fortune teller in a penny arcade. One puts in a coin and out pops a random bromide. The whole place could’ve been on fire, with Saddam himself, reanimated and storming down Haifa Street, and Boehner would still be reciting, “Just four years ago, a terrorist insurgency was killing innocent civilians and wreaking havoc across the country. … Today Iraq is a different country.”

Different, sure, from the apocalyptic nightmare coalition forces set into motion after the 2003 invasion, which we find out now, had more to do with helping big Western oil interests get a foothold in resource rich Iraq than anyone at the White House or 10 Downing would ever admit, publicly. But “hell-hole” should not be the standard, and let’s be honest, Boehner would hardly consider 287 killings and at least one terror attack a day in his own country “progress” on any level.

But this is a familiar exhibition. No politician, from Bush to Obama, has ever traveled to Baghdad and not tried to put a happy face on it. Nor is it unusual for members of congress to use a quick congressional delegation (CODEL) into the war zone to burnish their foreign policy chops. That’s standard political fare. But one wonders if there was more to the timing, and what exactly Boehner talked about with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Boehner, pronounced bey-ner, not boner, was the second out of four high-level officials to call on Maliki this month—one week after Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, and just ahead of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. Boehner said it was “critically important that we continue to assist and engage with the Iraqi Government to ensure that the hard-fought gains in a post-combat Iraq translate into long-term success,” but no word on whether they spoke directly about the bilateral SOFA (status of forces agreement) that guarantees the remaining 50,000 U.S service members in Iraq are gone by the end of this year.

If Boehner did want Maliki to request that the U.S stay beyond 2011, which would seem to be the military’s hope, he didn’t say it, this time (he was quick, however, to warn Obama not to “risk the tenuous progress we’ve made” in Afghanistan by pulling troops out of there too soon. Obama has pledged to start withdrawing U.S forces from Afghanistan in July, though he has yet to announce a number or scope).

So far this drama is playing out like a Kabuki dance, with the military playing coy about wanting to stay, and Maliki, even if he might be amendable to the idea, protecting his own political hide by resisting. He’s facing growing demands from the Iraqi people for an immediate U.S withdrawal, with the restive Sadrist movement threatening to escalate “military resistance” if it doesn’t happen come December.

Simply put, Iraq is much more fragile in its “post war” state than Boehner admits publicly. Meanwhile, The Clash’s old “should I stay or should I go now” comes to mind, and sadly, to Americans in general, neither option looks particularly palatable. Staying would mean more blood and treasure and possibly inciting another insurgency; leaving a festering open wound behind—and a fickle ally, too—only emphasizes our failure and loss of regional influence.

Not that the American public has much say in the matter. It seems pretty clear that both the political and military establishment wants to keep a foothold in Iraq and would rather stay and protect its interests (military strategic and corporate) there.

For example, two weeks ago, a “senior military official” in Baghdad told a small group of reporters that keeping some U.S forces there beyond 2011 would be “best for Iraq” and suggested that Iraqi security forces are still not ready to secure their own country. The comments came mere days after Secretary of Defense Bob Gates traveled to Baghdad and openly endorsed a continuing military presence beyond the deadline. He all but challenged Maliki to make a decision now, either way.

“We are willing to have a presence beyond (2011), but we’ve got a lot of commitments,” Gates said …

“So if folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we’re going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning,” he added. “I think there is interest in having a continuing presence. The politics are such that we’ll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis.”

Meanwhile, Ryan Crocker, U.S ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, threw it all on the table in a March 26 Q & A with the Houston Chronicle editorial board:

What I am hoping is that in the next couple of months the Iraqi government will come to us very quietly and say, ‘Hey you know that 2008 agreement that that idiot Crocker negotiated that called for the total withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011? Let’s see how we might creatively modify that.’ …

I mean, you could not have Obama extending a Bush deadline. But there are still lots of creative options, and you can call it whatever you want, but I think — what I hope—we’re doing is a lot of in-house work on what a range of acceptable options to us might be, what a range of acceptable agreements might look like, and acceptable force levels.

In February, the Christian Science Monitor reported growing support in Washington for staying, too.

Sen. John McCain who fully endorsed a third war front in Libya, said he thinks it’s “obvious that the Iraqi military doesn’t have a lot of the technological capability that they need to combat to this kind of insurgency that is still out there.” Rep. Adam Smith, D-WA, then told the Monitor that it was “highly likely” the Iraqi government would extend the deadline, and he would “be surprised” if we didn’t leave as many as 20,000 troops behind for “training” purposes.

Funny, that was the number the indomitable Kagans were throwing around in their recent treatise entitled, “Stand with Iraq,” a call to keep thousands of troops in Iraq “for several years.” Of course it wouldn’t be an aggressive U.S policy moment without Frederick “choosing victory” Kagan and wife “Kimberly “drill bit” Kagan weighing in, and using The Weekly Standard, the pied piper of the 2003 invasion, as their paper platform.

Not surprisingly, they believe the Obama administration dropped the ball in Iraq by not developing the essential non-military “ties” to bind Iraq to the West. In other words, after ten years helping to undercut the civilian role in the war, the Kagans are “shocked, shocked!” that the U.S State Department, USAID and others lack the authority and budgets to pursue the “civilian surge” they promised when Obama became president. More importantly, the Kagans charge the administration has failed to encourage “Western companies to compete with Iranian investment,” or conduct “public relations efforts in Iraq to counter the Iranian narrative.”

For the Kagans, the “non-military” mission is all about Iran’s influence—not whether Iraqi doctors are returning after mass exodus, or whether Iraqis are drinking and bathing in clean water. They say nothing about the military’s failure to establish long-term development projects, or the fact that western companies are afraid to invest in Iraq because the security is weak and the government corrupt.

Instead they strafe Obama and the State Department and say the withdrawal of U.S military will leave behind Iraqi security forces “not even up to the basic requirements of defending Iraq’s sovereignty.”

“Iraq has no capability to police or control its own airspace and an extremely limited ability to defend its coast and the vital offshore oil platforms through which most of its oil flows. Nor will such a capacity be in place by 2012,” the Kagans wrote.

Who will protect the oil?

Therein lies the rub—and the fear—that the Iraqis won’t be able to protect the oil, the rights to which are already being carved up among Western interests, as well as Asia and Russia. The Iraq oil ministry, hoping to boost oil production capacity from today’s approximately 2.7 million barrels per day to 13.5 million bpd in seven years, announced a fourth round of bidding in April for a dozen new oil exploration blocks.

Although the U.S hardly dominated the first licensing round in 2009, Exxon Mobil still got in a toehold, as did British Petroleum (BP) and the Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Shell. Now, no one can read the reporting on the 2003 secret memos containing the minutes of meetings between British ministers and senior oil executives just before the invasion of Iraq and not be convinced that big oil had not played a decisive role in the Brits’ decision to help us overthrow Saddam. As Jim Lobe pointed out in his recent column, it was one of several self-serving reasons for regime change.

Apparently, according to the memos, the Bush Administration was using fertile oil and gas prospects as bargaining tools to build a “coalition of the willing” (more like “coalition of the drilling”), and BP and Shell were among the companies that were promised a piece of the action. “Iraq was a straightforward smash and grab,” charges writer Conn Hallinan.

“What always puzzles me is that people think oil is not at the base of it. Given that the U.S. imports two-thirds of its oil, and 65 percent of the world’s reserves lie in the Middle East, what kind of fool would the U.S. be not to pay attention to those reserves?”

Now it means to protect those reserves, and who better to do that in this nascent period than the U.S military? U.S-based Exxon, for example, is now pumping out 285,000 bpd with Dutch Shell and its Iraqi partners at the West Qurna Phase 1 oil fields in southern Iraq, about 40 miles from Basra. It eventually means to produce 2.8 million bpd out of that field. This month, it brought on Halliburton, the old CEO perch of former Vice President Dick Cheney, to start the drilling at 15 of its wells.

It was a little more than six months ago that Iraq Oil Report (subscription only; try a free trial) published a rather positive feature about Contingency Operating Base (COB) Basra. Reportedly the State Department and U.S military had been “ordered to help” ensure security for the American and multinational companies developing fields in the lucrative south. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who was commanding U.S forces in Iraq at the time, insisted, “there is good coordination going on with all the oil companies and the Basra operational camp.”

For sure. According to the Iraq Oil Report, “oil executives buzz in and out of this American base … some staying the night—or longer.”

Meanwhile, U.S Coast Guard and Navy have long been protecting oil interests at the Al Basrah Oil Terminal, which pumps some 80 percent of the country’s oil exports for tanker transport—some 1.5 million barrels per day. Sailors and Coast Guardsmen have been patrolling every minute of every day, on the platform, and in the water. Today, they train their Iraqi replacements, hoping that when they take over the transition it will be seamless.

The American and British oil interests are certainly counting on it. They worked hard enough to get to this point, they’ll lobby even harder to make sure it was worth the effort.

Don’t think for a minute that they aren’t somewhere behind the pressure on Maliki to ask for an extension to the SOFA deadline. Don’t underestimate their influence on politicians like Boehner, either. This particular Kabuki may go on for a while— we have until the end of the year—but we can pretty well guess how it will end.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.