In many ways, I feel for Barack Obama. His instincts obviously are to seek consensus, but he has an extremist Republican Party that wants no part of it. And he has multitudes of other enemies, like the Blue Dogs always whispering in his ear about fiscal responsibility in a time of economic meltdown, and several elements of the military, who will fight his plans and try to undermine his goals, particularly in Iraq:
Since taking office last week, Mr. Obama has recommitted to ending the war in Iraq but not to his specific campaign pledge to pull out roughly one combat brigade a month for the first 16 months of his presidency. His top commander in Iraq has proposed a slower start to the withdrawal, warning of the dangers of drawing down too quickly [...]
Among those consulted by the president was Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, who has developed a plan that would move slower than Mr. Obama’s campaign timetable, by pulling out two brigades over the next six months. In an interview in Iraq on Wednesday, General Odierno suggested that it might take the rest of the year to determine exactly when United States forces could be drawn down significantly.
“I believe that if we can get through the next year peacefully, with incidents about what they are today or better, I think we’re getting close to enduring stability, which enables us to really reduce,” General Odierno said as he inspected a polling center south of Baghdad in advance of provincial elections on Saturday.
General Odierno said the period between this weekend’s elections and the national elections to be held about a year from now would be critical to determining the future of Iraq. While some American forces could be withdrawn before then, he suggested that the bulk of any pullout would probably come after that.
“We are going to reduce forces this year,” the general said. “It’s the right time to reduce our forces here. I believe that Iraqis are making progress. It’s time for us in some places to step back and give them more control.” He added, “What we want to do is to slowly shift our mission from one that’s focused on counterinsurgency to one that’s more focused on stability operations.”
Odierno is thinking from the perspective of a commander responsible just for Iraq, and employing a Freidman Unit strategy ensures that he isn't blamed for losing the war if things go awry. Ryan Crocker basically said the same thing the other day, warning against a "precipitous" withdrawal, but Odierno puts some numbers to it. And while there's probably less conflict that there appears to be, owing for press bias toward internal squabbling, Odierno's is a very shortsighted strategy. Marc Lynch explains this well.
The politics of this aside, I think that Odierno's intention of keeping troops in Iraq through the national elections is dangerously wrong. The CFR/Brookings/Odierno "go slow" approach ignores the reality of the new Status of Forces Agreement and the impending referendum this summer -- which may well fail if there is no sign of departing American troops. It sends the wrong messages to Iraqi politicians and the Iraqi population. It would badly hurt Obama's credibility in the region and with Iraqis, who will see his most important public commitment fall by the wayside. And it would lose the unique window of opportunity offered by the transition to signal real change.
This strategy is also a recipe for endless delay. Given the very catalog of Iraqi political fissures and emerging conflicts that Odierno cites as reason to stay, there is little reason to think that conditions will be so much more stable at the end of this proposed year of caution. At that point the exact same conversation will ensue about why drawdowns are imprudent at this time -- and does anybody believe that the people currently calling for prudence and high troop levels will suddenly reverse themselves a year from now when conditions look much the same as they do now? [...]
A "down payment" of a public, significant drawdown in the early spring would send the correct signals to all relevant actors, while allowing plenty of time for commanders in the field to assess the impact and adjust accordingly. I hope that Obama is able to head off a battle with the military -- and the military, a battle with Obama -- by working together on such a strategy. Remember: Obama won the election.
It doesn't surprise me that a commander in the field would ask for more troops, or want to postpone drawing down troops. Why would a commander in the field want less to work with? But the job of a president, as Obama well knows, is to balance competing commitments and to make these choices.
Look, at some point the fighting between internal forces in Iraq jockeying for power will bubble to the surface. Our presence or absence isn't going to change that. So while we have a honeymoon period with a new President, we need to honor our agreements and let the Iraqis invest in their own future again, rather than waiting around for us to get out before doing so. Failing to meet our responsibilities outlined in the SOFA will anger Iraqis and also the world.
In a broader context, I think it’s just difficult to overstate the importance of ending the war and occupation in Iraq to advancing America’s broader international agenda. There were a lot of things wrong with the Bush administration’s policy, but in concrete terms the world is looking for a new approach to detention and torture, a new approach to Israel and Palestine, and a new approach to Iraq. Obama has acted decisively on the first item, has shown a lot of promise on the second, and needs to follow through on the third. Diplomacy with Iran, a renewed focus on the Afghanistan/Pakistan situation, a rapprochement with Europe, a partnership with China and our allies in Asia on the global economic situation, etc. all require us to get out of an Iraq-focused foreign policy. And the complexities of Iraq are such that the best way to do that is to get out of Iraq.
Absolutely. Odierno is doing his job asking for more resources but Obama needs to guide this with an eye toward the overall foreign policy picture. Furthermore, his ability to control the military as commander-in-chief will be severely limited if he gives in on troop withdrawals. His attendant policy pronouncements will ring hollow. Obama has to hold to his campaign promise and a signed agreement with the Iraqis. It's time to leave Iraq.