As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Too Close To The Subject

If Tom Ricks' The Gamble and his subsequent publicity tour for the same have a major thrust, it's this: the war in Iraq isn't over, and it may have just begun. The book is apparently a riveting account of the surge strategy and its incompleteness, because it failed to bring the needed political reconciliation. And from there, Ricks reasons that the US will stay because the result of leaving would be chaos. In order to come to this conclusion, Ricks has relied heavily on commanders like Ray Odierno and others on the ground in Iraq, and he has taken their views as superseding the views of the policymakers. In particular, his dismissal of the status of forces agreement, as something made to be broken, as "a way to get us out of Iraq in 2009," not a long-term agreement for total withdrawal, is very noticeable. I really hope the Iraqis aren't paying much attention to it. Because Ricks certainly isn't paying any attention to them.

The most important barometer of Iraqi opinion toward the war to date is the Status of Forces Agreement. In November 2007, following on the initial security gains of the surge, the Bush administration pressed the Iraqis into signing a broad security agreement mandating a US troop presence for years to come. But during the course of those negotiations, the US found itself under sustained pressure to include a timetable for withdrawing US forces from the country, along with a hard deadline for departure – precisely the opposite of what the Bush administration had intended. By the summer, with the US having boxed itself into completing the so-called Status of Forces Agreement, Bush had no choice but to capitulate to a firm deadline for ending the war, an outcome he had said for years would yield catastrophe.

None of this is covered in The Gamble, and it’s a significant oversight. Should we view the SOFA as an indication of political progress in the wake of the surge, however ironic? After all, Iraqi factions throughout the al Maliki government and the parliament did come together for a common purpose – never mind that it was to kick the US out. Or should we view the SOFA as an indication that no matter how much the surge might have contributed to reducing the level of violence in Iraq, Iraqis have not forgotten that the violence was the result of an unnecessary US occupation? One of Petraeus’ strategists, Lt Col Suzanne Nielsen, tells Ricks that she still considers it “kind of unforgivable” how the war was undertaken in 2003. The narrative might have benefited from a greater sense of whether the Iraqis – whom Petraeus’s strategy recognised were the lynchpin to any prospect of stabilisation – agree.

It’s possible that Ricks’s blindness to the SOFA reflects that of his sources. During the month when the SOFA was signed, Odierno tells him, “I would like to see a... force probably around 30,000 or so, 35,000” in 2014 or 2015 – years after the SOFA mandates the US must leave. A discomfort with the prospect of US forces leaving Iraq permeates the quotes from Odierno’s deputies. “The American military is trying to persuade the American people that this is going to take a long time,” Odierno aide Maj James Powell says. Emma Sky, a British liberal who improbably serves as Odierno’s political adviser – and who took the job, she says, to see if the US could “exit with some dignity” – tells Ricks: “We have to buy time in the US to complete the mission.” There is no recognition evident in their quotes that it is the Iraqis, not the Americans, who ultimately decide when the mission is completed.

Last week, though, President Obama recognised precisely that. His speech at Camp Lejeune spelling out how he intends to end the war explicitly promised to honour the SOFA’s restrictions, a point backed up by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a conference call with reporters. He devoted four paragraphs of the speech to speaking “directly to the people of Iraq”, assuring them that he has “no claim on your territory or your resources”.

It’s understandable for those who have given so much to the Iraq war to want its conclusion to be steady and gradual. But it also risks violating a principle of counterinsurgency: you can’t want something more than the host nation does. The Gamble is masterful when it comes to explaining the US military in Iraq. In three elegant pages, Ricks explains how the concept of “rapid decisive operations”, a piece of Rumsfeld-era Pentagon bigthink, effectively forced commanders to misunderstand the war. But when it comes to the Iraq that the Iraqis themselves recognise, Ricks – and possibly his sources, who will remain in military command for some time – appears not to have learned some of the surge’s lessons.

To his credit, Ricks has posted a rebuttal to his views on the SOFA at his own website, from Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation. The fact that Ricks, who is reflecting the view of ground commanders, puts no stock in a signed bilateral agreement is extremely troubling and reflects a certain blindness that Spencer Ackerman describes above. The Iraqis pushed the issue and now expect us to leave, and a failure to do so will unite the country in opposition to a military occupation, with that smaller force essentially targets. There's a downward trajectory to our involvement in Iraq that we cannot blithely dismiss.

We all know that Iraq is still dangerous and large-scale bombings still threaten security. But on a political lever, the war is over - and Ricks and his charges sound like the Japanese infantrymen who hid out in mountain redoubts on Pacific islands through the 1960s, unaware that an armistice to WWII had been signed. I believe he has a sincere belief that a total withdrawal will result in genocide. But breaking the agreement at this point would ALSO result in chaos and instability in the region. Furthermore, we cannot talk confidently about breaking promises and have any credibility in our foreign agreements. Ricks should probably use his inside voice on this one.

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