By Christian Brose
Today begins the leap in the dark.
For six years we've known that the Iraq war must end and that at some point U.S. forces would leave. The question that always hung out there was -- and then what? President Bush chose not to learn the answer to that question. He could have, especially in January 2007, but he left that decision to his successor -- and left it in better shape than at any point since the invasion. If there was ever a time to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, it is now. And Obama, in large part, has George W. Bush to thank for that. Still looming is the uncertainty of, and then what? And the only answer is, we'll see.
Obama's speech was good. His message to the Iraqi people, and his continued emphasis on Iraqi sovereignty, was right and nicely done. He realistically framed the challenges ahead. Having opposed the war, it's hard to then tell a bunch of Marines that their sacrifice is worth it and that they've won honor for themselves, and yet Obama came off as genuine. That said, though I understand the need not to overstep rhetorically, I wish he would have emphasized more the success of the war (late though it was) rather than just its ending. And by success I mean an increasingly stable, representative Iraqi state that is beginning to be able to meet the needs of its people, protect them, and reconcile with its fellow Arab countries.
Beyond that, a few other things struck me.
1. Obama can say all he wants that he's "ending the war" by August 2010, but believing that is nutty, and being surprised that by then we'll still have 30-50,000 troops in Iraq, as some on the left are, is even nuttier. We knew this was coming. From the moment he said during the campaign that he'd pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq in 16 months, Obama has backtracked -- first drawing a false distinction between "combat" and "non-combat" troops, and now pretending that a "residual force" of 30-50,000 Americans under arms, many of whom will be fighting al Qaeda, constitutes "ending the war."
2. This speech should be seen in the context of the assurance Obama reportedly made to Sen. McCain and others that he will evaluate the troop drawdown as it unfolds in light of developments on the ground. This will be an important test of Obama's realism.
3. Bush probably would have given a very similar speech. After all, that was the logic of the surge. It was one last push to stabilize Iraq and pass off to Iraqis the best possible situation. And to think that Bush would have just stayed in Iraq forever -- well, that's directly contradicted by the Status of Forces Agreement that he supported. The U.S. government already resolved that point. Some pushed for a maximalist position that would have left as many options open as possible -- on what our troops could do, where they could be, and when they would leave. Bush rejected it because the goal was to leave Iraq to the Iraqis under conditions of success, and now that we finally had them, we had to take yes for an answer. Oh, and it wasn't possible to get a maximalist outcome, even if we'd wanted one, because Iraqis wouldn't go for it.
So maybe Bush would have laid out a different withdrawal plan today than Obama did, but my sense is he too would have begun moving toward the goal of getting all U.S. troops out of Iraq by December 31, 2011 because he had already committed to it.
4. Though Obama said the right things about continuing our non-military commitment to Iraq's success, I question whether the administration fully appreciates the importance and urgency of this point and is really prepared to follow through. The fact that it's been two weeks now, and we still don't have an ambassador in Baghdad, nor will we for some time, is hugely worrisome. As our military leverage decreases, now is the time to ramp up our political, diplomatic, and economic support for Iraq. It was no secret that Ryan Crocker was leaving, and yet here we are, ambassador-less. And with all due respect to Chris Hill, he is not the man we need in Baghdad right now. My own preference would be Bill Burns, if I didn't think he was absolutely indispensable where he is, which I do.
Iraq just had a successful election, and a lot of responsible nationalists won power. We have a deep interest in their success. These Iraqi leaders have enemies, especially Iran, that are out to undermine them at every turn, and we can't let this happen. We can't let the next few years in Iraq mirror Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 -- when the Bush administration assumed that the good guys had won, the bad guys were routed, and that they could start treating Afghanistan like a normal country. The competition for Iraq's future is only just beginning, and we need the best people there to step up our support for responsible Iraqis.
5. At the risk of heading into la-la land, I think Obama should have tipped his hat ever so slightly today to President Bush, Sen. McCain, and other Republicans who had supported the surge strategy, naming them and thanking them. Of course, there's no telling how Iraq would look today had the surge never happened, but it's likely that conditions would be pretty grim and that this withdrawal plan would have the smell of defeat to it, rather than the opposite, as it does.
Obama could have caveated this to death -- "I opposed Bush's decision to begin this war, I opposed how he sold it to America, I opposed the way he prosecuted it," etc. But he could have recognized that Bush's decision to change strategies in 2007 is in large part why the security situation in Iraq has turned around more than anyone could have hoped, why we can now begin drawing down our forces with a good measure of confidence, and why our troops now feel more and more that their sacrifice is worth it.
Not only would this have been magnanimous, it would have been smart politics. It would have acknowledged the bipartisanship that underlies the decision to begin bringing our troops home by drawing an important line of continuity through our Iraq efforts of the past two years. It would have disarmed Obama's more hawkish critics on Iraq by conceding their point on the surge and turning it into an argument for the drawdown, which it is. And it would have shown Republicans that Obama is committed not just to a bipartisanship of style but of substance -- not just being willing to recognize when the other side has valid points, but actually incorporating them into one's own thinking.
The fact remains, we had to leave Iraq at some point. This is as good a time as any to start. And there is bipartisan support to do so, because of the events of the past two years. Now what? Time will tell. I just hope that if, God forbid, things take a turn for the worse in Iraq, Obama will find the same courage his predecessor did two years ago, and that he won't let inconvenient truths become the enemy of good strategy.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.