The president's announcement on Friday that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year took many people by surprise, since both the White House and Pentagon had been repeatedly emphasizing that negotiations with Iraq were ongoing, that no decision had been made. In truth, the decision was made even before Barack Obama was president: he got elected campaigning that Iraq was the wrong war, not worth the lives and money.
He did what he said he was going to do. He set an end date for combat operations so that he could show "progress" before the midterm elections. Progress not toward consolidating our gains in Iraq, but toward being out of Iraq. Having appointed special envoys for every problem he considered important, there was no special envoy for Iraq, to help build fostering regional relationships and coordinate our policies. He appointed an ambassador who knew nothing about Iraq.
He allowed the political crisis to fester more than seven months after Iraq's parliamentary elections, declined to put our considerable leverage behind a coalition of national unity, instead stood mutely by as Nouri al-Maliki subverted the electoral law to form a government and then did so with the vehemently anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr. That was the point at which the United States actually left Iraq -- the withdrawal of troops is a lagging, not a leading indicator of the administration's indifference.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to affirm our commitment to Iraq. The QDDR says "in Iraq, we are in the midst of the largest military-to-civilian transition since the Marshall Plan. Our civilian presence is prepared to take the lead, secure the military's gains, and build the institutions necessary for long-term stability." State grandiosely imagines a wholly civilian mission of 17,000 personnel most of whom will be "third country nationals" supporting 1,750 diplomats and other USG government personnel. Eighty percent of the mission will be contractors. Current plans call for them to operate at five consulates around the country, costing $6 billion a year.
The Commission on Wartime Contracting (including Shadow Government colleague Dov Zakheim), the Government Accountability Office and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee all take a dim view of State's plans for Iraq. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee assessed that "fundamental questions remain unanswered," including whether the scope of the mission in Iraq is compatible with the resources available, including State Department capacity. They question whether the State Department can sustain its proposed presence without military support and the cost effectiveness of consulates requiring 1,400 security and support personnel for only 120 diplomats. They recommended that if a complete withdrawal occurred, "given the prohibitive costs of security and the capacity limitations of the State Department, the United States should consider a less ambitious diplomatic presence in Iraq." This is likely to end badly.
Moreover, the President having announced we are leaving Iraq because the Iraqis are making us is not a recipe for robust Congressional support to pay such a hefty bill. Members of Congress could be forgiven for wondering why should we provide $5 billion to Iraq in a time of austerity when the Iraqis are so ungrateful. The Wartime Contracting Commission's conclusion that "significant additional waste -- and mission degradation to the point of failure -- can be expected as State continues with the daunting task of transition in Iraq," will also tighten Congressional purse-strings, as it should.
The way President Obama has played Iraq policy, we won't be swapping out a military for a civilian mission. We will be drawing down both our military and civilian missions. For President Obama, the exit is the strategy for Iraq. And it always has been.