Shadow Government

More questions about Obama's policy on leaving Iraq

Over several different posts, I have been exploring the eerie echoes between Obama supporters' critique of the entry into Iraq and the way Obama has chosen to exit it. Up until now, I have focused on the policymaking process rather than the policy itself. In the final analysis, however, it is the policy that will matter most and so it is worth investigating whether the same overall pattern that is so marked on the politics applies to the substance as well. Here are three echoes that may prove to be consequential.

The first is the concern that we entered Iraq with too few troops to do the mission and now we will be exiting Iraq leaving behind too few troops to do the mission. For -- make no mistake of it -- while President Obama claims that the Iraq war will have ended, the Iraq mission has not. The State Department has committed to its largest, most ambitious, and most challenging set of operations it has ever attempted without the cover of a sizable U.S. military presence. The security and logistics vacuum left by the departing U.S. uniformed troops will be replaced, at some lower level of functionality, by U.S.-contracted private security forces. Many experts inside thought some residual force would be needed and I do not know many people who have high confidence that the State Department is up to the task that it has left itself.

Shouldn't critics who thought the entry to Iraq involved overly risky operational choices about the resources needed for the subsequent phase of the mission be equally concerned about the resources left for the next phase now?

The second is the concern that shifting focus so rapidly from the Afghanistan theater in 2002 to Iraq relaxed the pressure on the core al Qaeda network and its Taliban sponsor. By "taking our eye off the ball," we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and allowed al Qaeda and the Taliban to reconstitute itself. Indeed, this was quintessence of the Obama war critique of 2008: he claimed it was time to focus on the "real" threat in Afghanistan and stop diverting resources to the "secondary" theater of Iraq.

A recent New York Times article underscores the extent to which this same phenomenon is happening, but in reverse. Bush's surge strategy of 2007 put the Iraqi-based al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), on the defensive. Progress on both the security and political fronts allowed many observers inside and outside government to speculate that AQI might even be defeated. Now, according to the NYT, some in the U.S military fear that the failure to secure an arrangement for a more robust military mission in Iraq after 2011 has thrown a life-line to AQI. The description of the debate inside sounds remarkably like debates about the beginnings of the Iraq war, with a White House pushing to move on while others in the Administration are pushing to finish the job first:

The Qaeda affiliate's nascent resurgence has helped fuel a debate between some Pentagon officials on one side, who are seeking a way to permit small numbers of American military trainers and Special Operations forces to operate in Iraq, and some White House officials on the other, who are eager to close the final chapter on a divisive eight-year war that cost the lives of more than 4,400 troops.

Shouldn't critics who believed that in entering Iraq the Bush administration took its eye off of the ball and thereby allowed the enemy to reconstitute itself worry that in exiting Iraq the Obama administration is doing the very same thing?

The third parallel concerns Iran. As measured by our national interest, one of the gravest charges leveled against the Bush Administration was the claim that Iran benefited the most from the toppling of Hussein. Under Saddam, Iraq was Iran's most formidable foe -- they fought a bloody war throughout the 1980s, after all -- and Iraq helped check Iran's regional aspirations. Saddam was replaced first with chaos, which Iran was able to exploit, and later with a new government controlled by political factions with deep ties to Iran. Bush's National Security Strategy claimed, "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran." But, the charge goes, invading Iraq made that challenge much greater than it otherwise would have been.

Critics are making exactly that charge about Obama's exit plan today, and quoting Iranian leaders to substantiate it. By failing to negotiate a longer-term strategic presence inside Iraq, President Obama may have tilted the U.S.-Iran balance of power even more decisively in favor of Iran. The United States is now scrambling, to recover from this set-back, but the challenge is daunting.

Shouldn't critics who believed the entry into Iraq hurt U.S. interests by empowering Iran also believe that the exit from Iraq has further empowered Iran and thus further hurt U.S. interests?

Am I too pessimistic? Perhaps. The most compelling piece with a cautiously optimistic take that I have read is the one by Brett McGurk, one of the key negotiators in the latest phase of the U.S.-Iraq saga. He makes two hard-headed pragmatic points. First, in the end this was Iraq's choice to make and the Iraqi people did not want U.S. forces to stay with the immunity that U.S. lawyers insisted we had to have. Second, this is not the end of the relationship and there are many ways in which the U.S.-Iraqi partnership can blossom in a mutually productive fashion.

Because of his analysis, I am not willing to declare mission failure yet. But it sure looks like we are embarking on a needlessly risky path.

It is a cliché that history doesn't repeat itself but it may rhyme. Here is another over-used aphorism: just because it is a cliché doesn't mean it can't be true.

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Shadow Government

Can Obama claim we're leaving Iraq more responsibly than we entered?

In an earlier post, I raised the possibility that Obama may not live up to his campaign promise to leave Iraq more responsibly than we entered it. I am hardly alone in wondering about this, but I haven't seen many attempts to document the ways that the exit is resembling the entry.

A few caveats are worth mentioning up front. The exit is still a work in progress and so there is plenty of time for things to go better (or worse) than might be forecasted now. Any judgment I or anyone else makes on the subject is provisional at best. Moreover, most of the critiques of the entry into Iraq owe more to partisan (or academic) mythology than to actual fact. But they have wide currency -- indeed, in some quarters, they are accepted as self-evident truths -- and so it is worth investigating the extent to which they might apply to the exit.

One of the earliest entry critiques was the charge that President George W. Bush hurried up the confrontation with Iraq in 2002 so as to distract from economic scandals and thus score an electoral advantage in the midterm elections. This allegation was made at the time by two people who later became high-level White House officials in the current administration. First, current WH spokesman Jay Carney, then a reporter for Time, raised the possibility that Karl Rove was orchestrating the Iraq timetable for political advantage. The second j'accuse was even more famous, Illinois State Senator Obama's speech explaining why he opposed the Iraq war. Prominent in his speech was this remarkable accusation:

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Roves to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income -- to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

At a time when the economy is suffering from some of the worst years since the Great Depression, the echo is unmistakable, and many critics believe that the Iraq decision was dictated by the 2012 election calendar. President Obama would have a hard time getting reelected based on the awful domestic conditions, but a campaign based on "ending the wars" might resonate with voters. The administration even has a couple of Enrons of their own to fuel the wackier versions of a conspiracy theory.

If you find it plausible that Bush let the difficult economic circumstances and the 2002 electoral calendar shape his approach to entering Iraq, shouldn't you find it more plausible that Obama has let his far more daunting economic troubles and the higher stakes 2012 electoral calendar shape his Iraq exit?

Then there is the charge that President Bush failed to command the process and instead out-sourced his Iraq policy to his Vice-President who spoke triumphantly about the mission but ham-handedly interfered with the delicate diplomacy running up to the confrontation. Well, President Obama adopted an even more hands-off approach to Iraq and formally tapped Vice-President Biden to be in charge of Iraq policy. Biden certainly has been the most triumphalistic) Administration figure about Iraq. And, sure enough, critics have charged that Biden fumbled the account. One of those critics is me, for I am on record worrying that Biden may have stepped on the delicate diplomatic negotiations for a more enduring U.S. military presence back in August.

Shouldn't critics who say that the failure of the UN process in the run-up to the 2003 invasion "proves" that Cheney was really the one calling the shots, and misfiring while doing so, likewise believe that the failure of the renegotiation process in the run-up to the exit "proves" that Biden misfired, too?

Finally, there is the charge that President Bush put in place the wrong team to handle his Iraq policy and these early failures doomed the effort.  Even Secretary Rumsfeld concedes in his memoir that picking Lt.Gen Ricardo Sanchez to head up the military side was a bad choice and Rumsfeld's critique of the civilian head, Ambassador Bremer, is scathing.  The team struggled to work together and to understand the situation in Iraq.  The crucial early period was squandered, sowing the seeds that reaped the bitter fruit of the sectarian violence of 2004-2006. By all accounts, the Bush administration finally got the right personnel in place when the President tapped General Dave Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to implement the new surge strategy and their ability to achieve unity of effort contributed considerably to the surge's success.

The Obama echo is striking.  Midway through his first term, Obama may have finally assembled a solid team with General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Jim Jeffrey.  But he started out with a choice that left many people, including myself, scratching our heads: picking Chris Hill to be the Ambassador.  Ambassador Hill certainly had a distinguished career, but he had no direct experience with Iraq and so was starting from square one.  Sure enough, within months credible reports were circulating about the poor civil-military coordination on the ground.  Perhaps the nadir was the description from one of his former subordinates of Ambassador Hill's alleged wasteful distraction to grow a lush lawn on the embassy compound.  Perhaps the complaints were petty, but the more fundamental charge that the Obama team squandered valuable time that undermined future success rings nonetheless.  

Shouldn't critics who traced the difficulties of the entry to the inability of the Bush team to work together effectively find similar connections between the difficulty of the exit and the troubles inside the Obama team?

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