Shadow Government

New book raises questions about Obama's handling of Iraq

Has Obama fulfilled his most famous national security campaign commitment from 2008: to end the Iraq war "more responsibly" than he says we began it? According to this excerpt from Michael Gordon's new book on Iraq, the answer may well turn out to be no.

Gordon is considered by many to be the best reporter on the Iraq war and his long-awaited book is likely to shed new light particularly on the last half-decade of U.S. involvement. The excerpt in Sunday's New York Times covers the Obama administration's failed effort to negotiate terms for the long-planned-for stay-behind military force. The Obama administration is understandably reluctant to talk about these efforts much, and nowadays when the president mentions Iraq he makes it sound like he never considered anything other than withdrawing all but a handful of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. However, if that was what the president secretly intended all along, it was not what the administration was officially pursuing for the first several years when it tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement. 

I raised questions about some of these developments as they unfolded (see here, here, and here) and now Gordon's reporting is pulling back the veil to answer some of those questions.

The picture is not very pretty. Gordon documents:

  • A president unable to engage in effective personal diplomacy at crunch time because he had failed to invest in the hard work of retail diplomacy along the way. This is a problem that extends well past Iraq, as another blockbuster New York Times story makes clear. As an unnamed U.S. diplomat told the NYT: "He's not good with personal relationships; that's not what interests him...But in the Middle East, those relationships are essential. The lack of them deprives D.C. of the ability to influence leadership decisions."
  • A team whose wild over-confidence contributed to the failure to react in a timely manner to an unraveling situation. In one of the most devastating items in the piece, Gordon quotes Vice President Biden: "I'll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA," he added, referring to the Status of Forces Agreement the Obama administration hoped to negotiate."
  • A team paralyzed by infighting and poisonous civil-military relations. Gordon reports that Thomas Donilon, Obama's national security advisor, criticized Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for presenting military advice that ran counter to what the White House wanted to hear.

Perhaps a more adept president would have also failed to secure a follow-on Status of Forces Agreement. It is true that what the United States wanted from the Iraqis to secure an agreement was a very big ask, one that Prime Minister Maliki proved ultimately unwilling to give: immunity granted by the Iraqi parliament for all U.S. troops. But it is also true that the way Obama approached Iraq made it even harder for Maliki to deliver on his side.

Given the prominent role that the Iraq story played in Obama's approach to the 2008 election, it is ironic that it seems to play no role whatsoever in 2012. If Gordon's book reinforces the assessment that his excerpt provides, the lower profile may benefit Obama. The closer one looks at the facts, the less they seem to support the campaign spin of a "responsible" end to a troubled war.

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Shadow Government

As the Middle East goes, so goes the pivot? And other questions.

The supposed grand master stroke of Obama's foreign policy, the Asia "pivot," is burning to death on the streets of the Middle East. The idea that the sole superpower can pivot away from any critical region was always strategically unsound. But even the Asia part of the pivot is not doing as well as the very self-satisfied Obamanians imagine (Full disclosure: I'm an informal advisor to Mitt Romney's Asia team). Herewith a few questions from a pivot skeptic:

1) Why are Japan and China close to coming to blows over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute? Could it be that Japan is less than assured, as President Obama likes to say about another beleaguered allied democracy, that Washington "has its back?" In the absence of assurance of American power and commitment, might it be the case the Japan is expressing its concern over Chinese power through less than helpful acts of nationalism? Might the Japanese read the American newspapers stories that tell daily tales of a declining defense budget and nuclear deterrent?

2) If the Obamanians have managed the China-Taiwan relationship so well, why has China increased its arsenal of theater missiles pointed at Taiwan, its fighter-aircraft programs, and its strategic arsenal? Why hasn't the U.S. sold anything to Taiwan to offset these growing programs? Why does Taiwan remain outside of any meaningful international organization?

3) Might it be the case that Iran watches North Korea grow its nuclear arsenal and kill South Koreans with impunity and learns that having a nuclear arsenal offers a rogue country the ultimate deterrent that can protect it as it menaces its neighbors?

4) Why is it that for all the talk of a "rebalancing" or pivot to Asia, not a single ally or friend has a clue how it should reposture its military? Why isn't Washington bringing allies into a discussion of what military capabilities it is prepared to offer to help defend the Asian peace? For allies the pivot is beginning to look like a few nice speeches, a few thousand Marines rotating further away from flashpoints in Asia and into Darwin, Australia, and a few little ships deployed to Singapore.

5) President Obama was opposed to the South Korean Free Trade Agreement before he was for it. As a senator he helped the agreement gather dust after it was negotiated. As president he took his sweet time getting it ratified. Since then not a single solitary free trade agreement has been signed in Asia. Is free trade not an important tool of the smart power the Obamanians are supposed to be so adept at practicing?

6) Is India not an important part of an Asia policy? If it is, why is the Obama administration, which was for the surge in Afghanistan before it turned against it, showing every sign of rushing to exit Afghanistan? If Afghanistan is smoldering, it would seem that the Indians may not be able to play the role we hoped it would in East Asia.

7) Is it not the case that Asian allies who depend upon Middle Eastern energy resources may watch U.S. fecklessness in the Middle East and perhaps question Washington's ability to be the security partner of first resort in Asia?

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