Shadow Government

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

It is almost impossible to toss away a win through foolish mistakes; nevertheless, President Obama has lost Iraq. Recall the saying, "The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer." But losing Iraq took half a decade, beginning with the 2008 presidential campaign.

Milestones included Barack Obama's opposition to the military surge of his predecessor and inexplicably turning his back on the political surge he once favored; abandoning Iranian dissidents in Iraq, although we pledged to protect them if they disarmed during the 2003-2004 takedown of Saddam and who induced Sunni tribes to support American forces; and failure to bargain to leave a residual military presence in Iraq during Status of Forces talks between Baghdad and Washington in 2011.

During 2008, a debate raged about whether the surge reduced American casualties and produced relative stability in Iraq. John McCain credited the surge in American troops; Obama opposed the surge, but falsely assumed it was contrary to a political surge:

"Sunni Awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally. It could not have occurred unless there were some contacts and intermediaries to peel off those who are tribal leaders, regional leaders, [and] Sunni nationalists from a more radical, messianic brand of insurgency."

During my secret, dangerous research in Iraq during October 2008, I found scores of Iraqi Arabs attributing the reduction in violence to the surge and Sunni Awakening: By taking over 100,000 Sunnis away from the insurgency against the American military, the Awakening was the political surge that could continue if there were a responsible U.S. troop reduction and transition of Awakening tribes to the government of Iraq.

Tribal leaders formerly affiliated with the insurgency against U.S. forces explained their longstanding relationship with Iranian dissidents, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), based at Camp Ashraf, Iraq. Sheikhs said without such a mediator, negotiations with the U.S. military would have been unthinkable. Indeed, I discovered that the safest place in Iraq to interview Arab tribal leaders was in Ashraf.

My research in Iraq during October 2008 marked the official assumption of responsibility for payment, treatment, training, and deployment of the 100,000 strong "Sons of Iraq," as coalition forces relinquished control of them. And the rest is history: Baghdad saw these Awakening tribes as a political threat to Shiite and Iranian control over Iraq and presided over their demise.

One reason the MEK has close relations with the U.S. military is because its members were classified as "protected persons" by Washington under the Fourth Geneva Convention since July 2004. With the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq, Washington turned over protection of the Iranian dissidents to Iraqi Security Forces, which unfortunately were penetrated by local enemies of the United States sponsored by Tehran. Instead of protecting the MEK, Baghdad facilitated a series of attacks against them in 2009, 2011, and 2013.

Prior to his precipitous withdrawal of American forces as 2011 closed, Obama was fond of saying the United States "must be as careful getting out of Iraq as it was reckless going in." In hastily drawing down the U.S. military, he failed to follow his own dictum, creating a security vacuum ably filled by al Qaeda in Iraq.

Now let us fast-forward to the present.

First, there are reports that American intelligence believes Iranian commandos participated in the September 2013 attack on Camp Ashraf, Iraq, and then "spirited seven members of the group back to Iran, highlighting Tehran's increasingly free hand inside Iraq in the wake of the U.S withdrawal from the country." But it is nonsensical to believe Ashraf was attacked without the active participation of Iraqi forces. It is guarded by fences, checkpoints, and more than 1,200 Iraqi troops, which makes it very difficult for Iranian commandos to reach the camp without close cooperation with Iraqi forces.

Second, a Spanish court extended its investigation into the three raids on Ashraf during 2009, 2011, and 2013. U.N. rights experts demanded in December for Baghdad to determine what happened to the seven hostages. Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, of which the MEK is the largest unit, reiterated her call for hunger strikers to end their actions.

Third, it is not too late to avoid losing Iran, which would require Obama to toughen terms of the November Geneva accord and stand with the dissidents against their tormentors. President Obama, now is the time to support the Iranian people against the tyrannical regime in Tehran; if not you, then who? Now is your time.

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Baucus to Beijing Brings TPA, Trade Troubles

This fall has been a roller-coaster ride for followers of trade. Against a background of great trade ambition, there was the October realization that political dysfunction in Washington could easily impede progress on trade. But the government shutdown passed and long-futile global trade talks even managed to eke out some progress. Then there was the sobering realization that, unlike that WTO deal, the big pending trade agreements with Europe (TTIP) and Asia (TPP) would need congressional approval and the administration had not laid the proper groundwork.

More recently, in a note of great hope for the holidays, word leaked out of Capitol Hill that key players had, in fact, struck a deal on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). What's more, the administration seemed to be moving beyond the familiar stage of grand pronouncements and endless technical meetings toward an actual strategy for accomplishing its trade goals. If these last developments sound like the steady upward-chug of a roller-coaster, then theme park aficionados will know what comes next -- the plunge.

Last night, word leaked that the White House was to nominate retiring Montana Sen. Max Baucus as U.S. ambassador to China.  Had the intent been to sabotage trade progress, it would have been hard to think of a more effective approach.  Baucus, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is an absolutely critical player on trade. True, he had already announced that he would retire after his term expired this coming year. But there was hope that his time in the Senate would culminate with progress on trade and tax reform. Switching analogies, the ambassadorial appointment is the equivalent of removing a key field commander on the eve of a major fight and installing him in a prestigious Pentagon communications post. It's nice for him, might help with PR operations, but can prove disastrous for the battle itself.

With the caveat that this entire story is based on leaks and rumors, rather than public statements, here are four questions and tentative answers about Baucus's impending departure:

1. Wasn't Baucus's work done? Hadn't a TPA deal been reached?

No. The reported TPA agreement was struck between Chairman Baucus, Senate Finance Ranking Member Orin Hatch (R-UT), and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI). The first critical point to note is the person who is missing: Ways and Means Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI), the last of the trade "big four." Had Levin been on board, there would have been true bipartisan, bicameral agreement. But Levin had been criticizing the traditional approach to TPA all summer, calling instead for a more comprehensive competitiveness agenda. Among other features, he wanted enforceable measures against currency manipulation. In his skepticism, he is backed by roughly 150 House Democrats who have argued that the old approach to TPA (most recently passed in 2002) is undesirable. Curiously, at the same time the Obama administration said it badly needed TPA, it tried to side with these same House critics, agreeing that a 2002-style approach was undesirable. There was clearly some intricate persuasion remaining. Note that Baucus's departure would mean that only Republican leaders were left supporting TPA.

Further, there is a looming battle over trade adjustment assistance. This long-standing program, intended to help workers displaced by the effects of trade liberalization, had traditionally been a "price" paid to win bipartisan support for new trade-opening measures, despite Republican qualms about its efficacy (does the program really help the workers?) and its premise (why do we favor trade-displaced workers over other displaced workers?). Feelings against the program hardened among Republicans as it was renewed in 2009 and 2011, even in the absence of new negotiating authority. It now seems likely that the Senate may include an adjustment assistance measure along with TPA while the Republican-controlled House does not.  That would tee up important House-Senate negotiations -- exactly when one needs experienced, powerful legislators to craft a deal.

2. Could Baucus just get this done before he leaves?

I have not seen any announcement of when Chairman Baucus will resign and others with Hill experience can weigh in on the feasibility of different approaches. It seems implausible, however, that Baucus would be strong-arming colleagues into difficult trade votes at the same time that he was asking them to back his confirmation.

3. If this is so disastrous for its trade agenda, why would the White House do this?

The Washington Post offers three reasons, one of which is even plausible.

The first implausible one is that the administration wanted to remove a credible critic of the Affordable Care Act. At this point, critics of PPACA are so thick on the ground (see all red-state Democratic senators, for example) that the marginal benefit of banishing Baucus would barely register.

The second implausible reason is that Baucus is a China expert. In fact, as recent ambassadors to China go, he looks relatively ill-suited. As a senior senator and chair of a key committee, he has certainly dealt with many issues important to China. But he doesn't speak the language and it has not been a particular focus of his work.

More plausible is the domestic political benefit Democrats will gain. If Baucus served out his term, Montana would be an open Senate seat; Republicans would have a good shot at taking it and thereby coming closer to controlling the Senate. An early departure means that a Democratic governor will get to install someone who will run as an incumbent.

4. Which is more important for U.S. standing in Asia: trade progress or a good ambassador to Beijing?

Even if we stipulate that Baucus's connections and experience will make him an outstanding ambassador, it is hard to see how this is a net positive. As Ian Bremmer recently argued, there is no region of the world more important for U.S. foreign policy than Asia, and there is no U.S. undertaking more important there than the passage of TPP.  Ambassadors put the best face they can on existing U.S. policy. There is only so much a great ambassador can do with a faltering policy. While China is not a participant in TPP, the success of that agreement will matter immensely for the strength of alliances across the region.

TPP was supposed to conclude this year. It won't. Congressional passage of TPA in the upcoming election-shortened legislative year was meant to reassure impatient trading partners that the United States is serious. Failure or indefinite deferral would convince them of the opposite.

After a prolonged period of seeing trade policy stymied by domestic political considerations, the optimism and progress of the past few weeks felt distinctly odd. Should Baucus's departure play out as rumored, it may well mark a plunge back into the fruitless trade approach of the last five years.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images