It is worth noting that in 2007, Center for a New American Security co-founder Michele Flournoy co-authored a hawkish plan for Iraq that argued for leaving 60,000 American troops (and untold numbers of contractors) in Iraq for up to four and a half years after the start of "withdrawal" from Iraq. Now, Flournoy is set to become Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama administration, the third highest-ranking position in the Department of Defense. On the surface, this is an extremely negative sign when it comes to American troops withdrawal in Iraq.
However, as Spencer Ackerman reports, today Flournoy backed off her hawkish position on residual forces in Iraq. When, during a Senate Armed Services committee hearing, Jim Webb asked her about the number of residual forces in her 2007 report, she repudiated her earlier stance:
"I think I would not be willing to stand behind that number at this time," she said, clarifying that "when I wrote that it was at a somewhat different time, there was no SOFA commitment, [and] the security environment was different." Flournoy added that a "very strong commitment" for the Obama administration and the Gates Pentagon was "implementing the SOFA and moving U.S. forces out of a combat role." What remained uncertain was what, in 2011, when the SOFA's requirments for a U.S. departure wrap up, "what support for Iraqi forces would look like, and we don't know if the Iraqi government would want any U.S. forces."
When pressed, she said it was "not necessarily" a requirement to keep a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq.
There is a lot to unpack here. First, it is positive that she no longer favors 60,000 residual troops, especially given that she is supposed to be the "progressive" voice in the senior DoD leadership during this administration. Second, it is also a positive that she takes the SOFA seriously, along with the wishes of the Iraqi government in determining residual troop levels. This is a lot better than just the "listening to commanders" language we usually hear on this matter, which to my ears wanders way too close to a lack of civilian rule over the military.
The negatives are that she considers the number of troops in Iraq dependant upon the security environment, which holds neither to the principle of a timetable for withdrawal nor with the notion that the SOFA has set fixed dates and numbers. It is reasonable to be worried that there will be either an attempt to renegotiate SOFA in order to allow for residual troops after 2011, or that the Pentagon doesn't consider the dates in the SOFA to be binding. After all, American commanders and Iraqi governmental officials alike have already expressed both of these positions.
Still, given that foreign policy is one of the areas to be least optimistic about in the Obama administration (from a left-wing point of view, anyway), it is nice to point out positive signs when they come. When the author of the most hawkish residual force plan to back down on her numbers as she assumes the #3 post in the Pentagon, that is one such positive sign.