For the literalists among you, I know the Iraq war isn't over. This article describes the cause for how it will eventually end, rather than a "residual force" of 50,000 occupying the country indefinitely.
Still, as the withdrawal continues, and as the Obama administration takes credit for fulfilling a campaign promise by withdrawing, it is important to place credit for the coming end of American military involvement in Iraq where it belongs: with Iraqis. Until the status of forces agreement was signed in late 2008, none of the domestic efforts to end American military involvement in Iraq had any success. Consider:
The wide-ranging protest movement against the war in Iraq from 2002-2005 may have helped increase public opposition to the war, but did not stop or slow it.
Democrats won control of Congress in the 2006 elections in large measure because of public opposition to the war. However, not only did they continue to fund the war without any conditions for withdrawal, but the number of American troops in Iraq actually increased during 2007.
The only thing that stopped the war was the Status of Forces Agreement, which stated no residual troops in Iraq at the end of 2011. The Iraqi government was able to force the United States to agree to no residual forces because the U.S. needed a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, or else its legal mandate to remain in Iraq would have expired on December 31st, 2008. With that sort of leverage, the Iraqi government was able to accomplish what no domestic anti-war forces were able to do: end the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
So, while President Obama is indeed fulfilling his campaign promise to partially withdraw from Iraq, it is actually the Iraqis themselves who deserve credit for forcing the United States to legally agree to a complete withdrawal. Iraqis are the ones who deserve the applause today, because they are the ones who ended the war in Iraq.
Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.
Of course, then President Obama follows this sentence with a detailed description of American military actions in Iraq after August 31, 2010. It is the standard residual force operation we have discussed here on Open Left since our inception, and is anything but an end to the American military presence in Iraq after August 2010:
After we remove our combat brigades, our mission will change from combat to supporting the Iraqi government and its Security Forces as they take the absolute lead in securing their country. As I have long said, we will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq . Initially, this force will likely be made up of 35-50,000 U.S. troops.
But the important departure comes next, when President Obama pledges that this residual force will itself be continually decreasing in size, and eventually reach zero troops by the end of 2011:
Through this period of transition, we will carry out further redeployments. And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
This is what I have been waiting for: a commitment to end the residual force operation by the close of 2011.
In the end, if we can get all of the troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011, that will still be a minimum thirteen month improvement on where we stood in the No Residual Forces campaign back in 2007. At a debate on September 27th of that year, then-Senator Obama didn't even promise to get all troops out of Iraq by the end of his first term. No matter how this change happened, it would still be a welcome development.
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.
A security pact with the Iraqi government, which will be put to a referendum next year, stipulates the Americans will be out of cities and towns by June, and out of the country by 2011.
Earlier in the week, an Iraqi government spokesman said the Baghdad government would be open to negotiations that would keep troops in Iraq past the agreed upon withdrawal date.
Ali al-Dabbagh, on a visit to Washington, said Iraqi security forces might need 10 years to get ready to take over from U.S. troops.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office said in a written statement Saturday that al-Dabbagh was expressing only an opinion that did not represent government policy.
December 31st, 2011 still appears to be a hard deadline for no residual forces under the current status of forces agreement. The question is whether the desire on the part of some elements of the American and Iraqi government to extend that deadline and / or allow for residual forces will overcome what appears to be broad desire for no residual American military presence in Iraq. Hopefully, the deadline will hold, but our best chance for that happening involves political players and political parties in Iraq that are quite out of the influence of American grassroots progressives.
I'm pretty disappointed at the outcome over the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs leadership fight. Denying Lieberman the chair would have been a sign that the Senate Democratic caucus was willing to stand up for itself over the next two years, but instead we were given another sign that the legislative branch no longer matters that much in the United States.
However, given the focus on how this vote means that "the left has been foiled again," I want to push back against the idea that the last two weeks has not somehow been a string of defeats for progressives. There have been setbacks, such as today's Lieberman vote, but there have also been real victories. In the extended entry, I accentuate the positive.
Iraq's cabinet on Sunday overwhelmingly approved a proposed security agreement that calls for a full withdrawal of American forces from the country by the end of 2011. The cabinet's decision brings a final date for the departure of American troops a significant step closer after more than five and a half years of war.
The agreement also appears to be based on fixed date timetables, rather than the non-timetable "conditions on the ground" line pushed by conservatives. Perhaps even better, the deal was negotiated by the Bush administration, meaning that there won't be any "stabbed in the back" narrative from conservatives. Or, at least, it will mean that narrative will be even dumber than the one they spun post-Vietnam (and that's really saying something).
These three aspects of the deal mean an end to the war in Iraq is, finally, coming. While it will unfortunately take three years for the war to completely end, this is still good news. It should be said that the political victories on a fixed timetable and no residual forces only happened because they were demanded by Iraqis, rather than because of progressive American pressure. Back in the primaries, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were saying they would have residual troops in Iraq after 2012. So, maybe it wasn't directly our fault, but I'm just happy that it seems to have finally happened. It took Iraqis to finally end the war we started.
In a sign of how seriously the Obama campaign is taking Pennsylvania, last night at my ward endorsement meeting, the Obama campaign actually sent three surrogates to speak to, and take questions from, the committee people. One of those surrogates was iMark Alexander, the national policy director! And this is just one of 66 wards in Philadelphia, which itself only represents 23-25% of the statewide primary electorate in the state. Despite my large platform, I could not pass up the chance to ask a question about residual forces in Iraq to the national policy director.
The answer was pretty much as expected. There will be residual troops, carrying out a variety of possible missions: protecting the embassy, participating in an international peacekeeping force, conducting counter-terrorism, and training Iraqi troops. All of those missions, except embassy protection, were listed as possible missions, not definite ones. No estimate on troop levels were provided. Basically, it was all of the same answers I kept receiving from campaigns back in 2007, and which eventually led to the following television commercial:
A key adviser to Senator Obama's campaign is recommending in a confidential paper that America keep between 60,000 and 80,000 troops in Iraq as of late 2010, a plan at odds with the public pledge of the Illinois senator to withdraw combat forces from Iraq within 16 months of taking office.
The paper, obtained by The New York Sun, was written by Colin Kahl for the center-left Center for a New American Security. In "Stay on Success: A Policy of Conditional Engagement," Mr. Kahl writes that through negotiations with the Iraqi government "the U.S. should aim to transition to a sustainable over-watch posture (of perhaps 60,000-80,000 forces) by the end of 2010 (although the specific timelines should be the byproduct of negotiations and conditions on the ground)."
This is not surprising at all, given that Kahl wrote the paper for the Center for a New American Security (which is not "center-left"). That was the think tank that finally allowed us to put a solid figure on the size of residual forces back in September. Second, it has been clear for literally a year now that both Obama and Clinton (and Biden and Dodd) were proposing residual forces in Iraq of this size. This is publicly available information, and it has been around for some time. While both Kahl and the Obama campaign deny that the plan represents the position of the Obama campaign, the fact is that the answer I received last night on residual forces, just like the answers I had been receiving on residual forces during 2007, is exactly the same as the Center for a New American Security plan. It is exactly the same list of troop missions, only without the estimate on the number of troops.
This isn't something that the Clinton campaign should crow about, because the 60,000-troop plan is also exactly the same as their residual force plan. If anything, unless their proposals have changed, the Clinton campaign's plan is worse, since their residual force missions are listed as definite rather than as possible, and also listed as happening in Iraq, instead of some possibly happening in a neighboring country. The simple fact is that once Edwards dropped out, there was no longer any meaningful difference between the remaining Democratic candidates on residual forces. As such, residual did not play a role in determining who I would support in the primary.
It is increasingly clear that, even in a Democratic administration, in order to reduce the size of, or do away with entirely, residual forces in Iraq, several things will have to happen. First, it will be important for a no residual force supporter, such as Bill Richardson, to hold either Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. Second, it will require congressional leadership, such as that found in the Responsible Plan for Iraq, to pass legislation requiring even a Democratic President to reduce the size of, or do away with entirely, residual forces in Iraq. Third, it will require continuing pressure of Democrats, progressives and anti-war activists who will support the nominee this year to influence and hold the new President accountable on completing withdrawal from Iraq. The simple, and depressing, fact is that we will not end our military participation in the war in Iraq just by winning a big trifecta in the 2008 elections. In order to build a truly progressive governing majority in this and other areas, we will have to keep fighting long afterwards. To put it one way, progressives will need our own residual troops in a Democratic administration.
The reason Hillary Clinton has never apologized for her Iraq war vote is because she clearly believes in the American "mission" in Iraq. Here is a statement from her campaign today on the deaths of 4,000 American soldiers in Iraq:
"In the last five years, our soldiers have done everything we asked of them and more. They were asked to remove Saddam Hussein from power and bring him to justice and they did. They were asked to give the Iraqi people the opportunity for free and fair elections and they did. They were asked to give the Iraqi government the space and time for political reconciliation, and they did. So for every American soldier who has made the ultimate sacrifice for this mission, we should imagine carved in stone: 'They gave their life for the greatest gift one can give to a fellow human being, the gift of freedom.'
Each death is a tragedy, and we honor every fallen American and send our thoughts and prayers to their families. It is past time to end this war that should never have been waged by bringing our troops home, and finally pushing Iraq's leaders to take responsibility for their future. As we do, we must serve the memory of all who have died as well as they served our country, by providing support for their families, caring for our troops and veterans, and upholding the American values which our fallen heroes exemplified through their service."
For all the supposed lack of policy differences between Obama and Clinton, even on their Iraq withdrawal plans, this remains a fundamental, deeply ideological discrepancy. As I wrote earlier today, the Iraq war has ended America's brief tenure as the world's only superpower, and effectively instigated a genocide in Iraq. If you still think this was a good idea that was worth the costs, even if it was badly managed, then you simply have a fundamentally different view of the world and America's role in the world than someone who thinks the war was a mistake and not worth the costs. Even though I know it is something no presidential candidate can ever directly say and still hope to remain viable, the fact is that our soldiers in Iraq did not die for a good cause. Quite the opposite has occurred: they died as part of an effort that has eroded America's power faster than any other event since the Civil War, and which has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the past fifty years. It was a mistake of colossal proportions, not "the greatest gift one can give to a fellow human being." A candidate's ability or inability to recognize that mistake remains the best possible way to measure how effective a Commander in Chief he or she would be.
"So yesterday, Senator Obama said, 'Well we shouldn't have gone in in the first place, and if we hadn't gone in in the first place we wouldn't be facing this problem,'" the Arizona senator said. "Well, that's history. That's the past. That's talking about what happened before. What we should be talking about is what we're going to do now.
"And what we're going to do now is continue this strategy, which is succeeding in Iraq and we are carrying out the goals of the surge. The Iraqi military are taking over more and more responsibilities, the casualties are down, and we will be able to withdraw and come home. But we will come home with honor."
Baker, also well-known for heading up the Iraq Study Group, voiced his agreement with McCain's view of the situation in Iraq.
"I think what Senator McCain's position is today is quite consistent with what we said in the Iraq Study Group Report," Baker said. "We negated the idea of setting a timetable, a withdrawal date...we also said and pointed out that we're going to have American forces in Iraq for a long time to come."
So, McCain wants to end the war, but to do so with "honor." Also, he is in favor of a timetable, but like everyone calling for Iraq withdrawal, including Barack Obama, he knows that American troops will stay in Iraq for "a long time to come."
And so, we arrive at the full-blown Iraq Blurring Strategy from John McCain. No one wants to end the war more than he does. In fact, he is in favor of withdrawal. However, everyone who favors withdrawal, like Barack Obama, also wants to leave large numbers of residual forces in Iraq.
In some ways, it is a relief that after many congressional Democrats decided to take Iraq off the table in the 2008 elections, that John McCain became the Republican nominee and decided to make it the central issue. However, I would be lying if I didn't say I was worried about this strategy. I have long believed that Democratic support of residual forces provided the opening for such a strategy, and that Joe Lieberman's campaign provided the blueprint. Obama needs to make his differences with McCain on future plans for Iraq crystal clear, to the point where he starts talking about the different troops estimates for Iraq under an Obama administration and under a McCain administration. The argument can still be won as long as it is clear, and as long as the Obama campaign calls bullshit on McCain's phony desire to withdrawal from Iraq. Starting with an attack on McCain surrogate Joe Lieberman, who said the same thing in 2006 and then voted with Bush on Iraq, is probably a good place to start.
There is more than one way to engage the Iraq Blurring Strategy. While McCain has declined the take the Joe Lieberman approach of "no one wants to end the war more than me, but..." he has instead adopted the approach of "I don't want to end the war, but neither does Obama, and we agree on the reasons why." Here is McCain:
"I'm not embarrassed to tell you that I did not watch the Democrat debate last night," McCain said, "but I am told that Senator Obama made the statement that if Al Qaeda came back to Iraq after he withdraws -- after the American troops are withdrawn -- then he would send military troops back, if Al Qaeda established a military base in Iraq. I have some news: Al Qaeda is in Iraq. Al Qaeda, it's called Al Qaeda in Iraq, and my friends if we left they wouldn't be establishing a base, they wouldn't be establishing a base, they'd be taking a country. And I'm not going to allow that to happen my friends. I will not surrender. I will not surrender to Al Qaeda.
"It's pretty remarkable when Al Qaeda is in Iraq, and want to withdraw from Iraq and then say you will go back to Iraq if they have a base there. That's -- when you examine that statement it's pretty remarkable."
One of the main problems with the leading Democratic candidates promising to keep residual American military forces in Iraq is that such plans provide continuing justification for keeping American troops in Iraq, and comparatively little justification for withdrawal. Both Obama and Clinton have promised to keep residual troops in Iraq in order to attack Al Qaeda, although in fairness Obama has said that in his plan these troops might not actually be based in Iraq but instead just over the border. This position causes a serious credibility problem for withdrawal of any sort. As McCain points out, if you think American troops should be in Iraq to fight terrorists, then why withdraw the troops at all?
As long leading Democrats are arguing that we need troops in Iraq to carry out missions like "fighting terrorists," it severely weakens the public argument to engage in any sort of withdrawal. Democratic promises to keep residual forces in Iraq in general, and now Obama's promises to keep residual forces in Iraq in particular, have a net result of pre-blurring the Iraq issue even for Republicans like McCain who refuse to even say they want to end the war. Not only do residual forces give McCain further amminition on why we should stay in Iraq, but it also gives more credence to the argument that Democrats don't really want to end the war. It might be too late for Obama to promise no residual troops at this point, but as the campaign moves forward he is going to have to do a much better job of differentiating his position on Iraq, and his rational behind that position, from McCain's.
"I have some news for John McCain," Obama said, according to The Politico. "There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain" started their war.
That will likely become a stock message for Obama. He also uncorked this:
"John McCain may like to say he wants to follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of Hell, but so far all he's done is follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq."
That is a decent comeback from Obama, but it mainly talks about the decision to go to war rather than the decision on what to do in the future. He needs clearer differentiation on both in order to really bury McCain, and the Iraq war, once and for all.
I realize that I need to provide a lot more context to the pessimism of my previous post. So, in the extended entry, I provide a quick timeline of recent major political events since the Democratic takeover of Congress, and explain how the progressive movement is in serious jeopardy in 2008 unless we can reverse the current trends of the debate on the Iraq war:
Clinton and Obama's divergent views on the troop surge in Iraq, however, were plainly visible.
When Bush proclaimed, "Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among terrorists there is no doubt," Clinton sprang to her feet in applause but Obama remained firmly seated. The president's line divided most of the Democratic audience, with nearly half standing to applaud and the other half sitting in stony silence.
The most consistent criticism of Obama online has focused upon his rhetorical posture in relation to Republicans and conservatives: conciliatory language of unity, the use of right wing talking points on health care and social security, positing left-wing DFH strawmen (70's style, anti-military love-in was my favorite), triangulation that blames ideologues and partisans on both sides for polarization, etc. However, here is an instance where the roles are starkly reversed, as Hillary Clinton literally stands up and applauds George W. Bush for his troop surge, while Obama remains seated.
There are not many ways to interpret Clinton's remarks except as applause for the escalation she ostensibly opposed. Even if she was applauding "the troops," that would imply that the Democrats who did not stand up were somehow against the troops, which is the most vicious right-wing talking point of all. This is should also be a stark reminder of the difference between Clinton and Obama on supporting and not regretting / opposing the war in the first place, on Clinton's general hawkishness, on ending the causes of wars like Iraq, and even on the continued presence of a residual American military presence in Iraq. If Clinton applauds the escalation, then why should I have any confidence that she will keep only a small residual presence in Iraq? This is a terrible move by Clinton, one that makes me feel as though more than five years have passed since the AUMF and nothing has changed, and that she is portraying her foreign policy views dishonestly during the campaign.
I think there are very clear differences between Obama and Clinton on this nexus of policy, rhetorical, and administrative issues. In the final analysis, it is why I definitely prefer Obama to Clinton in this campaign.
The well-publicized contrast between Hillary Clinton's early backing of the Bush administration's war effort and Barack Obama's early opposition, has to a degree been replicated in the less visible network of foreign policy advisers that each candidate has cultivated -- the early war opponents by Obama, and the one-time hawks by Clinton.
So, that makes four clear advantages to Obama, one to Clinton, and two areas that are about even. Overall, that is a very strong advantage for Obama. While I have issues with Obama's rhetoric and health care proposals, on balance this list outweighs those negatives. Further, that Obama opposed the war from the beginning, while Clinton has not only refused to admit a mistake and her advisers boast of her hawkishness, matters quite a bit, too. Also, I admit that I simply have a cultural preference for Obama, probably because I fall into the most of the demographic groups where he performs well. So, if at any point this becomes a two person campaign, I will support Obama over Clinton.
Right now, I still prefer John Edwards, and I have explained why on several occasions (see here, here and here for starters). However, if he finishes third in Nevada, I will probably begin rethinking my preferences.
The Iraqi defense minister said Monday that his nation would not be able to take full responsibility for its internal security until 2012, nor be able on its own to defend Iraq's borders from external threat until at least 2018.
Which is, of course, exactly what we are going to do. This one quote is all of the justification that another Republican administration will need to keep American troops in Iraq, at their present levels, for as long as the administration holds power. Then again, a Democratic administration will keep not as many, but still a lot, of troops in Iraq, too. And the Democratic Congress won't ever do anything about it, because they are afraid of seeming like they were "against the troops." Doing that, or really anything that might even a little aggressive on Iraq, will, of course, hurt election chances..
The whole thing feels like we have entered a military dictatorship through means of manners and peer pressure. We are required to keep troops in Iraq for as long and in whatever quantities conservative generals tell us to keep them in Iraq, because otherwise we would be offending the troops. We can never order them to leave Iraq, because otherwise we would be offending the troops. We also can't cut back on military spending, because to do so would offend the troops. In order to avoid offending the troops, we collectively agree to let the military do whatever its most conservative commanding officers say we should do.
The whole thing smacks of the Algiers Crisis coup that caused the end of the fourth French Republic. In 1958, the French government abolished its constitution and willing handed over power to De Gaulle, including the power to write a new constitution greatly expanding the President's powers, because the military asked the government to do so. Of all the historical comparisons I have seen, the end of the French Fourth Republic really strikes me as the best analogy for what has happened to our democracy. It was, in effect, a modern, relatively bloodless coup perpetuated in a liberal democracy as the result of a national crisis, and with the willing support of a large percentage of the population. This isn't without precedent in America, considering the Business Plot to overthrow FDR back in the 1930's. Really, the only difference strikes me as being the comparatively crude military tactics proposed by the Business Plot, and the even the more sophisticated tactics utilized by De Gaulle were crude in comparison to the more gradual, more sophisticated techniques of the Powell memo. n both situations, military supremacy over the government was assured through popular will of the people, and enforced through our most pervasive institutions: government, mass media, and our sense of national supremacy.
It is funny how much conservatives hate France, since we seem to emulating them quite nicely.