War inherently involves risk and gambling. What must be prevented or minimized in war is political gambling - basing strategy on domestic political demands. False promises often enable policy, but frequently collapse and backfire. Better to offer realistic promises of achievable goals.
Initially bitter, they’re usually sweeter in the long run.
President Barack Obama started off well in gauging Iraq. An example of realistic policy, he resisted the majority of US support for Iraq and any temporary political gain. Obama would cash in his opposition during the 2008 presidential election by hammering Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain, early supporters of the war.
But rather than stick with what worked, he allowed the rest of his decisions in Iraq to be dangerously swayed by domestic politics.
The result: US combat troops will likely withdraw in August from a leaderless and divided Iraq that contains a sleeper insurgency. Obama will then be squeezed harder in December 2011, the deadline all US soldiers are supposed to exit Iraq, by unfulfilled campaign promises and an unstable environment.
Trouble began in 2007 when Obama opposed George Bush’s unpopular surge. Many did at the time, and their initial assessment proved to be mostly accurate. Though one civil war was averted, another isn’t out of the realm of possibility. If only Obama had stuck to his original hunch. As the surge produced a significant drop in violence and deadened the insurgency, the new administration quickly worked to shed criticism and soak up credit.
Obama could neither be seen denying what the US public perceived as victory or lacking faith in US troops, and would ultimately claim the surge’s success as his own to fuel his ambitious withdrawal plan.
During the Winter Olympics, Vice President Joe Biden sparked a war of words with Dick Cheney by proclaiming, "I am very optimistic about Iraq. I mean, this could be one of the great achievements of this administration... We built on the positive things that the Bush administration had initiated, and we have jettisoned those things that were negative."
The New York Times recently reported from West Point, “Mr. Obama all but declared victory in Iraq, praising the military, but not Mr. Bush, for turning it around.”
The downfall of this strategy is readily apparent - by taking credit Obama has come to own Iraq. Expecting to reap the gains of ending the war, he now faces the same problem he believed that Bush’s surge ignored. Though violence has bottomed out, the political, economic, and religious divisions that nearly brought Iraq to civil war aren’t close to being bridged. The lingering Shiite government has even started disarming Sunni militias.
Democracy is establishing itself in Iraq, but America’s war is not over.
US military commanders began fretting long before Obama took office in 2009. His campaign pledge to remove all combat troops in 16 months was immediately extended to 19, which he choose over a 23 month time-table floated by the leery Pentagon. And a “residual force” that would stay until 2011 was estimated between 35,000-50,000.
Democrats cringed at the delay and residual force, Republicans at the rush and low level of US troops.
In this case Obama couldn’t win either way; he should have erred on the side of caution, bucking the left on Iraq more than Afghanistan and maintaining a slow withdrawal pace. Though Iraq’s core conflict would remain unresolved, at least US troops wouldn’t leave a state with no government. But Obama sealed his fall by hyping the war into a victory that remains elusive.
Now he must spend the next year and a half plotting how to escape with minimal damage.
Chances are he won’t, given that Washington’s interconnected problems begin at the head. Perhaps everything would be different had Iraq steadily advanced through its political transition and formed a new government. But four months have passed without evidence of progress, and the waiting game could last another five.
The Associated Press reports, “In a sign resolution was still far away, senior Iraqiya member Hassan al-Allawi said he would not lead Monday's opening parliamentary session as had been planned, saying it would take up to five months to form a government and he didn't want to hold the job that long.”
Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqiya party won a plurality of parliamentary seats in the March election, recently accused incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of defying "the will of the people.” Al-Maliki "refuses to acknowledge his defeat or Iraqis' clear desire for change and national progress," Allawi wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published last week.
“Iraq has no functional or stable government,” he warned. “This uncertainty threatens not just Iraqi society and democracy but also the region.”
Having intentionally gone underground until US combat troops began pulling out and the national election, Iraq’s political vacuum is nourishing the remnants of criminal elements, local insurgents, and al-Qaeda. Though the insurgency is unlikely to present an existential threat to the government (barring entry of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, Sunni militias, or the Kurds’ Peshmerga), its lingering chaos still undermines the hope of US “victory.”
That hope is fully nullified by Iran’s influence, most specifically by the future events of 2011-2014. Iraq’s end game has always concerned Iranian influence and ambitions of regional hegemony, but also Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons program. Now America risks leaving a vulnerable Iraq while simultaneously considering - and possibly executing - military strikes against Iran.
These rails cross and collide, which means someone will try to uncross them.
The sum of this equation predicts that Washington will ultimately rework its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq to extend the deadline of Obama’s “residual force.” Unlikely as it now seems, even less likely is America withdrawing under such unfavorable conditions. Also difficult to ignore is the prediction of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who presumably knows what’s really happening inside the Pentagon.
Admitting that a residual force will stay in Iraq beyond 2011, he explained during a Charlie Rose interview in 2008, “my guess is that you’re looking at perhaps several tens of thousands of American troops.”
The possibility of US troops stationed past 2011, maybe in larger numbers than expected, reveals the final bet that Obama is currently at risk of losing. He wagered a successful Afghanistan on a successful Iraq, vowed a smooth and timely transition between wars, visualized one completed withdrawal and the beginning of another. The entire chain is based on politics more than ground conditions.
2012 could see Obama stuck in both theaters, which won’t make for an appealing re-election campaign. That’s the price of gambling wars on the US political cycle.