July 5, 2011
Obama Playing Political Games With Iraq’s Withdrawal
As usual, transparency in U.S. foreign policy continues to be sacrificed for “national security interests.” These interests include, among other activities, drone operations in Yemen, where “secrecy” means isolating a revolution to keep the ruling regime in power. In Afghanistan, President Barack Obama left the timing of his withdrawal open to interpretation with the Pentagon, a position designed to put him on both sides of the aisle (where Obama feels most comfortable). By leaving the withdrawal’s specifics for a future review, the administration is hoping to mask its movements from the Taliban (an idealistic goal) while upping the Pentagon’s input for credibility purposes.
Limited details, though, aim for one overriding purpose: maintain America’s war in Afghanistan. Thus with reports surfacing of a White House offer to keep 10,000 troops in Iraq, Press Secretary Jay Carney naturally chose to respond through non-denial denial.
“Our plan is to fulfill our obligations with the agreement,” he told reporters on Tuesday, “the Status of Forces Agreement, with the Iraqi government, which requires us to withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of this year, this calendar year. We intend to keep that agreement; we are on track to do that. We have also said that we would consider a request by the Iraqi government for some sort of sustained presence by U.S. troops. That request has not been made. We are on track to withdraw all our forces down to zero by December 31st of this year.”
This dense, “one foot in, one foot out” position isn’t nearly as clever as it may appear. National security functions as a plausible argument on the surface, whether in Kabul or Baghdad, and U.S. officials are justifiably worried of provoking violence against the remaining 48,000 troops in Iraq. Mere speculation over their future has driven Iran and Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to harden their posturing, and a certain extension of Iraq’s Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) will produce certain violence against those U.S. troops left behind.
In general Washington seeks to keep its movements secret from Tehran for as long as possible, even when this isn’t possible.
However the political component of Obama’s policy in Iraq remains a key factor in his ultimate decision. Carney emphasizes that the President is on track to fulfill his promise and remove all troops in line with the SOFA. Although Obama hasn’t personally blinked in declaring all troops will withdrawal by December, allowing former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to stump from a residual force gave many the impression that Obama spoke through Gates. And now, by hitching himself to Iraq’s SOFA instead of his own campaign promise, Obama has opened the loophole for upwards of 10,000 troops to remain as trainers, intelligence gatherers and emergency responders.
“I think that we are waiting -- awaiting to see whether or not the Iraqi government makes a request of us,” Carney tried to explain. “That has not happened. We are obviously now in July. We are drawing down to zero. We are on schedule to draw down to zero by December 31st, in keeping with our agreement with the Iraqi government. And we will continue doing that as planned. So there’s a certain amount of -- I mean, not sensitivity, but there’s only so much time here available for the Iraqi government to make such a request. If they do, we will consider it. Otherwise we are keeping on schedule.”
Time is running out, of course, because no single Iraqi party wants to take responsibility for editing the SOFA. Beyond breaking his promise to exit by 2011, Obama won’t risk his neck for a decision that Iraq’s politicians also fear making. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki approves of a limited extension to the SOFA, he worries that al-Sadr’s coalition could threaten his position and open the door for rival Ayad Allawi, whose neutral Iraqiya List represents many Sunni constituents. al-Maliki has said that a decision must be reached by 70% consensus, a direct shot at the 20% held by al-Sadr within the National Iraqi Alliance.
That the fate of U.S. troops should be reached by political consensus and not al-Maliki’s personal interests is sound policy. However it also reveals the skepticism that many Iraqis associate with U.S. forces. Ali al-Shilah, a member of al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, said, “All political groups should be making this decision, because we do not want to shoulder the responsibility alone for such a grave and sovereign issue. The situation is still complicated because all the political blocs are avoiding giving a final and clear decision on this.”
Creating more friction on the process, al-Maliki has reportedly demanded that the remaining U.S. troops stay on Iraqi bases, and that bulky combat trucks and armored personnel carriers would be off limits. Obama likely accords with the Prime Minister’s desire to conceal the residual force, however the Pentagon has reportedly balked at al-Maliki’s request. Iraq’s parliament is also unwilling to grant the immunity that Washington requests for U.S. troops.
In short, Iraq’s ongoing insecurity provides a basic but faulty excuse to justify a continued U.S. presence. This strategy makes a degree of sense within a training mission. Problematically, “combat missions” in Iraq have only ended in theory, and a continued U.S. presence will attract renewed attention from Shia and Sunni militias alike. Casting al-Sadr out of the political sphere is similarly reckless. Iraq’s decision to extend the SOFA will create political and military instability unless handled with perfect care, an unlikely outcome given war’s inherent unpredictability.
And if Senator Harry Reid’s warning means anything along the Democratic lines in Washington, Obama will be forced to confront Congress before Iraq’s parliament.
At this point a battle seems inevitable. While extending Iraq’s time-line would create disturbances in Afghanistan's, parts of the country do remain too unstable for its own security forces to adequately control. Even if Shia militias lose their impetus without a U.S. presence, al-Qaeda’s network will remain online and likely escalate its activity. The Pentagon is also bent on retaining a buffer around Iran. In a July 1 letter, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told U.S. forces in Baghdad’s governorate to expect to stay in Iraq “longer than they expected,” right up to December 31st. Obama has adhered to his time-line - and is fully prepared to “revise” it.
Carney eventually attempts to backtrack to no avail: “So we have said for a long time now if the Iraqi government asks us to maintain some level of troops beyond that end-of-the-year deadline, we would consider it. That doesn’t necessarily mean we would do it. We would just consider it.”
Yet who believes the Pentagon would pressure for an extension only to reject the offer? This contradiction demonstrates why non-denial denials, more often than silencing political controversy, highlight and amplify it. Fortunately the White House’s lack of transparency could increase the glare on Iraq, which has sunk to the bottom of America’s foreign policy debate.