A campaign event that "isn't campaign-related" offers the perfect venue to celebrate a promise that wasn't kept. Hoping to brandish his military credentials through domestic rather than foreign policy, President Barack Obama landed in El, Paso, Texas on Friday to discuss medical and psychological care with Iraq veterans and their families. Except the nobility of his latest executive order and promise to support America's veterans rests on a broken "commitment" to Iraqis.
Obama has annexed this promise to the bottom of his campaign speech, and within the context of "nation-building at home," because several thousand Iraqis have been killed since U.S. troops withdrew in December 2011.
Roughly two years after Obama announced the end of America's combat role at Fort Bliss, July 2012 registered the country's deadliest month since August 2010. Iraqi ministries recorded at least 325 casualties (241 civilians, 40 police and 44 soldiers) and another 697 wounded from terrorist attacks across the country. Of these shootings and bombings, 43 were specifically claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), otherwise known as al-Qaeda's remnants. The group made no secret of its plan to go underground, mobilize, and remerge after the withdrawal, and has achieved success in this long-term plan. So how can the war be "over" when al-Qaeda, an entity that didn't exist in Iraq before U.S. troops arrived, is still fighting an asymmetric war against the country's people and security forces?
Friday's stagecraft was neither the first nor last time that Obama will exploit veterans to conceal Iraq's ongoing war. Picking another revealing day to address the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Obama would praise the warrior ethos that has flourished in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq's wars as a wave of gunmen and suicide bombers tore a bloody streak across the country. An estimated 100+ casualties were one of many reminders that, even though U.S. combat operations have come to an end, Iraq's U.S.-initiated war has not. Fast forward to Fort Bliss and Obama still has nothing to offer beyond his promise of getting out - and criticism for well-meaning observers of U.S. policy.
"And so, two years ago, I was able to come here to Bliss and mark the end of our combat mission. And that night I told the American people that all our troops would be out of Iraq by the end of the following year. At the time, I know some folks didn’t believe me. They were skeptical. Some thought the end of combat was just word games and semantics, but I meant what I said."
2012’s chain of events demonstrates how disconnected, deceptive and inflexible America's public diplomacy has become. While no previous bombings or shootings have dissuaded the Obama administration from pushing ahead with its campaign rhetoric, one might reasonably expect a reduction in volume during a systematic flurry of terrorist attacks. Yet instead of amending Obama's speeches and the White House's media rollout, the administration has chosen politics over policy and forged ahead with high-profile presentations. Undaunted by Iraq's violence, Obama regularly boasts that he "pledged to end the war in Iraq honorably, and that’s what we’ve done."
This line has come to represent the entirely of his public diplomacy and treats Iraqis as afterthoughts.
Naturally, Obama and his circle rarely mention the country's spikes in violence or the escalating political crisis in Baghdad. Beyond the relativity of Iraq's darkest and bloodiest days, the administration employs a second tactic to obscure the war's continuation and minimize the erosion of U.S. policy. What's left of a national debate has been contorted by the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the number that "should have stayed" and the length of their deployment. Unable to define its own position, various members of the GOP have criticized the lack of a residual force as evidence that Obama doesn't listen to his commanders. In retaliation, the White House flipped a stumbling discourse on its head.
"Well, I understand that there are those who think we never should have ended the war in Iraq, that we should stay in Iraq, perhaps, for a second decade," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters before Obama spoke to the VFW. "The President simply disagrees with that. And the fact of the matter is that, as I said, thanks to the sacrifice and professionalism of U.S. military personnel, Iraq has significant numbers of security personnel who are engaged in and capable of providing security internally to their own country."
Yet the primary failure of U.S. policy has nothing to do with a residual force. This decision never fell to the administration, but died a premature death in Baghdad when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki chose to abstain from bringing the issue to vote. Too many political forces opposed the extension of America's presence to test the waters - he was more likely to be embarrassed and hence embarrass Washington. The idea of a long-term residual force, numbering somewhere around 10,000 and operating outside Iraqi law, was a fantasy from the beginning of its inception.
Aiding the growth of Iraq's democracy offers the only sustainable policy in the country. Although kinetic operations may have blunted al-Qaeda's reactivation after the main withdrawal, the ongoing presence of U.S. forces could have generated an equal or greater level of instability.
In accordance with the rough laws of counterinsurgency, current U.S. policy in Iraq is suffering from political mismanagement rather than military errors. Behind the country's security environment lies a fragmented political scene that threatens to collapse al-Maliki's government, and many problems intertwine with the administration's withdrawal. Foreshadowing Afghan President Hamid Karzai's suspect re-election in 2010, the White House would attempt to stay clear of Iraq's 2010 election before eventually casting its lot behind al-Maliki - eight months after the vote. The resulting Irbil Agreement, brokered with heavy U.S. input, was supposed to balance Iraq's power equation by creating a national security position for Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqiya List secured two more seats in the parliamentary election. However Allawi never received his consolation and al-Maliki maintains an unconstitutional hold on the Interior and Defense Ministries.
Iraqiya and other political blocs also accuse him of perverting the judiciary system.
Due to these factors and countless localized grievances, political warfare has engulfed Baghdad and diverted the country's full attention away from its internal enemies. Iraqiya would launch a partial boycott against al-Maliki in late 2011; soon afterwards, Vice President and Iraqiya member Tariq al-Hashimi was charged with organizing Sunni death squads. The Obama administration also poured fuel directly on the fire by inviting al-Maliki to the White House and praising his democratic leadership, a move that his opponents perceived as an undeserved vote of confidence. Another Iraqiya member, Vice Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, told CNN that he was "shocked" by Obama's choice of words and responded by calling al-Maliki a "dictator."
He soon found himself facing the threat of a no-confidence vote.
Weeks later Allawi told CNN's Fareed Zakaria, "President Obama said very clearly that the United States have left Iraq as a stable and democratic country. It's neither stable nor democratic, frankly speaking. It's very - the terrorists are hitting again very severely. Al Qaeda is fully operational now in Iraq. We can see with the various explosions that are claiming the lives of innocent people every day, and we are seeing the unconstitutional behavior of the government."
Their message never got through. Instead of engaging Iraq's government on neutral terms, the Obama administration has allowed a political crisis to fester for months and continues to tacitly back al-Maliki's authority. Any questions are rerouted to a formulaic reply - all sides must work out their differences though dialogue - however al-Maliki's unconstitutional grip on power should not be open to debate. This passive stance has also aggravated the Kurds, driving them and Iraqiya into a loose alliance with Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The network is currently stalled on its next move and may be unwilling to pull the trigger on a no-confidence vote against al-Maliki (which entails a new election), but this stalemate is toxic to the country's rebuilding efforts. All the while Iran maintains a similar level of influence as Washington, having backed al-Maliki in tandem.
"Whether we like it or not the ongoing violence is just a reflection of the fragile political situation of Iraq," al-Hashimi told Al Jazeera at the end of July. "There's no doubt about it. There’s no stability. If the politicians are not thinking in one line; they don't have a unified vision to run the country, this means we’re leaving loopholes in our political system for terrorists to penetrate and to target innocent people."
Iraq's war did not end responsibly because it has yet to end. Equally disturbing is the high probability that Afghanistan will "end" in a similar fashion. This kind of conventional thinking has no place in counterinsurgency and long wars, only stump speeches and aircraft carriers.