Marc Lynch

Obama vs Odierno

Obama vs Odierno

The institutional pushback against Obama’s attempt to change Iraq policy is unfolding as predicted. After a steady stream of Washington Post and Wall Street Journal editorials warning against withdrawing troops from Iraq, the New York Times today reports on the jockeying between the military and the Obama administration. According to the Times, Gen. Ray Odierno said Wednesday that "it might take the rest of the year to determine exactly when United States forces could be drawn down significantly" while J.D. Crouch warned ominously that "they don’t want to alienate the military." The Obama administration should resist this inertia — and the public challenge to his authority — and stick to its stated goals of drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq.

Some of this is simply the press manufacturing conflict. Odierno’s public comments are consistent with those of departing Amb. Ryan Crocker — and less novel than the reporting might suggest. This was Odierno’s position before the transition, and since Obama is still in listening mode he has not yet issued new orders. Gen. Petraeus’s CENTCOM hasn’t yet released its JSAT strategic review. The only statement from the administration quoted in the article is by Robert Gibbs, who says "We’re no longer involved in a debate about whether, but how and when." The only thing new in Odierno’s endorsement of the Council on Foreign Relations/Brookings "go slow" strategy is that he’s once again going public. But it’s still extremely important — Odierno has to know that such a public statement will be received as an open military challenge to presidential authority.

The politics of this aside, I think that Odierno’s intention of keeping troops in Iraq through the national elections is dangerously wrong. The CFR/Brookings/Odierno "go slow" approach ignores the reality of the new Status of Forces Agreement and the impending referendum this summer — which may well fail if there is no sign of departing American troops. It sends the wrong messages to Iraqi politicians and the Iraqi population. It would badly hurt Obama’s credibility in the region and with Iraqis, who will see his most important public commitment fall by the wayside. And it would lose the unique window of opportunity offered by the transition to signal real change.

This strategy is also a recipe for endless delay. Given the very catalog of Iraqi political fissures and emerging conflicts that Odierno cites as reason to stay, there is little reason to think that conditions will be so much more stable at the end of this proposed year of caution. At that point the exact same conversation will ensue about why drawdowns are imprudent at this time — and does anybody believe that the people currently calling for prudence and high troop levels will suddenly reverse themselves a year from now when conditions look much the same as they do now?

And it isn’t just a year: senior Iraqi officials have suggested that the national elections, which Odierno suggests as the point when drawdowns might begin, may well not be held until March 2010. I don’t think that 16 months is a sacred number. But what Odierno is proposing is no significant drawdowns for 14 months, followed by another period of wrangling. This could ironically make the "rush for the exits" that everyone wants to avoid more rather than less likely — whether or not it leads to the failure of the SOFA referendum. 

The strategy that I’ve recommended bridges these gaps, and avoids the need for a battle between Obama and the military. A "down payment" of a public, significant drawdown in the early spring would send the correct signals to all relevant actors, while allowing plenty of time for commanders in the field to assess the impact and adjust accordingly. I hope that Obama is able to head off a battle with the military — and the military, a battle with Obama — by working together on such a strategy. Remember: Obama won the election.

It doesn’t surprise me that a commander in the field would ask for more troops, or want to postpone drawing down troops. Why would a commander in the field want less to work with? But the job of a president, as Obama well knows, is to balance competing commitments and to make these choices.

UPDATE:  apparently the Washington Post version was very different indeed.  Check out Ilan Goldenberg’s sharp take on the significance