Obama’s Iraq withdrawal plan: who won the think tank wars?

Obama’s Iraq withdrawal plan: who won the think tank wars?

When President Obama unveiled his plan for withdrawing all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by August 2010, save for a residual force of 30,000-50,000 troops, at the Marine base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina last Friday, he spoke as always to various constituencies: Americans and Iraqis, Republicans and Democrats, military and civilians, Congress and the public.

But the fidelity with which Obama’s Iraq withdrawal plan hewed to the recommendations in a series of reports drawn up by a Washington think tank over the past two years did not escape the scrutiny of another of Obama’s audiences: Washington’s think tank world, jockeying for policy and positions of influence in the new administration.

In 2007, an interesting divide emerged between two Democratic-leaning Washington think tanks over Iraq policy, a Hill foreign policy hand describes. The Center for American Progress, led by former Reagan era Pentagon official Larry Korb and CAP senior fellow Brian Katulis, a former fellow at State policy planning and the NSC, were pushing for an immediate pullout of all U.S. forces from Iraq as part of a “diplomatic reset.” But another national security policy shop, the Center for a New American Security, led by CNAS president Michele Flournoy, and CNAS senior fellow Colin Kahl, was promoting an approach that would trade U.S. troop drawdowns for progress in Iraqi political reconciliation and capacity building – the better Iraq does, the longer the U.S. would provide security through troop deployments.

Officials from CAP and CNAS “clashed at multiple conferences and seminars around town and it was an interesting preview of the likely divide inside a future Democratic Administration,” the Hill foreign policy hand described.

See from the June 2007 “Strategic Reset” report by the Center for American Progress report. “The United States should immediately begin redeploying its troops from Iraq and declare it does not intend to maintain military bases permanently in Iraq,” CAP’s Korb, Katulis and CAP researcher Peter Juul wrote. “A swift strategic redeployment from Iraq, coordinated with Iraq’s government, gives the United States the best chance to revitalize its ground forces now stretched too thin to address growing threats on other fronts in the fight against global terrorist groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere.”

By contrast, consider a March 2008 policy brief by the Center for a New American Security, “The Case for Conditional Engagement in Iraq” (.pdf): “Too many critics of the war favor a policy of unconditional disengagement from Iraq,” the CNAS policy brief’s authors, Shawn Brimley and Kahl wrote. “This strategy ignores the very real contribution American forces are making to preventing a resurgence of civil war in Iraq….”

“A policy of conditional engagement—a nuanced middle position between ‘all in’ or ‘all out’—offers a better chance of producing lasting progress in Iraq,” the brief continues.

Suggesting a middle way between all in and all out, the CNAS plan for conditional engagement called for a phased withdrawal of US troops but leaving a residual force of as many as 60,000 troops in Iraq after that to perform counterterrorism, training functions and prevent regional instability or genocide. In other words, the plan that has more or less become Obama’s. The policy brief’s criticism of "conditional disengagement" was seemingly pointed at the CAP one year full withdrawal plan.

Who won?

“It appears that CNAS won the battle outright,” the Hill foreign policy hand judged. “Led by Flournoy, CNAS is coming into the Pentagon in droves.”

Flournoy has become undersecretary of defense for policy. Kahl, who served as the senior lead of the foreign policy team advising the Obama campaign on Iraq issues, now works that issue at the DoD as the DASD Middle East. CNAS VP and director of research James Miller is slated to become principal deputy under secretary of defense. CNAS fellows Brimley and Vikram Singh have also taken Pentagon OSD/policy shop jobs.

And last Friday, in conjunction with the POTUS speech at Camp Lejeune, the Administration sent up a small team to brief Senate national security staffers on Iraq in a closed door setting. The lead briefer? Kahl, one of those CNAS senior fellows who have since become a deputy assistant secretary of defense, Hill aides said.

UPDATE: A New York think tank hand writes, "I would quibble a bit with that description because this [Obama’s plan] is decidely not conditional engagement. CNAS never wanted a fixed timeline and wanted the U.S. presence to be governed by the Iraqi political progress, whereas CAP thought a harder timeline was essential to unclog the political paralysis in Baghdad. The Obama plan might be somewhere in the middle."

A Washington Democratic think tank hand adds, "If you’re going to talk about the think tank wars you also have to throw Brookings and CFR into the mix.  The O’Hanlon, Biddle, Pollack approach specifically singled out the national elections as one of the central reasons to maintain large numbers of troops in Iraq until the end of 2009 early 2010.  It seems like they’ve gotten their wish on this particular point.  I agree with your New York hand that there is nothing conditional about this particular engagement in that the political reconciliation piece is being hammered out now in an interagency process after the miltary piece has already been decided.  I would say this is 1/2 CNAS (The training mission and rough timeline), 1/4 CAP (the clear and unambiguous declaration of withdrawal), 1/4 CFR-Brookings (Holding off on major withdrawals until after the elections)."