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More questions about Obama’s policy on leaving Iraq

More questions about Obama’s policy on leaving Iraq

Over several different posts, I have been exploring the eerie echoes between Obama supporters’ critique of the entry into Iraq and the way Obama has chosen to exit it. Up until now, I have focused on the policymaking process rather than the policy itself. In the final analysis, however, it is the policy that will matter most and so it is worth investigating whether the same overall pattern that is so marked on the politics applies to the substance as well. Here are three echoes that may prove to be consequential.

The first is the concern that we entered Iraq with too few troops to do the mission and now we will be exiting Iraq leaving behind too few troops to do the mission. For — make no mistake of it — while President Obama claims that the Iraq war will have ended, the Iraq mission has not. The State Department has committed to its largest, most ambitious, and most challenging set of operations it has ever attempted without the cover of a sizable U.S. military presence. The security and logistics vacuum left by the departing U.S. uniformed troops will be replaced, at some lower level of functionality, by U.S.-contracted private security forces. Many experts inside thought some residual force would be needed and I do not know many people who have high confidence that the State Department is up to the task that it has left itself.

Shouldn’t critics who thought the entry to Iraq involved overly risky operational choices about the resources needed for the subsequent phase of the mission be equally concerned about the resources left for the next phase now?

The second is the concern that shifting focus so rapidly from the Afghanistan theater in 2002 to Iraq relaxed the pressure on the core al Qaeda network and its Taliban sponsor. By "taking our eye off the ball," we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and allowed al Qaeda and the Taliban to reconstitute itself. Indeed, this was quintessence of the Obama war critique of 2008: he claimed it was time to focus on the "real" threat in Afghanistan and stop diverting resources to the "secondary" theater of Iraq.

A recent New York Times article underscores the extent to which this same phenomenon is happening, but in reverse. Bush’s surge strategy of 2007 put the Iraqi-based al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), on the defensive. Progress on both the security and political fronts allowed many observers inside and outside government to speculate that AQI might even be defeated. Now, according to the NYT, some in the U.S military fear that the failure to secure an arrangement for a more robust military mission in Iraq after 2011 has thrown a life-line to AQI. The description of the debate inside sounds remarkably like debates about the beginnings of the Iraq war, with a White House pushing to move on while others in the Administration are pushing to finish the job first:

The Qaeda affiliate’s nascent resurgence has helped fuel a debate between some Pentagon officials on one side, who are seeking a way to permit small numbers of American military trainers and Special Operations forces to operate in Iraq, and some White House officials on the other, who are eager to close the final chapter on a divisive eight-year war that cost the lives of more than 4,400 troops.

Shouldn’t critics who believed that in entering Iraq the Bush administration took its eye off of the ball and thereby allowed the enemy to reconstitute itself worry that in exiting Iraq the Obama administration is doing the very same thing?

The third parallel concerns Iran. As measured by our national interest, one of the gravest charges leveled against the Bush Administration was the claim that Iran benefited the most from the toppling of Hussein. Under Saddam, Iraq was Iran’s most formidable foe — they fought a bloody war throughout the 1980s, after all — and Iraq helped check Iran’s regional aspirations. Saddam was replaced first with chaos, which Iran was able to exploit, and later with a new government controlled by political factions with deep ties to Iran. Bush’s National Security Strategy claimed, "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran." But, the charge goes, invading Iraq made that challenge much greater than it otherwise would have been.

Critics are making exactly that charge about Obama’s exit plan today, and quoting Iranian leaders to substantiate it. By failing to negotiate a longer-term strategic presence inside Iraq, President Obama may have tilted the U.S.-Iran balance of power even more decisively in favor of Iran. The United States is now scrambling, to recover from this set-back, but the challenge is daunting.

Shouldn’t critics who believed the entry into Iraq hurt U.S. interests by empowering Iran also believe that the exit from Iraq has further empowered Iran and thus further hurt U.S. interests?

Am I too pessimistic? Perhaps. The most compelling piece with a cautiously optimistic take that I have read is the one by Brett McGurk, one of the key negotiators in the latest phase of the U.S.-Iraq saga. He makes two hard-headed pragmatic points. First, in the end this was Iraq’s choice to make and the Iraqi people did not want U.S. forces to stay with the immunity that U.S. lawyers insisted we had to have. Second, this is not the end of the relationship and there are many ways in which the U.S.-Iraqi partnership can blossom in a mutually productive fashion.

Because of his analysis, I am not willing to declare mission failure yet. But it sure looks like we are embarking on a needlessly risky path.

It is a cliché that history doesn’t repeat itself but it may rhyme. Here is another over-used aphorism: just because it is a cliché doesn’t mean it can’t be true.