Marc Lynch

Continuing the Iraq debate

By Marc Lynch This week’s virtual book club about Tom Ricks’s The Gamble and Obama’s Iraq speech have brought out some really good points and arguments here on Foreign Policy.com. I wanted to quickly respond to some of them here as the week wraps up.  First, my esteemed co-blogger Christian Brose objects to my description ...

By Marc Lynch

This week's virtual book club about Tom Ricks's The Gamble and Obama's Iraq speech have brought out some really good points and arguments here on Foreign Policy.com. I wanted to quickly respond to some of them here as the week wraps up. 

First, my esteemed co-blogger Christian Brose objects to my description of the Obama plan (offered in my response to Dan Drezner) as essentially the same one offered by Obama throughout the campaign except for two extra months. The plan is the same, he concedes, but reality has changed.  That's fair, as far as it goes. Iraq in February 2009 is not the Iraq of spring 2007. But it's still the case that the plan which Obama presented on Friday is in most particulars the same as the one presented throughout 2008, save for those two fateful months added to the timeline for withdrawal of combat brigades.

By Marc Lynch

This week’s virtual book club about Tom Ricks’s The Gamble and Obama’s Iraq speech have brought out some really good points and arguments here on Foreign Policy.com. I wanted to quickly respond to some of them here as the week wraps up. 

First, my esteemed co-blogger Christian Brose objects to my description of the Obama plan (offered in my response to Dan Drezner) as essentially the same one offered by Obama throughout the campaign except for two extra months. The plan is the same, he concedes, but reality has changed.  That’s fair, as far as it goes. Iraq in February 2009 is not the Iraq of spring 2007. But it’s still the case that the plan which Obama presented on Friday is in most particulars the same as the one presented throughout 2008, save for those two fateful months added to the timeline for withdrawal of combat brigades.

The most interesting part of the story has to be how the U.S. policy debate evolved over 2007-2008 to make this consensus possible. The rough contours of Obama’s plan evolved amidst a healthy, constructive debate over the course of 2007-08 between center-left and center-right pragmatists. Obama’s commitment to withdrawal along a fixed timeline moved the debate in both the U.S. and Iraq — just compare the early Bush positions in the SOFA negotiations in favor of an open-ended, long-term U.S. military presence with the final document’s fixed deadline of December 31, 2011 for the departure of U.S. troops. The SOFA (which I have praised Bush for signing) cemented the strategic convergence around a time-line for withdrawal. That, along with his careful consultations with the military at all levels on how to safely implement his commitments, helped ensure the rough consensus we so amazingly saw last week.

But all of that just makes it even more amazing to look back to the presidential election campaign, where the intense political rhetoric tended to obscure the emerging policy convergence on Iraq policy. Obama’s plan is, as Brose acknowledges, substantially the same as the plan he advocated in the campaign. During the campaign, McCain’s people savaged the plan. Now the same people praise it as "an Iraq policy John McCain might have formulated." As a great man once said, you can tell the people you roll with whatever you want, but you and I know what’s going on. (That’s not aimed at Chris, just to be clear).

Second, Tom Ricks.

Much of what Ricks has said in response to his critics makes sense. I fully agree with his concerns about the long-term success of the surge, the continuing and deep political fragility of Iraq, and the impressiveness of the men who changed U.S. strategy in Iraq. Can things go wrong? Are conditions still fragile? Lord, yes. Will some U.S. commanders on the ground continue to worry that it isn’t a good time to remove forces? Probably. But I disagree with his repeated claim that Obama is repeating Bush’s mistake of over-optimism, and I think that his cavalier dismissal of the SOFA is dangerously wrong.

Obama’s withdrawal plan was never based on unrealistic optimism, but rather on a healthy skepticism about what the U.S. could hope to accomplish, which should be music to the ears of the Tom Ricks who wrote The Gamble. Back during the election season, it was the ones who backed what I take to be Ricks’s preferred strategy who tended to offer wildly over-optimistic views of progress in Iraq, the better to vindicate the surge. The people around Obama were far more skeptical and (in my opinion) prudent — we were far more often criticized as "doom and gloomers" than as wild-eyed optimists. I’ve seen no evidence that anything has changed with the team now in place. These are tactically conservative, careful people — if anything, too cautious for my taste.

As for the SOFA, though, we do really disagree. I think Ricks is just wrong, and dangerously so, to dismiss it as not mattering. It matters a lot to Iraqis, it is legally binding on the United States, and the new campaign plan is built around it. If the referendum fails in July — a real possibility — all the other plans are off and the U.S. will have to withdraw within a year. Ricks has the right to his perspective on this, and it may reflect what he has heard from many of his military sources, but I think this is a major flaw in his analysis. We shall see.

By the way, let’s hear it for all the contributors to FP.com’s Iraq week! These are good debates to be having and it’s a delight to be part of it. I hope that the seeming bipartisan accord on the withdrawal plan can open the space for constructive policy debates about what is almost certainly going to be a tricky and difficult path out of Iraq.

UPDATE:  Since Peter Feaver has now weighed in, let me add on a quick response to his thoughtful remarks as well.  

First, Feaver argues that "with only minor modifications, his "new strategy" simply codifies the Bush plan and embraces the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by Bush."  This is true only to the extent that Bush moved a long, long way before agreeing to the Status of Forces Agreement in its final format. The final SOFA, with its fixed December 2011 deadline, just looks nothing like the original conception of the long-term U.S. presence in Iraq originally envisioned when the negotiations began.  Bush and his team deserve — and received, from me at least — great praise for accepting the new Iraqi and American realities, and signing on to a SOFA which lined up with Obama’s stated intentions.  

Second, Feaver worries about the inflexibility of the deadline and worries that it will tie Obama’s hands in the event of future problems.  But this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Part of the problem here is that Feaver sees this as primarily directed towards the domestic audience.  But it’s also, and I would argue more significantly, directed towards the Iraqis.  Most Iraqis find it very hard to believe that the U.S. will really leave, and need clear, sharp signals to establish that this is in fact the policy. And then down the road there will be all kinds of vested interests in keeping the U.S. in Iraq which will look for ways to force that to happen. Obama’s speech (after the long campaign) will now pay very high "audience costs" (to use the IR theory lingo) for revising the policy, which will help to raise the bar for changing the stance quite high and will establish the credibility of the commitment. 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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