Shadow Government

Obama crosses (then burns) the bridge Bush built in Iraq

By Peter Feaver President Obama is walking across the bridge the Bush team built in Iraq. No, not this bridge. Or this bridge. This bridge. He then turned around and lit a match or two to that bridge. But providing things go well in Iraq, or providing that Obama has not burned down the bridge ...

By Peter Feaver

President Obama is walking across the bridge the Bush team built in Iraq. No, not this bridge. Or this bridge. This bridge. He then turned around and lit a match or two to that bridge. But providing things go well in Iraq, or providing that Obama has not burned down the bridge entirely, this may all work out to be as good an Iraq policy as can be expected from the current administration. 

Let me explain.

An early name to the surge strategy given by those of us who worked on it (including some of my colleagues on this blog) was the "bridge strategy." In 2005-2006, we were pursuing an Iraq strategy that gave pride of place to training up Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and transitioning to Iraqi leadership, so that Iraqis could eventually win the fight ("stand up, stand down"). 

There were many premises behind this strategy, but among them were these: 1) insurgencies usually fail so long as the counter-insurgents can stay in the fight long enough; 2)"long enough meant maybe as long as a decade; 3) the American public would not stand for a U.S.-led counterinsurgency resourced at the level it was then being resourced for as long as a decade; 4) through political progress we could reduce the threat to a low-enough level; 5) through accelerated training of the Iraqis we could build up an Iraqi Security Force big-enough to … 6) shift the relative roles so Iraqis were in the lead and the United States were in support.

If that strategy had not started to collapse over 2006, then the next phase of the strategy called for accelerated training and transition to greater Iraqi leadership in 2007. However, that strategy was failing over 2006, so the Bush Administration set out to figure out what to do in a no-holds-barred internal assessment called the Iraq Strategy Review.

We were working on that review when the Baker-Hamilton commission gave us its recommendation: accelerate the training and transition to greater Iraqi leadership. (There were other elements, of course, but most were largely irrelevant or secondary to the main "what to do in Iraq" issue.) This was an oddly timed recommendation because the Baker-Hamilton Commission stated, 1) our strategy was failing, and 2) the right thing to do was to continue to implement the next phase of that strategy (though, to be sure, they certainly called it something else).

What became the president’s view, and thus the dominant view of the inside team was this: we agree that we would like to implement Baker-Hamilton, but we can’t do it right away. To do so would be to lose in Iraq. The security challenge of spiraling sectarian violence was too great and the ISF were too small. Handing it over to Iraqis would crack the ISF. Those forces were Humpty Dumpty — once broken, neither they nor Iraq could ever be put together again.

What we needed was a bridge strategy, a way to get from here (December 2006) to there (the conditions under which it would be safe to accelerate train and transition). That was the surge (and all the other elements of it).

As we now know, the bridge or surge strategy was very unpopular, but it did change the situation in Iraq for the better. And it paved the way for an eventual shift back to the train and transition strategy. With his recent Iraq announcement, Obama has walked across that bridge.

Obama’s Iraq speech on Friday does two things. First, with only minor modifications, his "new strategy" simply codifies the Bush plan and embraces the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by Bush. So far so good. As Chris Brose has argued, the speech was somewhat graceless in the way that it ignored what Bush had accomplished in courageously deciding for the surge in the teeth of vicious political opposition. And it certainly was a missed opportunity for Obama to admit that he had been wrong about the surge. For a team that made so much political hay slamming Bush for never admitting he was wrong, the absence of any such grace notes was unfortunate.

Second, and more ominously, the speech attempts to set fire to the bridge by committing inflexibly to a timetable for implementing that strategy that may, or may not, prove reasonable. Put another way, President Obama has offered his own "read my lips pledge" when he says, "Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end." He gives himself only the slightest amount of wiggle room when he further states: "And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011" (emphasis mine).

Here is the problem. What if the situation in Iraq requires a slightly longer timetable? What if the situation requires renegotiating the Status of Forces Agreement? What if Iraqis ask President Obama for some sort of longer-term strategic partnership that would further cement gains in that region, and do so at an acceptable cost? By that point, will the inflexibility and domestic political point-scoring of this speech have burned any such bridges behind President Obama? Will he be trapped, or will he have the freedom of maneuver he needs to do what is in the best interests of U.S. national security at that time?

President Bush the Father ended up regretting his "read my lips" pledge when he had to break it. I wonder whether President Obama will come to a similar awkward point. 

Those are questions for the next couple years. For now, it suffices to note that Obama strolled across the bridge designed by President Bush and built by General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, and all the brave men and women working for them. That is worth at least a cheer or two.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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