Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Iraq still needs helping hands, and ours are now tied

By Kori Schake President Obama has held true to his campaign promise of ending the war in Iraq — or at least U.S. participation in it. The timeline is a little longer, the end-state force significantly larger, but by the 2010 mid-term elections Obama will have delivered on that which got him elected. He could ...

By Kori Schake

President Obama has held true to his campaign promise of ending the war in Iraq -- or at least U.S. participation in it. The timeline is a little longer, the end-state force significantly larger, but by the 2010 mid-term elections Obama will have delivered on that which got him elected. He could well be misreading the "change" his election represents -- aren't Americans weary of sweeping ideological missions just now, domestic or international? -- but on Iraq, this is what he promised.

And it's a sensible approach, a huge improvement over positions he took as a candidate. Cheers to Secretary Gates and the military leadership for affecting those changes. The plan identifies a glide path drawing down U.S. forces as Iraqis become increasingly able to protect their own country. It extends the drawdown beyond the Iraqi parliamentary elections in December. It leaves room for renegotiation of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to keep a Korea-style U.S. long-term presence without requiring the Iraqi parliamentarians to agree to it concurrent with the SOFA itself. And it outlines sensible military missions and adequate forces to achieve them.

By Kori Schake

President Obama has held true to his campaign promise of ending the war in Iraq — or at least U.S. participation in it. The timeline is a little longer, the end-state force significantly larger, but by the 2010 mid-term elections Obama will have delivered on that which got him elected. He could well be misreading the "change" his election represents — aren’t Americans weary of sweeping ideological missions just now, domestic or international? — but on Iraq, this is what he promised.

And it’s a sensible approach, a huge improvement over positions he took as a candidate. Cheers to Secretary Gates and the military leadership for affecting those changes. The plan identifies a glide path drawing down U.S. forces as Iraqis become increasingly able to protect their own country. It extends the drawdown beyond the Iraqi parliamentary elections in December. It leaves room for renegotiation of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to keep a Korea-style U.S. long-term presence without requiring the Iraqi parliamentarians to agree to it concurrent with the SOFA itself. And it outlines sensible military missions and adequate forces to achieve them.

We supporters of the surge need to acknowledge that many in the military advocated this drawdown — not least the Service Chiefs, who are worried about the strain on U.S. forces from six years of continuous warfare. But we should all also be worried about committing to this timeline. The problem with establishing timelines rather than objectives is that the enemy accounts for them as well. Why wouldn’t the enemies of a strong, stable, democratic Iraq just wait us out? Or take a page from Hezbollah’s playbook and harass U.S. forces as we withdraw? Will Iraqi political leaders continue to make brave political choices that stabilize their country? Or will the timeline set them to gaming outcomes for narrow political advantage?

President Bush is as much to blame as Obama for this timeline: Bush accepted it in the SOFA. The Bush Administration argues it was the best deal possible with a sovereign Iraq, and to their credit, they muscled up to the unpleasant reality that their strategy was failing and committed the necessary forces and approaches that have given Obama the political luxury (as John Barry nicely termed it) of ending the war successfully.

But ask the Iraqi Army whether they’ll be capable of handling combat operations without U.S. assistance by August 2010. They don’t believe so. In fact, some Iraqi national security types are advocating quietly re-labeling U.S. participation with no change to existing operations (the U.S. military is wisely rejecting this). Prime Minister Maliki believed U.S. forces could withdraw years ago. He has a politician’s understandable desire to deliver the withdrawal yearned for by many average Iraqis, but not a soldier’s sense of the military requirements to achieve it.

Iraqi operations in Basra last year demonstrate the gap. Maliki courageously insisted on extending the government’s authority into the Iranian- and Shia-militia-controlled city. The Iraqi military bravely stepped forward for the fight, but it needed lots of U.S. help to succeed — help from U.S. troops in combat. Both the SOFA and Obama’s timeline will prevent such assistance after July 2010, years before the Iraqi military believes it can go it alone.

The non-military areas of concern in Obama’s drawdown plan are the extent to which it relies on "sustained diplomacy" (as if the Bush Administration had never thought of that!) and a pledge to "use all elements of American power." The first has been true and is unlikely to yield appreciably different results for the Obama Administration. Appointing an ambassador to Iraq who has no experience in the Middle East wouldn’t seem to yield diplomatic advantages. Moreover, the president is overstating the extent to which countries that have national interests at variance with what we’re trying to achieve in Iraq and throughout the Middle East will change course based on "sustained diplomacy." Will Saudi Arabia look with any fonder eye on a Shia-dominated Iraq now that Obama is president? Will Iran cease support to Hamas and Hezbollah?

The second diplomatic angle — using all elements of national power — is already a tired shibboleth. We all wish the Bush administration had better right-hand/left-hand coordination. But the structural constraint on integrated politico-economic-military strategies in the U.S. government is that we lack robust tools in the non-military realm. We have too few diplomats with too little training. We do not raise in the Agriculture or Education or Housing and Urban Development Departments a phalanx of experts for deployment to countries we’re trying to set on a path to success. Our military does those jobs in war because we will not fund a standing capability in civilian realms.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

Tag: Iraq

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?