Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A different take on leaving Iraq — especially on the SOFA

  Michael Hanna, a smart analyst of Middle Eastern affairs at the Century Foundation, offers up this thoughtful response to my comments on Iraq and the Status of Forces Agreement. I am posting it with his permission: Dear Tom, I wanted to touch base on the issue of the US troop presence and a possible ...

587968_090309_SoldiersHelicopter2.jpg
587968_090309_SoldiersHelicopter2.jpg

 

Michael Hanna, a smart analyst of Middle Eastern affairs at the Century Foundation, offers up this thoughtful response to my comments on Iraq and the Status of Forces Agreement. I am posting it with his permission:

Dear Tom,

 

Michael Hanna, a smart analyst of Middle Eastern affairs at the Century Foundation, offers up this thoughtful response to my comments on Iraq and the Status of Forces Agreement. I am posting it with his permission:

Dear Tom,

I wanted to touch base on the issue of the US troop presence and a possible US-Iraqi military relationship post-SOFA. I clearly have a different take on the SOFA, and I think it is not simply a political fig leaf for Iraq’s posturing leaders-although that is part of it. It is a real agreement, and I think it does us well to treat it as such. Now that it is down on paper, it could take on a life of its own. You can imagine what would transpire if we see another Nisour Square or Haditha-type incident (obviously the latter is less likely now, but U.S. forces, as you well know, are still fighting daily). Even if Iraqi leaders were only interested in posturing, they might not have a choice in how public opinion shifts the discourse.

On a side note, I have heard that we are hoping the Iraqis don’t press the issue of a SOFA referendum. Can this be pulled off? I guess so-this is Iraq after all and they still need to adopt implementing legislation, so it might be possible. But again, I would not necessarily count on it if events make it impossible for Maliki and the national leadership to resist. You could imagine a strident nationalist among the Sunni or an independent Shiite using the apparent willingness of the political class to acquiesce to the US presence by not holding a referendum as a wedge issue to rile up opposition in the run-up to the national elections. And, again, if there is another incident of catastrophic and very public violence, we could see a lot of pressure for a referendum. Mind you, I am not sure it would necessarily be defeated. I think there is a great deal of ambivalence among Iraqis as to our presence, and the move out of Iraqi cities and Iraqis’ daily lives will surely decrease friction and resentment against US forces. But, who knows? Iraqi public opinion is a tough thing to gauge.

But the referendum is a side issue for the moment (unless it happens and the SOFA goes down to defeat- and then, of course, we will have to alter radically our approach). My larger point is with the question of a long-term presence.

Although I believe we are best served by a complete withdrawal in 2011, I would be willing to listen to arguments pro and con as long as these arguments are based upon military necessity (and, I would not be willing to entertain such discussions if an indefinite U.S. military presence was understood as an end in and of itself). I talked recently with a former senior military official who also said very clearly that the US presence will persist because the Iraqi military is highly aware of its limitations and will simply be unable to support itself with its limited logistics capacity and no air support. He also thinks there is not a military-civilian split among the Iraqis, something that is a concern to me and could emerge in the future, and that the political guys are in step with their military counterparts. So there is a clear argument for why we should stay in light of the fragile nature of the Iraqi state.

But it is just that-an argument over a major strategic question. Military basing in the Middle East should not be undertaken lightly and should be a question of wide-ranging public debate and subject to Senate approval. No more end-runs around Congress. We should think clearly about whether an over-the-horizon force could do the job for our counterterrorism mission in Iraq. If not, perhaps a smaller advisory corps is the answer. Who knows at this juncture; it could very well be,as I suspect, that a full withdrawal is the best answer. We should judge these options based on where we stand in 2011 and what the Iraqis are asking us to do.

Further, in broader strategic terms, the course of negotiations with Iran is highly uncertain, and I believe our presence in Iraq is a major liability in terms of our options in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. If they want, they always have us right next door, and, when threatened, they will stir up trouble at our expense. Do they control fully their Iraqi allies? No. Is it risky from their perspective to destabilize Iraq? Yes. But if their perceived national interests dictate, they will surely shift their focus to extracting a heavier price for American behavior. Something to consider. Then there is the perennial question of radicalization and blowback. Iraq is not Qatar, Kuwait or Bahrain. It is in the heart of the Middle East, and we should by now understand that this has potentially damaging effects that could come back to haunt us.

All this is to say that we should not make judgments now as to the necessity of a U.S. military presence in Iraq after 2011. We should fully detail and consider the very serious strategic costs associated with longer-term military arrangements. We should understand what we would be committing to, and we should do this all with a wide degree of debate and public consensus. And, I did not even touch on Afghanistan, the state of the military, or fiscal considerations, which will all loom large.

I shudder to contemplate genocide in Iraq or even wide-scale sectarian/ethnic war, and the possibility of regional instability is not something to be taken lightly. So there are valid concerns about our withdrawal on national interest and purely ethical terms. But I wonder what we could do to stop such a war if it actually broke out. In 2006-2007, we were not able to halt the civil war; many Iraqis believe we simply sat on the sidelines and dealt with the consequences once the sectarian fighting had sorted things out for us. Would we be able to exert our will in the future with decreased troop numbers? I have serious doubts on that front.

As you frequently mention, all the options are lousy, and I agree fully with that assessment. But we need to think longer and harder before committing ourselves upfront, even rhetorically. And it does no good for our Iraqi interlocutors if we act as if it is a fait accompli and that they have no role in deciding upon such a future course of action. It sends all the wrong signals. It is not our decision to make alone, and we should be mindful of that.

After all that, we might decide on an extended troop presence and military relationship (although, I have serious reservations at this point in terms of the wisdom of a major and ongoing military presence), but it should be at that point only-with Iraqi blessing and a full understanding of what it is we would be committing to.

Anyway, just some thoughts I wanted to share based on your recent public comments.

Best,

Michael  

 

Photo: Flickr user army.mil

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.