Shadow Government

Course correction on Iraq

President Obama has twice in recent weeks highlighted his achievement in ending U.S. combat operations in Iraq by the end of this month. The president had nothing to say on the five-month political stalemate that has followed elections in Iraq, other than that it will have no effect on U.S. troops leaving, and nothing to ...

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama has twice in recent weeks highlighted his achievement in ending U.S. combat operations in Iraq by the end of this month. The president had nothing to say on the five-month political stalemate that has followed elections in Iraq, other than that it will have no effect on U.S. troops leaving, and nothing to say about the increase in violence to Iraqis.

President Obama should be clear about our continuing combat commitments in Iraq, reconsider the transfer to civilians some of the inherently military tasks our civilian mission in Iraq will require, and revise the security agreement with Iraq to provide for continuing presence of some U.S. military forces after 2011.

The president’s argument that setting a deadline to end operations would force Iraqis to make hard political choices has proven false. Instead, the deadline has disinclined Iraqi political leaders to compromise and diminished U.S. influence. This has significant implications for the Obama administration’s strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan (where the drawdown of that surge is arbitrarily set for July of 2011).

In his Disabled American Veterans speech, Obama declared that “our commitment in Iraq is changing — from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats.” But our State Department lacks the capacity to scope or conduct a mission of this magnitude. It balked at the hundreds of tasks the military identified that would need to be transferred. Rather than define what needs doing and persuade the Congress to provide the necessary resources, State defined down the requirements. When Congress refused even that level of funding, neither State nor the White House fought for the necessary resources.

In order to bring U.S. effort back into line with our equities as we conclude the war in Iraq, the president should make three crucial changes to his policies:

First, be straightforward that some combat responsibilities remain. The president makes it sound as though the only mission remaining for U.S. forces in Iraq after Aug. 31 will be training Iraqi security forces, but we are supporting as well as training Iraqis. That support extends to providing for Iraq’s air defense and conducting air operations, because Iraq has no air force to speak of yet. They are working towards self-sufficiency, but as Gen. Shawkat Zebari, the head of Iraq’s security forces admitted this week, Iraq will not be able to fully secure their country until 2020. Gen. Ralph Baker, deputy commander of forces in central Iraq, also confirmed that timeline.

If the debacle of Clinton administration intervention in Somalia taught us anything, it is that one of the worst mistakes an American president can make in national security policy is to carry commitments without informing the American people. When the mission shifted from humanitarian assistance to fighting Somali warlords, the president did not prepare Americans for the casualties that would occur when we became a party to the conflict. President Obama is setting himself up for a similar crisis. Both Turkey and Iran have made military incursions into Iraq in the last several months; the Iranians have constructed a fort inside Iraqi territory. An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities by either Israel or the United States could provoke attacks on U.S. installations and allies in the region. The president needs to be clear we will protect Iraq in these and other eventualities.

Second, reconsider full civilianization of the mission in Iraq. The State Department has 5,000 civilians in Iraq, its largest deployment anywhere in the world. Fully half those State Department personnel are involved in providing security. Most are contractors. Even if equipped with DOD helicopters, mine clearers, and armored vehicles, the State mission will be consumed by providing security. And do we really want civilians undertaking these inherently military jobs? We need to build an integrated politico-military strategy, not a strictly civilian one.

Third, make clear in public that we are open to renegotiation of the Security Agreement to assist the government of Iraq for as long as it seeks U.S. support. It would help stabilize the political machinations of Iraqis and others who would influence Iraq for us to be engaged beyond 2011.

None of these changes requires major increases in our commitment to Iraq. None of them would likely increase the risk to U.S. forces, and they will reduce Iraqi casualties by stabilizing the fracturing political landscape in Iraq. Failing to acheive peace in Iraq will be all the more disgraceful because so little is now needed to help Iraqis stabilize their country in a way consistent with our interests.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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