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Obama Ends Major Combat Operations in Iraq

President Barack Obama (R) walks with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) from the Oval Office to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House February 27, 2009 in Washington, DC. President Obama is traveling to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to announce his plans for eventual removal of troops from Iraq. (Getty Images)

President Barack Obama (R) walks with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) from the Oval Office to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House February 27, 2009 in Washington, DC. President Obama is traveling to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to announce his plans for eventual removal of troops from Iraq. (Getty Images)

Given that OTB got started during the run-up to the Iraq War and that my commentary on that subject was what first got me noticed by some major blogs, it’s perhaps ironic that I’ve hardly written about the subject lately.  Partly, it’s a function of my now doing most of my foreign policy blogging at New Atlanticist, where Iraq discussion doesn’t really fit.  Mostly, though, it’s because the war has been in status quo mode since shortly after the Surge and there’s not much going on that I’m interested in writing about.

Yesterday, of course, President Obama announced his Iraq withdrawal plan.

For the most part, I agree with Christian Brose ‘s analysis.  I especially want to emphasize this:

Obama can say all he wants that he’s “ending the war” by August 2010, but believing that is nutty, and being surprised that by then we’ll still have 30-50,000 troops in Iraq, as some on the left are, is even nuttier. We knew this was coming. From the moment he said during the campaign that he’d pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq in 16 months, Obama has backtracked — first drawing a false distinction between “combat” and “non-combat” troops, and now pretending that a “residual force” of 30-50,000 Americans under arms, many of whom will be fighting al Qaeda, constitutes “ending the war.”

We knew this was coming and, frankly, it was coming in much the same way regardless of whether Obama or McCain won.  Despite all the cute talk about “100 years of war,” the Surge was going to end and a drawdown of forces was going to commence.  Hell, George W. Bush had already signed a status of forces agreement requiring it.

And we’re going to keep a sizable force in theater for the foreseeable future which will be in harm’s way.   Bruce McQuain is right:  That’s not exactly “ending this war.”

But we’ve known since the primaries that Obama wasn’t going to totally remove forces from Iraq and he’s always left wiggle room for “events on the ground” and “the advice of military commanders.”  He appears, in fact, to actually be taking said advice.  And that’s a good thing.

Obama started the process that led to his becoming president as a novice — a bright, charismatic fellow who could inspire progressives hungry for change.  He said some imprudent things in his naive enthusiasm.  Thankfully, since he was elected and will serve as president for at least four years, he demonstrated that he could learn and that his positions could quickly evolve in light of new understanding.

On the matter of Iraq, he started off sounding like one of the Kos Kids but quickly became much more nuanced and thoughtful.  Because he had been an early, forceful opponent of the war, he retained strong credibility on the left.  Because his policy statements evolved, centrists’ fears that he would be rash were mollified.  And because he’s such a disciplined communicator, quite a few people managed to hear what they wanted to hear, emphasizing the parts of his speeches they liked and discounting caveats as “just politics.”

Beyond that, all presidents change upon taking office, adapting to the role of commander-in-chief.  Those who take over ongoing wars tend not to want to “lose” them on their watch.  So, Obama will naturally play out the string carefully.

As to the outcome of the war, quite a few of the blogs on the Right are proclaiming victory.  That’s right only if we define winning as “this is turning out better than anyone would have guessed two years ago.”  Even if we go for something less than “a model Arab democracy that will create a wave of democratic movements in the region,” settling for, say, “a stable, democratic government capable of providing for its own security,” we ain’t there yet.  And, so long as we have tens thousands of American troops there engaged in counter-terrorist operations, it ain’t over.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Mike says:

    I don’t think anyone believed we were signing up for 50,000 plus for the next 5 years when this started nor did anyone predict it would go as bad as it did. I will stick by my prediction that we will be at over 100,000 next Jan and over 50,000 in Aug 2010. You can call them non-combat troops but when they are armed to the teeth they are combat soldiers plain and simple. Hell, we are still in Kosovo; we won’t be leaving Iraq in the next 10 years.

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  2. upyernoz says:

    he demonstrated that he could learn and that his positions could quickly evolve in light of new understanding.

    i’m kind of curious, how do you think his position on iraq has “evolved”? the only difference i can see is he’s added three months to his withdrawal timetable–and even when he first announced his timetable he noted that the 16 months could be stretched out as he consulted with military advisors. throughout the presidential campaign he always noted that he was only talking about combat troops, and was slammed by the left back in 2007 for endorsing the idea of leaving a “residual force.”

    if anything, obama has been remarkably consistent on iraq. his speech yesterday didn’t seem like any change from what he’s been promising since the primary season.

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  3. steve says:

    I guess you assume we will renegotiate the SOFA requiring we be out entirely by 2011? I am not so sure the Iraqi ruling class, ie Maliki and co., will go for that.

    Steve

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  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that it’s entirely dependent on how conditions in Iraq develop and that’s how it should be. Right now, as I noted in my post, things are actually pretty much under control and becoming more so. It’s appropriate for us to start planning our withdrawal.

    I’d hope that the plans would include contingencies for slowing or speeding up depending on new developments.

    As to what the Iraqi government will want in two years, who know? If they’re in control of the entire country by that time, why shouldn’t we leave? If they aren’t I think we’d be fools if we didn’t expect them to ask us to stay.

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  5. Frank Warner says:

    Since everyone from John McCain to Barack Obama agrees our American GIs have succeeded in Iraq, and will have everything fairly well secured by the end of August next year, it’s time for a Washington, D.C., Iraq Victory Parade, Aug. 28, 2010. Invite all Iraq war veterans. Salute the liberators!

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  6. Nathan says:

    Obama said all US troops (no reference to combat/non-combat) will be gone by 2011. It was an extra 2 or 3 months than his original intent. I don’t see how this could be considered as vindication for McCain who thought there would be residual troops in iraq indefinitely.

    Maybe I missed something somewhere where Obama said there would “a sizable force in theater for the foreseeable future which will be in harm’s way.”

    Because everything I see is “There are currently about 142,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq, according to the Defense Department. Under terms of an agreement reached with Iraqi leaders last year, the U.S. must remove troops from Iraqi cities by the end of June and, as the Obama plan reinforces, withdraw its forces altogether by the end of 2011″ — politifact.

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