Obama’s Plan For Iraq

Barack Obama takes to the op-ed pages of the NYT to present his new plan for Iraq which is conveniently his old plan for Iraq.   He sees Nuri al-Maliki’s proposal for a a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq as “an enormous opportunity.”

Only by redeploying our troops can we press the Iraqis to reach comprehensive political accommodation and achieve a successful transition to Iraqis’ taking responsibility for the security and stability of their country. Instead of seizing the moment and encouraging Iraqis to step up, the Bush administration and Senator McCain are refusing to embrace this transition — despite their previous commitments to respect the will of Iraq’s sovereign government. They call any timetable for the removal of American troops “surrender,” even though we would be turning Iraq over to a sovereign Iraqi government.

Bush and McCain have both said, repeatedly, that we’d accede to the wishes of the Iraqi government.  They merely think a too-rapid withdrawal would be a bad idea and undo the recent gains that even Obama admits were achieved by the Surge which he opposed.

As I’ve said many times, we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 — two years from now, and more than seven years after the war began. After this redeployment, a residual force in Iraq would perform limited missions: going after any remnants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protecting American service members and, so long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces. That would not be a precipitous withdrawal.

The problem with a timetable remains the same:  It ignores facts on the ground. In recent months, Iraq has been much more stable and American casualties are now lower than they are in Afghanistan despite many more troops engaged.  It may well be that we can remove most of our forces in two years.   But we simply have no way of knowing that now.  Indeed, Obama admits as much:

In carrying out this strategy, we would inevitably need to make tactical adjustments. As I have often said, I would consult with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government to ensure that our troops were redeployed safely, and our interests protected. We would move them from secure areas first and volatile areas later. We would pursue a diplomatic offensive with every nation in the region on behalf of Iraq’s stability, and commit $2 billion to a new international effort to support Iraq’s refugees.

Fair enough. Indeed, all this sounds sensible.  But why, then, continue to hammer the “sixteen months” theme if it’s not set in stone?  Sheer political pandering?

Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and Al Qaeda has a safe haven. Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been. As Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently pointed out, we won’t have sufficient resources to finish the job in Afghanistan until we reduce our commitment to Iraq.

He didn’t quite say that.  But, sure, our heavy commitment in Iraq limits our options elsewhere.  Then again, Afghanistan is a NATO mission and Iraq is not.  Why not continue to press our NATO Allies to pick up their fair share of a burden they committed themselves to?  After all, isn’t Obama going to have some magic diplomatic mojo?

The bizarre thing is that, as enticing as declaring victory and going home sounded a few months ago, it appears that things are finally on the right track in Iraq.  While calling Obama’s plan “surrender” is demagogic, it could still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

UPDATE (Dodd): Maliki’s statements misreported:

US presidential contender Barack Obama has repeatedly seized on statements attributed to Iraqi leaders to support his call for a troop withdrawal deadline….

The prime minister was widely quoted as saying that in the negotiations with the Americans on a Status of Forces Agreement to regulate the US troop presence from next year, “the direction is towards either a memorandum of understanding on their evacuation, or a memorandum of understanding on a timetable for their withdrawal”. … There is only one problem. It is not what Mr Maliki actually said.

In an audio recording of his remarks, heard by the BBC, the prime minister did not use the word “withdrawal”. What he actually said was: “The direction is towards either a memorandum of understanding on their evacuation, or a memorandum of understanding on programming their presence.”

Mr Maliki’s own office had inserted the word “withdrawal” in the written version, replacing the word “presence”.

The piece goes on to note some disagreement within the Iraqi government on this point, including some very Obama-esque rolling back on some points. Obviously Obama can’t be blamed for relying on Maliki’s own office as to the Prime Minister’s position. But it does tend to underscore the broader point: Making firm plans right now for the withdrawal our troops is an exercise in political pandering, not rational policymaking.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Iraq War, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anon says:

    Sure, he’s hammering the “sixteen months” theme as a political tactic. I see this as normal political signaling and positioning. He’s trying to signal to a segment of the voters that he realizes that a strict timetable may be militarily risky, and that he will pay attention to facts on the ground.

    At the same time, there seems to be a certain segment of (apparently important) voters that seem to be demanding “sixteen months or else”. I personally think those people are foolish, but apparently he thinks that they are important, and he doesn’t want to lose their support.

  2. Dodd says:

    But why, then, continue to hammer the “sixteen months” theme if it’s not set in stone? Sheer political pandering?

    These are rhetorical questions, right?

  3. Michael says:

    The problem with a timetable remains the same: It ignores facts on the ground. In recent months, Iraq has been much more stable and American casualties are now lower than they are in Afghanistan despite many more troops engaged.

    So I’m confused, when violence was high we were told we can’t leave until it was under control. Now that it’s under control, we’re told we can’t leave because it’s finally under control. Are we now having to wait until it spirals out of control again before we can leave?

  4. Michael says:

    And since when did you close comments on current posts? The New Yorker article is all of 2 posts old, and the 5 comments there were about as uncontroversial as any I’ve ever seen here, why close it down?

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I saw Sen. Obama’s op-ed as wholly benign. He’s re-affirming the point I’ve made for some time, namely that he doesn’t plan to withdraw from Iraq. He’s going to withdraw combat brigades which, by my reckoning, will leave a force of between 50,000 and 80,000 U. S. troops in Iraq. He’s also said that he plans to continue some combat operations although how that will work out without combat brigades is not completely clear to me.

    I also find it a little hard to reconcile his domestic spending plans, financed at least in part by the presumed savings by reducing the footprint in Iraq, with his actual plans. As I read the budget leaving a third the present force in Iraq and re-deploying 20,000 to Afghanistan will be roughly a wash from a budgetary standpoint.

  6. duckspeaker says:

    could still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

    Last throes…

    …a few dead-enders.

  7. Jim Henley says:

    Barack Obama takes to the op-ed pages of the NYT to present his new plan for Iraq which is conveniently his old plan for Iraq.

    Flip-flopper!

  8. James Joyner says:

    And since when did you close comments on current posts? The New Yorker article is all of 2 posts old, and the 5 comments there were about as uncontroversial as any I’ve ever seen here, why close it down?

    Weird. So far as I know, I did nothing that would have closed the comments — I was commuting and then in a staff meeting most of the morning. I’ve checked the boxes to allow comments, but they’re open for 2 weeks by default.

  9. Alex Knapp says:

    The importance of a timetable is because of the ever-shifting notion of “victory” that has been in place over the course of this war. What we now consider to be “success” of the recent years–the ethnic cleansing of cities and neighborhoods, the arming of ethnic tribes, the Iranian-sponsored national government using its influence to kill and intimidate nationalist parties, increasing Kurdish nationalism and independent political action–would have been considered an absolute disaster in 2003. We are not experiencing “success” right now–we’re experiencing a lull between civil wars. There’s no grounds for optimism right now until October. If Maliki’s government holds free and fair elections, I might considering thinking of the Surge as a “success.” If, as is more likely, we see a wave of violence and intimidation against Maliki’s enemies, then I guarantee we’ll see a new wave of violence in Iraq.

  10. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Alex, the Maliki Government was elected by fair and free elections. There was no civil war there. You need to find a definition of civil war. Where was the combat? Bombs in a market place do not, a civil war make. If you call the difficulties between various factions in Iraq a civil war, what is the fight between the Bloods and Crips in LA?

  11. nightjar says:

    It may well be that we can remove most of our forces in two years. But we simply have no way of knowing that now. Indeed, Obama admits as much:

    And how are ever going to know until we actually begin withdrawing our troops?

  12. Kathy says:

    So I’m confused, when violence was high we were told we can’t leave until it was under control. Now that it’s under control, we’re told we can’t leave because it’s finally under control. Are we now having to wait until it spirals out of control again before we can leave?

    Oh my GOD, Michael: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. James Joyner says:

    So I’m confused, when violence was high we were told we can’t leave until it was under control. Now that it’s under control, we’re told we can’t leave because it’s finally under control. Are we now having to wait until it spirals out of control again before we can leave?

    Nope. We’re already drawing down to pre-Surge levels and below. Turning things over to the Iraqis has always been and remains the endgame. I’m just saying — and, indeed, Obama’s saying — that we can’t know what happens in the midway point of all this and say with any certainty that we’ll be able to pull out in 16 months.

    The only difference between Obama and me on this score is that Obama’s trying to have it both ways.

  14. Michael says:

    Nope. We’re already drawing down to pre-Surge levels and below.

    Which is great. But the “can’t leave because of the violence” was the excuse before the surge. Now that the surge has succeeded in reducing violence, that pre-surge condition seems to have been met. Instead we’re returning to the pre-surge levels with a post-surge excuse.

    Turning things over to the Iraqis has always been and remains the endgame.

    Okay, but when?

    I’m just saying — and, indeed, Obama’s saying — that we can’t know what happens in the midway point of all this and say with any certainty that we’ll be able to pull out in 16 months.

    We can say with certainty that we will be able to pull out in 16 months, we just can’t say with certainty what the “facts on the ground” will be like in 16 months.

    But this excuse is basically saying “Things are good now, but they might not be good tomorrow, so we’ll have to stay and see what happens tomorrow”. The problem is that if tomorrow (or 16 months from now) everything is still as peaceful as today, that excuse won’t be any less valid than it is today.

    We’ll never know what the “facts on the ground” will be like, so either we will withdraw troops under than condition, or we won’t withdraw troops at all.

    The only difference between Obama and me on this score is that Obama’s trying to have it both ways.

    Actually the difference seems to be that your plan ‘A’ is to stay, and plan ‘B’ is to leave “if something changes”, while for Obama plan ‘A’ is to leave, and plan ‘B’ is to stay “if something changes”.

  15. James Joyner says:

    Actually the difference seems to be that your plan ‘A’ is to stay, and plan ‘B’ is to leave “if something changes”, while for Obama plan ‘A’ is to leave, and plan ‘B’ is to stay “if something changes”.

    I think leaving is pretty much everybody’s plan ‘A.’ The questions are how and when.

    Obama is saying two contradictory things: That it’ll happen within 16 months of his taking office and that we have to be prudent in doing so in “consult[ation] with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government to ensure that our troops were redeployed safely, and our interests protected.”

    I’m reversing that emphasis and saying we should withdraw so long as our interests are protected and the troops can be redeployed safely. That’s not conducive to timetables, other than as a rough planning guidance.

  16. Michael says:

    I think leaving is pretty much everybody’s plan ‘A.’ The questions are how and when.

    Ok, so replace “leaving in 16 months” and “staying after 16 months” in my original post if it makes you feel better. The point remains.

    Obama is saying two contradictory things: That it’ll happen within 16 months of his taking office and that we have to be prudent in doing so in “consult[ation] with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government to ensure that our troops were redeployed safely, and our interests protected.”

    How would that be different than saying it won’t happen within 16 months, but that we will consult with commanders on the ground? It seems to me that both of you are saying the same thing, just from different half-full/half-empty perspectives. Obama is optimistic that we can withdraw after 16 months with the support of commanders on the ground, while you don’t believe that can happen.

    I’m reversing that emphasis and saying we should withdraw so long as our interests are protected and the troops can be redeployed safely. That’s not conducive to timetables, other than as a rough planning guidance.

    And you don’t believe that is the situation now, now will it be in 16 months. I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again, under what _specific_ conditions will you feel it is safe to leave?

  17. anjin-san says:

    One thing we have to keep in mind when we talk about leaving Iraq is that many billions of dollars are being made (or stolen) off of the war, and that this will continue to go on as long as the war does. This provides some folks with a pretty potent reason for wanting this thing to drag on.

    At some point, we are going to have to pack up, and the people of Iraq are going to have to decide if they want to sink or swim.

    That noted far-left moonbat liberal, Dwight David Eisenhower warned us about the power of the military-industrial complex. He was a bright guy who was expert on the issue. We should keep his words in mind.

  18. Bruce Moomaw says:

    “I’m reversing that emphasis and saying we should withdraw so long as our interests are protected and the troops can be redeployed safely. That’s not conducive to timetables, other than as a rough planning guidance.”

    Obvious follow-up question, James: just how do you define “rough planning guidance”? And how do you know that it differs (or to what extent it differs) from Obama’s statement?

    Personally, though, I’m waiting for the October elections: the ones which the Sadrists have a good chance of winning. There’s a very good chance that all of our current debate over withdrawal timetables will become — how can I put this? — somewhat irrelevant after that, as so many previous debates over this war have become.

  19. Bruce Moomaw says:

    On that last subject: note that what the BBC article mentioned by Dodd REALLY says is that the al-Maliki government itself keeps zigzagging frantically back and forth on whether it’s calling for a withdrawal or not:

    “Mr Maliki’s own office had inserted the word ‘withdrawal’ in the written version, replacing the word ‘presence’.

    “Contacted by the BBC, the prime minister’s office had no explanation for the apparent contradiction. An official suggested the written version remained the authoritative one, although it is not what Mr Maliki said.

    “The impression of a hardening Iraqi government line was reinforced the following day by comments from the National Security Adviser, Muwaffaq al-Rubaie.

    “He was quoted as saying that Iraq would not accept any agreement which did not specify a deadline for a full withdrawal of US troops.

    “Significantly, Mr Rubaie was speaking immediately after a meeting with the senior Shiite clerical eminence, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

    “But in subsequent remarks, Mr Rubaie rode back from a straightforward demand for a withdrawal deadline.

    “He said the talks were focused on agreeing on ‘timeline horizons, not specific dates’, and said that withdrawal timings would depend on the readiness of the Iraqi security forces.

    “The confusion reflects the dilemma facing Iraqi government leaders.

    “On the one hand, many of them – particularly among the Shia factions – face a public which regards the US presence as a problem rather than a solution.

    “With provincial elections coming up soon, they could be outflanked by more militant elements such as the supporters of cleric Moqtada Sadr, who wants American forces out now and opposes negotiations that would cover their continued presence.

    “Yet the government knows that its own forces are not yet in a position to stand on their own against the two major challenges they face – the Sunni radicals of al-Qaeda and related groups, and the militant Shia militias which were partly suppressed in fierce battles this spring in Basra and Baghdad.

    “Both groups could simply bide their time awaiting the American withdrawal before making a comeback drive.”

    Yes indeed. To which I will add only that exactly the same thing is true of our (current) Sunni friends in the Anbar Awakening — who decided to ditch al-Qaida simply because they found out that (1) they couldn’t stand the al-Qaidans’ religious extremism, (2) they weren’t getting much military help from them anyway (the Pentagon itself estimates that only 7% of the Iraqi Sunni fighters it’s arrested are a-Q), and (3) they could make a dandy deal with the Bush Administration, in which we give them the money for weapons which they will pretend to use against a-Q (thus making the Bush Administration look better, which is why we’re going along with the fraud) but which they actually intend to use against the Shiites the moment we leave. Some of the local sheikhs have been quite open about this in talking with American reporters.

    So, as I say, let’s all just wait until October. The odds are good that things will look radically different in Iraq after that.

  20. Dale says:

    I find it amusing that Obama obsessively uses the word “redeploy” when what he means is “withdraw.” Presumably he thinks that the use of “redeploy,” correct or not, makes it sounds as if he knows something about military affairs.

  21. Bruce Moomaw says:

    Actually, he talks specifically about redeploying “at least two additional combat brigades” to Afghanistan immediately — and, while he doesn’t mention the fact again, he refers in the first paragraph to the increasing threat from Iran, without saying whether or not he intends any military actions against it. (We ARE talking about someone who’s publicly threatened to stage military raids on the northern territory of Pakistan itself in pursuit of al- Qaeda.) So at this point, when he talks about “redeploying” most of our troops currently in Iraq, there is a very real possibility that he intends to genuinely redeploy a lot of them to some other active military theater, for better or worse.

  22. anjin-san says:

    Considering the recent penetration of a NATO base in Afghanistan, a little redeployment does not sound like such a bad idea. Especially if things are going so well there.

  23. Michael says:

    Considering the recent penetration of a NATO base in Afghanistan, a little redeployment does not sound like such a bad idea.

    The “penetration” wasn’t all that impressive, it was a new, unfinished outpost that didn’t have it’s final defensive measures in place, and the Taliban was still repelled. Putting more troops there wouldn’t help new construction.

  24. anjin-san says:

    The “penetration” wasn’t all that impressive

    Seems to be a bit dismissive of the KIAs in that action…

  25. Michael says:

    Seems to be a bit dismissive of the KIAs in that action…

    Only the Taliban’s KIA.

  26. Bithead says:

    So, what we have in this discussion is proof that the priority isn’t getting the job done, but getting out at any cost.

    And I want to vote Democrat why, again?

  27. Michael says:

    So, what we have in this discussion is proof that the priority isn’t getting the job done, but getting out at any cost.

    Getting out it part of the job. It’s looking increasingly like the only remaining part of the job that is within our ability to accomplish.