Commentary Magazine


Topic: Foreign Affairs

Obama’s Bad-Faith Iraq Withdrawal

The United States has made at least two disastrous foreign policy decisions in the past decade: first, invading Iraq in 2003 without a clear plan or the resources to establish order after Saddam Hussein’s downfall and second leaving Iraq in 2011 without any idea of how to maintain the tenuous calm that existed while U.S. troops were still in the country. Few if anyone would dispute that the former mistake was ultimately the fault of George W. Bush even if much of the blame also falls on his subordinates. But President Obama has waged a semi-successful campaign to avoid being blamed for the latter mistake. He claims it wasn’t really his choice to leave Iraq—the Iraqis simply would not agree to maintain a U.S. troop presence.

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The United States has made at least two disastrous foreign policy decisions in the past decade: first, invading Iraq in 2003 without a clear plan or the resources to establish order after Saddam Hussein’s downfall and second leaving Iraq in 2011 without any idea of how to maintain the tenuous calm that existed while U.S. troops were still in the country. Few if anyone would dispute that the former mistake was ultimately the fault of George W. Bush even if much of the blame also falls on his subordinates. But President Obama has waged a semi-successful campaign to avoid being blamed for the latter mistake. He claims it wasn’t really his choice to leave Iraq—the Iraqis simply would not agree to maintain a U.S. troop presence.

Anyone who still believes this well-worn excuse should read Rick Brennan’s article in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, “Withdrawal Symptoms: The Bungling of the Iraq Exit.” Brennan, a RAND political scientist who advised the U.S. military in Iraq from 2006 to 2011, provides copious detail to explode Obama’s alibi, which was that he had no choice but to withdraw troops because the Iraqi parliament would not provide our personnel with legal immunity and we cannot possibly station troops abroad without it.

Brennan points out that the 2008 agreement negotiated by the Bush administration to keep U.S. forces in Iraq did not have total legal immunity either: “Instead, in somewhat ambiguous terms, the agreement gave Iraqi authorities legal jurisdiction over cases in which U.S. service members were accused of committing serious, premeditated felonies while off duty and away from U.S. facilities.” U.S. military commanders were comfortable with this language “since members of the U.S. armed forces are on duty 24 hours a day and are not permitted to leave their bases unless on a mission.” Indeed the Iraqis made no attempt to prosecute a single U.S. soldier between 2008 and 2011.

Yet Obama insisted that he could not possibly keep U.S. troops in Iraq without approval of immunity from parliament. Brennan writes that in September 2010 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns that Iraq’s parliament would approve an American presence but not grant “complete immunity.” “Instead, Maliki proposed signing an executive memorandum granting immunity without the need to gain parliamentary approval.” But White House lawyers judged this language inadequate and Obama used this as an excuse to announce a pullout.

What makes this episode all the more astonishing is that now Obama has sent 1,600 and counting U.S. troops back to Iraq, as Brennan notes, “on a promise of immunity backed only by a diplomatic note signed by the Iraqi foreign minister—an assurance even less solid than the one Maliki offered (and Obama rejected) in 2010.”

Along with Obama’s decision to offer the Iraqis only 5,000 troops, rather than the 20,000 or more judged necessary by U.S. military commanders, this strongly suggests that the Obama administration was negotiating in bad faith: that the president was not really committed to maintaining troops in Iraq beyond 2011. We are now seeing the consequences of this monumental miscalculation as ISIS consolidates its control over much of northern and western Iraq. It is early days still, but it is likely that this mistake will haunt Obama’s historical reputation just as Bush’s mistakes in Iraq will continue to haunt his.

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Do Iranians Read “Foreign Affairs”?

In the article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs that Ira Stoll and Jonathan Neumann discussed, Professor Kenneth Waltz asserts that “if” Iran desires nuclear weapons, the purpose is likely “enhancing its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities.” He is apparently uncertain whether Iran has such a desire but relatively sure about Iran’s intentions if it does. He thinks we have (to use the headings in his article) “Unfounded Fears” and can “Rest Assured” an Iranian bomb will be purely defensive.

Ira called the article “the latest proof that some ideas are so far out there that only Columbia professors believe them.” Only Columbia professors — and perhaps a former University of Chicago lecturer in constitutional law. In 2007, two months into his presidential candidacy, Barack Obama told David Brooks an Iranian bomb would be deterrable: “I think Iran is like North Korea. They see nuclear arms in defensive terms, as a way to prevent regime change.” Several months later, Israel bombed a nuclear plant in Syria for which North Korea had provided plans and personnel, in an area not previously considered part of the North Korean defense perimeter.

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In the article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs that Ira Stoll and Jonathan Neumann discussed, Professor Kenneth Waltz asserts that “if” Iran desires nuclear weapons, the purpose is likely “enhancing its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities.” He is apparently uncertain whether Iran has such a desire but relatively sure about Iran’s intentions if it does. He thinks we have (to use the headings in his article) “Unfounded Fears” and can “Rest Assured” an Iranian bomb will be purely defensive.

Ira called the article “the latest proof that some ideas are so far out there that only Columbia professors believe them.” Only Columbia professors — and perhaps a former University of Chicago lecturer in constitutional law. In 2007, two months into his presidential candidacy, Barack Obama told David Brooks an Iranian bomb would be deterrable: “I think Iran is like North Korea. They see nuclear arms in defensive terms, as a way to prevent regime change.” Several months later, Israel bombed a nuclear plant in Syria for which North Korea had provided plans and personnel, in an area not previously considered part of the North Korean defense perimeter.

Earlier this year, President Obama told AIPAC “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” It sounds resolute, but days before the speech White House aides told the New York Times Secretary Clinton erred when she assured the House Foreign Affairs Committee the policy was to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The administration reiterated to the Washington Post that its red line is not capability but production of a nuclear weapon – what John Bolton has derisively called “just in time” deterrence.

In that connection, we should note what Prof. Waltz considers the three possible outcomes of the current crisis: (1) diplomacy and sanctions convincing Iran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon – an outcome he thinks unlikely; (2) Iran stopping after developing a breakout capability, allowing it to produce a nuclear weapon in the future on short notice – an outcome he thinks the U.S. and its European allies might accept but that Iran may deem an insufficient deterrent; and (3) Iran continuing its current course and getting a weapon – an outcome repeatedly declared “unacceptable” but which, he notes, has a history:

“Such language is typical of major powers, which have historically gotten riled up whenever another country has begun to develop a nuclear weapon of its own. Yet so far, every time another country has managed to shoulder its way into the nuclear club, the other members have always changed tack and decided to live with it.”

The current negotiations with Iran have the hallmarks of a process too big to fail, no one daring to call it a final failure lest action be required. Iran has seen what the U.S. didn’t do regarding North Korea (under both the Bush and Obama administrations), and may believe President Obama will eventually reinstate his 2007 view, after his “policy” is overtaken by a fait accompli. An election-year AIPAC speech may suffice for American Jews, but Iran is more likely to pay attention to articles such as Professor Waltz’s in Foreign Affairs and bank on post-election flexibility if Obama is re-elected.

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