If there is one constant of American military history it is that the longer our troops stay in a country the better the prospects of a successful outcome. Think of Germany, Italy, Japan or South Korea. Conversely when U.S. troops rush for the exits hard-won wartime gains can quickly evaporate. Think of the post-Civil War South, post-World War I Germany, post-1933 (and post-1995) Haiti, post-1972 Vietnam, or, more recently, post-1983 Lebanon and post-1993 Somalia.
Keep that history in mind as you listen to President Obama boast: “As promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”
Far from being cause for celebration, Obama’s announcement that we will keep only 150 U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of the year–down from nearly 50,000 today–represents a shameful failure of American foreign policy that risks undoing all the gains that so many Americans, Iraqis, and other allies have sacrificed so much to achieve. The risks of a catastrophic failure in Iraq now rise appreciably. The Iranian Quds Force must be licking its chops because we are now leaving Iraq essentially defenseless against its machinations. Conversely the broad majority of Iraqis who fear Iranian influence and who want their country to become a democracy will come to rue this day, however big a victory it might appear in the short term for the cause of Iraqi nationalism.
Ostensibly this pull-out was dictated by the unwillingness of Iraqi lawmakers to grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution. But Iraqi leaders of all parties, save the Sadrists, also clearly signaled their desire to have a sizable American troop contingent post-2011. The issue of immunity could have been finessed if administration lawyers from the Departments of State and Defense had not insisted that Iraq’s parliament would have to vote to grant our troops protections from Iraqi laws. Surely some face-saving formula that would not have needed parliamentary approval could have been negotiated that would have assuaged Iraqi sovereignty concerns while making it unlikely in the extreme that any U.S. soldier would ever go before an Iraqi court for actions taken in the line of duty.
But for that to have happened, President Obama must have been committed to reaching a deal. He was not. Indeed the White House had already leaked word that no more than 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops would remain–well below the figure of 20,000 or so recommended by U.S. military commanders on the ground. This effectively undercut American negotiators and signaled to the Iraqis that we were not serious about making a long-term commitment to their future. Under those circumstances, why would Iraqi politicos stick their necks out on an issue like immunity, and run the risk that Obama would spurn them in any case?
The failure to reach a deal now does not, however, mean that no deal can ever be reached. Once U.S. forces pull out by December 31, negotiations could and should be reopened to bring back a sizable contingent–I would argue for a bare minimum of 10,000 troops–to conduct counter-terrorist operations, support the Iraqi Security Forces, and act as a peacekeeping force along the ill-defined border between Iraq proper and the Kurdish Regional Government. By showing our willingness to pull out our troops, the U.S. can show the Iraqis that we are serious about respecting their sovereignty and not bent on a long-term occupation of their country. But of course pulling out all U.S. troops and then bringing some back would be costlier than simply keeping them there.
And any such agreement would run into the same obstacle that has already scuttled the current U.S.-Iraq talks: President Obama appears more determined to gain credit for “ending the war” than for ensuring Iraq’s long-term future as a democratic American ally. Like Obama’s decision to downsize prematurely in Afghanistan, this is short-term thinking that could come back to haunt the United States–and its commander-in-chief, who is now taking upon himself the burden of blame should Iraq go off the rails.