Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Failure in Iraq

I want to underline a point made by Pete Wehner in a recent post about the breakdown of talks with Iraq: “The administration’s diplomacy was so inept, in fact, that one can reasonably conclude the White House half wanted this whole effort to fail so Obama could simply wash his hands of a war he never supported in the first place.” Pete, as usual, gets at the core of the issue, which has been obfuscated by so many other commentators who want to put the onus on the Iraqis for the imminent withdrawal of all American troops.

In fact Iraqi political leaders—including the leaders of every major bloc except the Sadrists—had publicly and courageously taken a stand in favor of allowing a substantial American troops stay in a training mission. At the same time they also said that they would not grant immunity to those troops. The issue of legal immunity has long been a contentious one in Iraq; it certainly was in 2008 when the last Status of Forces Agreement was negotiated. In fact it was much more pressing at the time since there were roughly 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq then, compared with 50,000 now and–even if an agreement were reached–fewer than 20,000 in the future. Yet the Bush administration was committed to getting an agreement done, so an agreement got done.

The Obama administration, by contrast, has consistently been ambivalent about whether it even wanted to remain in Iraq. The administration did not enter into negotiations until very late in the game, with only a few months to go before all U.S. troops would have to leave, and then the administration undercut its own negotiators by leaking word that we would agree to keep only 3,000 to 5,000 troops in Iraq–well below what our own military commanders judged to be necessary. This suggested that the administration was far from committed to Iraq, which no doubt caused Iraqi leaders to ask themselves why they should run political risks for a relationship that the U.S. was not serious about continuing.

If the administration had been whole-heartedly determined to keep a presence post-2011, it would have lobbied much harder and would not have given up on the talks over the issue of immunity. Something surely could have been finessed, especially if Pentagon and State Department lawyers had dropped their counterproductive demand that the Iraqi parliament approve any immunity deal. But, like Pete, I sense that the administration was more interested in finding an excuse not to make a deal than to make one.

One revealing piece of evidence is this McClatchey Newspapers article which reports: “Throughout the summer and autumn, as talks on a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq foundered, President Barack Obama and his point man on Iraq, Vice President Joe Biden, remained aloof from the process, not even phoning top Iraqi officials to help reach a deal, according to logs released by the U.S. Embassy here.” Those logs reveal “that Obama had no direct contact with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki between Feb. 13, when he telephoned the prime minister, until Friday, when he called al-Maliki to tell him U.S. troops would be withdrawn by Dec. 31,” and that “Biden telephoned al-Maliki on Dec. 21, the day al-Maliki formed a new government, and visited here Jan. 18, but had no direct contact after that date.”

That is almost criminal high-level neglect of such an important relationship–one that President Bush nurtured in weekly video teleconferences with Maliki. But something more than neglect was going on here, I suspect. Another suggestive–if not conclusive–piece of evidence is this article from the Atlantic’s website recounting a conversation that occurred in early August between Vice President Biden (the administration point man on Iraq) and Rep. Barney Frank:

Here’s Frank’s description of the exchange (remember, “today” is Monday):

One other big story from [the caucus meeting] today, Biden was at the caucus, and I said I was upset about Afghanistan and Iraq. So Jack Lew says, “Well, we’re winding them down.” I said, “What do you mean, you’re winding them down? I read Panetta saying that he’s begging the Iraqis to ask us to stay.” At which point Biden asserted himself and said — there’s clearly been a dispute between them within the administration — “Wait a minute, I’m in charge of that negotiation, not Panetta, and we have given the Iraqis a deadline to ask us, and it is tomorrow, and they can’t possibly meet it because of all these things they would have to do. So we are definitely pulling out of Iraq at the end of the year.” That was very good news for me. That’s a big deal. I said, “Yeah, but what if they ask you for an extension?” He said, “We are getting out. Tomorrow, it’s over.

Biden’s self-fulfilling prediction has come true. It is indeed over—if by “over” one refers to the U.S. military presence in Iraq. But I have grave doubts about whether by this withdrawal the U.S. will in fact “end the war”—as President Obama promised. Iraq may be fine in any case, but the loss of American support makes another war far more likely in this fragile, strategically important country. Obama’s decision not to press harder in negotiations is a tragedy for Iraq—and for the United States whose military, diplomatic and intelligence personnel worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get Iraq this far.

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