Posted By McQ • [January 27, 2009]
How serious is President Barack Obama about withdrawing all troops from Iraq in 16 months?
If you read the White House website, you'd conclude he's very serious about it.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. Immediately upon taking office, Obama will give his Secretary of Defense and military commanders a new mission in Iraq: ending the war. The removal of our troops will be responsible and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government. Military experts believe we can safely redeploy combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of 1 to 2 brigades a month -- which would remove all of them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 -- more than 7 years after the war began.
But is he really? Let's consider a few things.
statement has been on the website since day 1 (Jan 20) and Obama didn't speak
to his commanders until the following day, it is obvious that the
"military experts" cited were not his commanders. So the statement is
most likely the campaign's rhetoric transferred to the WH site.
It certainly does
not reflect the thinking of the military commanders actually involved
in Iraq. Theirs is reflected in the present plan calling for withdrawal in 2011.
So what's the situation now? Well here's a snippet from a recent DoD press briefing which took place after the Jan 21st meeting with Sec. Gates and Adm. Mullen:
Q You certainly must, at this point, have a fair idea of what your view is about a 16-month withdrawal.
ADM. MULLEN: All
of us, I think, understand where we are on the possibility of various
options. That's -- and that's the advice, tied to the risk that's
associated with that, that -- that I'll -- I give the secretary and
I'll give to the president.
Q On this --
SEC. GATES: Let
me just -- let me just say, I think our obligation is to give the
president a range of options and the risks associated with each of
those options and -- and he will make the decision. He has said that he
wants it to be a responsible drawdown. He has said that before he makes
a decision he wants to talk to the military commanders and the chiefs
and get their independent views. Once he has all of that, he will make
the decision and we will execute it.
present plan (withdrawal of all combat troops if conditions permitted
by 2011) - the plan they recommended to President Bush as the prudent
plan - you'd have to think they view the 16 month withdrawal as a high
risk option in comparison to theirs.
I would also
assume that's how they analyzed the 16 month option when it was discussed that
day. Mullen seems to say that by claiming they all "understand where
we are on the possibility of various options". Gates seems to be
pulling a bit of a Pontius Pilate and washing his hands of the whole thing by
claiming his only "obligation is to give the president a range of
options and the risks associated with each" and then, once Obama has
decided, he just executes the decision.
That's the "good
soldier" speech, which usually means – at least when I used to use it –
that if Obama chooses the high-risk option over Gates recommended
option (i.e. status quo withdrawal schedule), the result belongs
exclusively to Obama. That leaves Obama standing out there all alone with sole responsibility for his plan's failure if that happens. I may be reading too much into this, but that's
how it sounds to me.
All that being
said, however, I think Barack Obama is much more attuned to the politics of this
situation than he is the military side of things.
My guess is Obama
is going to wait for the results of the regional elections in Iraq
before making any decision. If they goes exceptionally well and the results show a
trend toward political reconciliation and setting aside sectarian
differences, I believe Obama may actually consider carrying through on the 16
month schedule even though it could carry tremendous political risk. But the election outcome would have to be perfect for him to do so.
If that's the case, he'll have none other than the Prime Minister of Iraq on his side should that decision be made:
Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to remove all combat troops within
16 months and has asked the Pentagon to plan for "a responsible
military draw down from Iraq."
under way, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a political rally south
of Baghdad that he believes the end of the U.S. mission "will be
brought forward" and that Iraq must bolster its own forces to meet the
challenge after the Americans leave.
government pushed for a faster U.S. pullout during last year's
negotiations on the security agreement, overcoming longtime Bush
administration opposition to a fixed withdrawal schedule.
If the regional
elections turn out as Obama hopes, al-Maliki's words would seem to
validate the Obama/Biden plan, at least politically and he may feel the
stars are all aligned for him to proceed with his original plan:
and Joe Biden believe that the U.S. must apply pressure on the Iraqi
government to work toward real political accommodation. There is no
military solution to Iraq's political differences. Now is the time to
press Iraq's leaders to take responsibility for their future and to
invest their oil revenues in their own reconstruction.
Biden's plan will help create lasting stability in Iraq. A phased
withdrawal will encourage Iraqis to take the lead in securing their own
country and making political compromises, while the responsible pace of
redeployment called for by the Obama-Biden plan offers more than enough
time for Iraqi leaders to get their own house in order. As our forces
redeploy, Obama and Biden will make sure we engage representatives from
all levels of Iraqi society -- in and out of government -- to forge
compromises on oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision of
services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new
elections, aid to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security
The likelyhood of all that happening aren't particularly good, and I think Barack Obama knows that. And if he doesn't, my guess is Biden does.
So while the
politics all sound wonderful as laid out above, what is the reality –
the ground truth? While everyone agrees that the solution isn't a
"military one", it is hard to deny that the military is a part of any
final solution. Without security, politics can't be successful.
The assumption or
the risk taken in the Obama plan is that all of the political problems
will have been solved and security successfully transitioned to Iraqi
Security Forces in the remaining 16 months. The questions of "oil
revenue sharing, the equitable provision of services, federalism, the
status of disputed territories, new elections, aid to displaced Iraqis,
and the reform of Iraqi security forces" will be resolved and in the
hands of a competent Iraqi government.
But can anyone
reading this confidently say that in 16 months that will be the case?
Obviously everyone would like for that to be true, but will it be
true? If anyone is listening, a man who probably knows the Iraqi
government better than anyone in the world - Ryan Crocker, the US Ambassador in Iraq for the last few years - isn't at all sure:
C. Crocker, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Iraq, warned Thursday that
a precipitous withdrawal of American troops runs "some very serious
risks," from the resurgence of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq to
a collapse of faith in a nascent Iraqi state that still faces what he
called "enormous challenges."
A loss of
confidence, Crocker said, could create a "chilling effect," where
people "pull back, dig the trenches, build the berms and get ready for
what comes next. I'm not saying that that would happen; but I am saying
these are dangers that could happen."
Crocker's assessment is that progress in Iraq, though tangible and welcome is "still fragile and still reversible".
Crocker said, as that violence has diminished, unresolved conflicts
have come into sharper relief: tension between Arabs and Kurds, a
debate over power-sharing between the federal government and the
provinces, and divisions within Iraq's sectarian and ethnic
faces a series of elections, beginning with provincial voting Jan. 31,
which could inaugurate a democratic tradition but could also unleash
tension as factions mobilize supporters along ethnic and sectarian
fault lines. By year's end, Iraqis are to elect a new parliament, which
will choose the prime minister.
alternated between a sense of accomplishment for a state of relative
calm that he deemed almost unthinkable 18 months ago and repeated
caveats that progress could still unravel, particularly with a quick
He warned that
Iran and Syria could perceive a vacuum and carry out their
"less-than-benign intentions," while efforts toward national
reconciliation could be set aside.
he said, was waiting for an opportunity to regroup. "If we were to
decide suddenly we are done, it would certainly work to use that space
that that opened up to do just that," he said of the group, which he
described as "incredibly tenacious."
possibilities are that the election could inflame rather than cool
sectarian tensions and see the reestablishment of strong ethnic and
sectarian "fault lines". Al-Maliki, who supports early withdrawal,
could be gone by the end of this year. And there isn't anyone who has
followed the war that doesn't understand that Iran, Syria and al-Qaeda
would all be glad to fill any power vacuum left by the US.
Those are the
political risks Obama takes with a hard and fast 16 month timetable for
withdrawal from Iraq, regardless of any fudge factor he builds into
"remaining forces". And interestingly, the long-term political payoff
for sticking with the 16 timetable is minimal. If his 16 month plan
pays off and all goes relatively well in Iraq, he will get credit for
ending a war his predecessor started – but the "win" will go to George
political downside, if his 16 month withdrawal precipitates all of that
which Crocker warns against, could be disastrous.
At the point he
commits to a 16 month withdrawal schedule which countermands the more
extended schedule for the end of 2011, Iraq becomes his responsibility
solely. He won't be able to blame any problems which crop up afterward
on Bush. He will have taken ownership with the implementation of his
schedule and any failure in Iraq will become his and his alone.
The argument used
by political opponents will be that his lack of experience and refusal
to heed the advice of his commanders (who, again, put the existing
schedule together, so it is hard to believe they'll suggest another)
has caused us to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Politically
that would reinforce the belief that Democrats in general and Obama in
particular, lack the experience and understanding of national security
affairs to govern competently. That would be especially true if, after
the withdrawal, the necessity to reintroduce combat troops into Iraq
was to come about. And of course its timing – most likely in the late
2011 early 2012 time frame – could spell certain defeat for any
That brings us to
best guess time. Here's the question: Is it better to eat a little
political crow now and claim that his ability to delve more deeply into
the details of our situation in Iraq - and consider the possible
consequences of an early withdrawal vs. the later one - has led him to
side with his commanders and support their recommendation for the later
withdrawal? Or is it better, politically, to seem decisive and in
command of the situation and stick with the early withdrawal and take
the very real political risks that entails?
My sense is Obama
isn't a political risk taker. My guess is, while the promise of a 16
month withdrawal was made to please his base, he's not committed enough
to it to risk his presidency and his reelection. Since his promise to
give the military a new mission - i.e. end the war in Iraq - is
essentially underway, he's less likely to tie himself to an arbitrary
number than he might have been had the war still been raging. If, in
fact the withdrawal is extended, but over before 2012 (as it would be
under the present plan), he benefits politically. He can say he had to
be pragmatic and realistic, but as promised, he's ended that war. That
is totally forgivable and a spinmeister's dream - a real political
win-win for him. And if it falls apart after 2011, he simply reminds
everyone that it was the Bush plan. Business as usual – but with at
least some truth to it.
So I'm going to
go out on a bit of a limb and guess that Obama will not approve a 16
month withdrawal for the reasons I've outlined, but will instead
rationalize the 2011 schedule as the best way to proceed. Obviously I
could be as wrong as wrong can be, but I don't think so. "Safe and
responsible" will rule the day – not only as it concerns our military,
but as it concerns his political future.