Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Home for the holidays:
Barack Obama ends the Iraq war

It was, as MSNBC’s Al Sharpton said, “a promise made … a promise kept,” one that was 1,004 days in the keeping. On Friday, in a news conference at the White House, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise and a national objective by formally announcing what’s been in the works for months: the end of the presence of the United States military in the Republic of Iraq, effective Dec. 31, 2011 — two years and nine months and a day after taking office.

This was no declaration of a bugout, like the relative chaos that accompanied our exit from the Vietnam War. From before his presidency, Obama had called a “responsible” end to the U.S. role in Iraq — “responsible” being, among other things, a code word to the hawks and conservatives, the rhetorical dog whistle that meant leaving in anything even resembling disgrace would be unacceptable.

And practically speaking, the word “responsible” wasn’t even necessary. U.S. military forces are leaving consistent with the Status of Force Agreement established and signed during the Bush administration. But regardless of the fact that this was essentially a moment pre-ordained, it will be a vast relief to thousands of American families, and is already a signal moment for the Obama administration, which can use a win right about now.

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"After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over," Obama said. "The coming months will be a season of homecomings. Our troops in Iraq will definitely be home for the holidays."

“After a decade of war, the nation that we need to build — and the nation that we will build — is our own.”

A U.S. official told CNN that of the 39,000 troops in Iraq, only a residual force of about 150, would remain to assist in arms sales. The rest will be out by the end of this year.

"I'll join the American people in paying tribute to the more than 1 million Americans who have served in Iraq," he said. "We'll honor our many wounded warriors and the nearly 4,500 American patriots and their Iraqi and coalition partners who gave their lives to this effort."

"The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their head held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops," Obama said.

It’s an exit that has cost us too much. At this writing, more than 4,400 American military forces died in Iraq, with about 32,000 wounded. The financial cost has been equally staggering; one estimate placed the war’s cost at $712 billion.

But CNN cited a report from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service that determined the Defense Department spent about $757 billion for military operations in Iraq over the past decade, “$50 billion higher than the estimate released by the Pentagon.”

“Another $41 billion for Iraq was spent on State Department and USAID initiatives, plus $6 billion for troops' health expenses,” said CNN, quoting the CRS report.

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No sooner had Obama made the announcement then the hawks started circling. It was of course a given that we’d hear from the king of the hawks, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who called it "a serious mistake" on ABC’s “This Week.” But other voices weighed in, those of people whose scholarly inclinations and a presumably wider, less reflexive view of history would suggest they’d know better.

Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute, told USA Today that plans for an exit from Iraq were a prima facie disaster, and would be “to abandon America's interests in Iraq and damage our position in the Middle East."

"This retreat will have great costs for the United States," Kagan said. "How can we claim to be taking a firm line against Iran while giving Tehran the single most important demand it has pursued for years — the complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq?"

The National Review Online joined in on Tuesday: “To continue to maintain troops in Iraq after the expiration of the current deal for our presence at the end of the year, we needed the Iraqis to agree to give our troops immunity. This is obviously always a sensitive issue. And negotiations with the Iraqis over almost anything tend to drag out to the breaking point. None of this should have necessarily deep-sixed a deal, given how many top Iraqi leaders say privately that they want to keep American forces in the country. The Obama administration foolishly insisted that the Iraqi Council of Representatives endorse an immunity deal, a political impossibility. But it’s hard to believe that if the administration truly wanted to make a deal happen it couldn’t have worked something out with enough patience and ingenuity.”

And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt (Morph) Romney, didn’t miss the opportunity to weigh in with the conservative opposition. In a statement, Romney said: "President Obama's astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women. The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government. The American people deserve to hear the recommendations that were made by our military commanders in Iraq."

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All this frothing at the mouth, this howling to the mob tidily overlooks nothing less than history itself (Mr. Kagan take note). Rather than conducting a freelance exercise of his powers as commander-in-chief, President Obama was only following through on a commitment made by his predecessor — the commitment of the Status of Force Agreement, the pact put in force in November 2008, when the Iraqi Cabinet approved and the Iraqi Parliament ratified, by mutual consent of the United States and Iraq, the plan to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.

What conservatives are condemning as a rash, emotionally driven decision is anything but. The Associated Press reported on Oct. 15 that discussions between Iraq and the United States had been going on for months to decide the future U.S. role. That’s apparently going to continue.

"As I told Prime Minister Maliki, we will continue discussions on how we might help Iraq train and equip its forces, again, just as we offer training and assistance to countries around the world," the president said Friday. "After all, there will be some difficult days ahead for Iraq and the United States will continue to have an interest in an Iraq that is stable, secure and self-reliant.” A high-level meeting is in the works for sometime in the next two weeks.

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The other little point Romney, Kagan, McCain and the other reflexive cynics overlooked concerns the matter of immunity for American forces, and how much it matters to the Iraqi leadership:

If American forces were to remain in Iraq, the Status of Forces Agreement would require clear criminal charges for holding prisoners over 24 hours, and require warrants to conduct searches of homes and buildings unrelated to combat. U.S. contractors working for U.S. forces would be under Iraqi criminal law. If U.S. forces commit "major premeditated felonies" while off-duty and off-base, they’d be subject to procedures (apparently still undecided) established by a joint U.S.-Iraq committee if the United States certifies that the forces under investigation were off-duty. (See Wikipedia for much more on all of this).

The AP reported on Oct. 16: “Throughout the discussions, Iraqi leaders have adamantly refused to give U.S. troops immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts, and the Americans have refused to stay without it. …

“Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has told U.S. military officials that he does not have the votes in parliament to provide immunity to the American trainers, the U.S. military official said.

“A western diplomatic official in Iraq also said al-Maliki told international diplomats he will not bring the immunity issue to parliament because lawmakers will not approve it.”

The mob can stand down now. The war in Iraq, the mother of all of America’s self-inflicted wounds, is ending not with a bang or a whimper, but with an agreement. Given the illegitimacy of the origins of the conflict, could any other outcome have as much finality and weight?

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The question is: what’s next? The AP reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States and Iraq haven’t even agreed even on the number of U.S. military personnel to be attached to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest such embassy in the world, in order to facilitate Iraqi arms deals and conduct initial training of the country's land and air forces. “That remains to be worked out,” Panetta said.

“Once we've completed the reduction of the combat presence, then I think we begin a process of negotiating with them (the Iraqis) in order to determine what will be the nature of that relationship — what kind of training do they need, what kind of security needs to they have,” he told The AP.

But Panetta may have offered a hint of a possible future role in Iraq when he mentioned that the United States maintains troops in other Persian Gulf nations — including Bahrain (5,000), the United Arab Emirates (almost 3,000) and Qatar (7,500) as a component of maintaining security and good relations in the oil-rich region.

And he clearly tipped his hand, tacitly endorsing the view that, ultimately, whether the United States stayed in Iraq another five years or another 50, the last best guarantors of the Iraqi nation are the Iraqi people.

"Iraq has developed a very good capability to be able to defend itself," he said.

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Better late than never. Panetta’s assessment is a tacit admission of something else: that Iraq has rediscovered the capability of being itself, a sovereign nation unto itself. That discovery didn’t come during the Obama administration; nor did Washington’s understanding that the withdrawal from Iraq President Obama announced on Friday would come without the United Stats achieving its objectives.

As noted in this blog in August 2005, the seeds of that geopolitical defeat are in the Aug. 13, 2005, edition of The Washington Post, in a story by Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer.

Quoting and paraphrasing U.S. officials – some of them the same people who swore the United States was winning that war – the reporters document the view then prevailing in the Bush White House: a need to abandon the “unreality” of pre-war assessments, and the goals that emerged from those assessments.

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“The United States no longer expects to see a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society where the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges,” the Post reported, based on comments from U.S. officials.

In the Post story, one “senior official” sums it up: “What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground. We are in a process of ... shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning.”

This was in August of 2005. And there’s the deeper inescapable tragedy. Our zeal to fight this conflict, our national pursuit of a chimera force-fed to the American people, was doomed years ago — this according to some of the people responsible for that great conjuring of an enemy that did not exist.

Our people are coming home. No fault attaches to any one of them who fought and bled and died on our behalf. But some of the atrocities of the Iraq war — the corruption, the deceptions, the policies indifferent to reality — preceded the war itself. The fault lies not in the stars, nor with our soldiers, but with the leaders who sent them there and kept them there — and ultimately, with ourselves.

Image credits: U.S. soldiers entering Kuwait, August 2010: Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press. Obama: White House pool feed. U.S. deaths in Iraq chart: guardian.co.uk. Troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan chart: Associated Press. Obama and advisers in videoconference with al-Maliki: Pete Souza/The White  House. Al-Maliki: Source unknown. 101st Airborne helos over Iraq, 2003: Public domain.

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