In a Sunday shocker, the NY Times criticizes Obama's handling of the wind-down in Iraq. Obama's domestic political goals were repeatedly put ahead of our objectives in Iraq, with gloomy consequences there:
In the case of Iraq, the American goal has been to leave a stable and representative government, avoid a power vacuum that neighboring states and terrorists could exploit and maintain sufficient influence so that Iraq would be a partner or, at a minimum, not an opponent in the Middle East.
But the Obama administration has fallen frustratingly short of some of those objectives.
Let's shift to a bit of light comedy:
The attempt by Mr. Obama and his senior aides to fashion an extraordinary power-sharing arrangement between Mr. Maliki and Mr. Allawi never materialized. Neither did an agreement that would have kept a small American force in Iraq to train the Iraqi military and patrol the country’s skies. A plan to use American civilians to train the Iraqi police has been severely cut back. The result is an Iraq that is less stable domestically and less reliable internationally than the United States had envisioned.
The story of these efforts has received little attention in a nation weary of the conflict in Iraq, and administration officials have rarely talked about them. This account is based on interviews with many of the principals, in Washington and Baghdad.
A nation weary of Iraq and a press wary of criticising Obama has led to this.
Let me cut to the SOFA, the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by Bush which called for all US troops to be out by the end of 2011. It was widely believed that an extension would be sought and agreed, but that didn't happen, and thereby hangs a tale:
As the process of forming a new Iraqi government dragged on, the Obama administration began in January 2011 to turn its attention to negotiating an agreement that would enable American forces to stay beyond 2011.
The first talks the Americans had were among themselves. Pentagon officials had gotten an earful from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, which were worried that the United States was pulling back from the region. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates favored leaving 16,000 troops to train the Iraqi forces, prepare them to carry out counterterrorism missions, protect Iraqi airspace, tamp down Arab and Kurdish tensions and to maintain American influence.
But the White House, which was wary of big military missions and also looking toward Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign, had a lower number in mind. At a meeting on April 29, Thomas E. Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, asked Mr. Gates whether he could accept up to 10,000 troops. Mr. Gates agreed.
Concerned that decisions were being made without careful consideration of all the military factors, Admiral Mullen sent a classified letter to Mr. Donilon that recommended keeping 16,000 troops. “In light of the risks noted above and the opportunities that might emerge, that is my best military advice to the president,” he wrote. He added that the recommendation was supported by Gen. Lloyd Austin, the American commander in Iraq, and Gen. James N. Mattis, head of Central Command, which has responsibility for the Middle East.
Admiral Mullen’s letter arrived with a thud at the White House. An angry Mr. Donilon complained about it in a phone call to Michèle A. Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy. But she responded that Admiral Mullen had a professional responsibility to provide his independent advice. She did not see her role as ensuring that only politically acceptable advice was provided to the White House. Mr. Donilon declined to be interviewed, and his spokesman insisted that his discussions with the Pentagon concerned military issues, not politics.
Mr. Obama overruled Admiral Mullen, setting the stage for the negotiations over the troops.
So Obama opened with a low bid meant to be popular here in the US. However, even that was eventually scaled back as negotiations with the Iraqis, and within the Administration, dragged on:
The White House, meanwhile, wanted to avoid any perception that it was chasing after a deal to keep troops in Iraq after promising that combat forces would be brought home. By August, White House aides were pressing to scale back the mission and to reopen the issue of how many troops might be needed.
Mrs. Clinton and Leon E. Panetta, who succeeded Mr. Gates as the defense secretary, argued that talks should continue and that the goal, as before, should be to keep a force of up to 10,000.
On Aug. 13, Mr. Obama settled the matter in a conference call in which he ruled out the 10,000 troop option and a smaller 7,000 variant. The talks would proceed but the size of the force the United States might keep was shrunk: the new goal would be a continuous presence of about 3,500 troops, a rotating force of up to 1,500 and half a dozen F-16’s.
But there was no agreement. Some experts say that given the Iraqis’ concerns about sovereignty, and Iranian pressure, the politicians in Baghdad were simply not prepared to make the hard decisions that were needed to secure parliamentary approval. Others say the Iraqis sensed the Americans’ ambivalence and were being asked to make unpopular political decisions for a modest military benefit.
Who knows? But by the end, we were asking for so little that it hardly made sense for either side to exert itself.
The Times is a bit gloomy on the result:
The White House insisted that the collapse of the talks was not a setback. “As we reviewed the 10,000 option, we came to the conclusion that achieving the goal of a security partnership was not dependent on the size of our footprint in-country, and that stability in Iraq did not depend on the presence of U.S. forces,” a senior Obama administration said.
It is too soon to fully assess that prediction. But tensions have increased to the point that Mr. Barzani has insisted Mr. Maliki be replaced and Iraq’s lone Sunni vice president has fled to Turkey to avoid arrest.
Without American forces to train and assist Iraqi commandos, the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq is still active in Iraq and is increasingly involved in Syria. With no American aircraft to patrol Iraqi airspace, Iraq has become a corridor for Iranian flights of military supplies to Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, American officials say. It is also a potential avenue for an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear installations, something the White House is laboring to avoid.
Obama may yet manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq while expanding the quagmire in Afghanistan. Hard to believe the same guy who got lots of the asbestos out of Altgeld Gardens couldn't succeed here.