Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By MAX BOOT
President Obama did a good job of feinting to the right on national security issues during his first two years in office. Lacking much standing on military policy, he often acceded to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Michael Mullen—a trio of hard-headed centrists. He kept 50,000 troops in Iraq, down from more than 100,000 but still a substantial figure. He sent 64,000 troops to Afghanistan, tripling the size of the American force there. He gave up his initial hopes of high-level talks with Iran. He stepped up drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. He abandoned plans (under pressure from Congress) to close Guantánamo Bay and end military tribunals, and generally kept in place most of President Bush’s counterterrorist policies. The apogee of his unexpected tilt to the right was reached on May 1 with the (extrajudicial, unilateral) killing of Osama bin Laden in a daring special operations raid in Pakistan authorized personally by the president and carried out without the permission of the host government.
Yet Obama has lately been turning dovish—a trend that has accelerated since bin Laden’s demise.
First, in January, the White House budget office demanded $78 billion in cuts from the defense budget. Gates, who had already canceled or delayed numerous programs, reluctantly complied. Then in April, with almost no notice to Gates, Obama announced another $400 billion in cuts—a figure that was soon passed into law by Congress, which might (with the president’s support) cut far more before long. By the time Gates left office, he was complaining in public that he couldn’t “imagine being part of a nation, part of a government . . . that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.”
Those complaints were given greater salience when, just weeks before Gates’s departure, Obama decided on a precipitous force reduction in Afghanistan, pulling all 30,000 surge troops out by September 2012 against the advice of Gates, Mullen, and General David Petraeus. Now the president appears to be determined to bug out from Iraq. At least that’s the only way we can interpret the report that the administration will ask to keep just 3,000 to 4,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq after the end of this year.
That is far below the figure recommended by U.S. Forces-Iraq under the command of General Lloyd Austin. It has been reported that Gen. Austin asked for 14,000 to 18,000 personnel—enough to allow his command to train and support Iraqi security forces, conduct intelligence gathering, carry out counterterrorism strikes, support U.S. diplomatic initiatives, prevent open bloodshed between Arabs and Kurds, and deter Iranian aggression. To perform, in other words, at least a few of the crucial tasks that U.S. troops have been carrying out in Iraq since the success of the surge in 2007 and 2008.
But keeping nearly 20,000 troops in Iraq was judged by State and Defense department officials too politically volatile in both Iraq and the United States. So they whittled down Gen. Austin’s request to 10,000 personnel. That’s still a substantial force package—amounting to two Brigade Combat Teams plus enablers—and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Admiral Mullen, and other senior leaders signed off.
When U.S. representatives presented this proposal to Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister gave his tacit support provided that other Iraqi politicos did so. Remarkably enough, despite nationalist sentiment in Iraq against “foreign occupation”—a sentiment fed by Iranian propaganda—all of the major Iraqi political factions, save the Sadrists, gave their assent on August 2 to open negotiations with the United States on precisely these terms. And even the Sadrists merely abstained instead of voting against negotiations.
Moreover, the Maliki government took to heart U.S. complaints that we could not keep a substantial number of troops in Iraq if they were going to be subject to a relentless Iranian-backed terrorist campaign. June was the bloodiest month for U.S. troops in Iraq since 2009—15 soldiers died, most of them in Iranian-backed strikes. But then the Iraqis cracked down, with U.S. help, on Shiite militants, and lo and behold, not a single U.S. soldier perished in August—the first time that has occurred since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.