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Losing Iraq?

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By MAX BOOT
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At the same time, the Iraqi government announced a belated decision to purchase 36 F-16 fighters from America. The pieces appeared to be in place for a long and fruitful strategic relationship between one of the world’s oldest democracies and one of the newest. And then, just as negotiations between the U.S. and Iraqi governments were heating up on a new status of forces agreement, the administration let on that it wanted to keep no more than 4,000 troops there. That request, which is completely at odds with the best advice of military commanders on the ground, undercuts the position of American negotiators and suggests that Iraq’s future is of little importance to the United States.

We are the last people in the world to argue that civilian policymakers should uncritically accept the views of the uniformed military. Many generals (though not all) were dead set against the surge that saved the situation in Iraq, and it was only by relieving Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and senior commanders on the ground that President Bush was able to implement a change in strategy. But we see no reason to distrust the best judgment of Gen. Austin, a seasoned and respected commander whose views echo those of other military experts, in uniform and out. Nor have we heard the administration offer any explanation of why 3,000 to 4,000 troops would suffice in such difficult and dangerous conditions.

In fact, with such small troop numbers, U.S. commanders would be forced to all but close shop. They could still provide some training and support to the Iraqi Security Forces, but not much more than that. It would be difficult if not impossible to continue conducting counterterrorist raids or patrolling the volatile border separating Iraq proper from the Kurdish Regional Government. And such a small number of U.S. troops could well become targets of the Iranian-backed militias.

So why would the administration decide, at least tentatively, on such a minuscule deployment? A clue can be found in an item posted August 3 on by senior editor Joshua Green. He relayed Rep. Barney Frank’s account of what Vice President Joe Biden reportedly told the Democratic caucus two days before. Here is Frank’s version (which has not been contradicted by the vice president or his aides):

Biden was at the caucus, and I said I was upset about Afghanistan and Iraq. So [budget director] 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.”

That item might have looked preposterous in early August, when U.S.-Iraq negotiations were just beginning. But it looks prescient now, because the White House essentially has chosen to pull the plug on a large-scale U.S. deployment to Iraq, regardless of what the Iraqis think. (It is possible that the Iraqis would not approve more than 4,000 troops, but how would we know without pushing for a higher figure?) Joe Biden—who supported the decision to invade Iraq but opposed the surge and instead proposed breaking Iraq into three different parts—appears ascendant on both Iraq and Afghanistan policy. He seems to have been looking for an excuse to leave Iraq, and Iraqi foot-dragging, which is to be expected in such a rickety parliamentary system, provided it to him.

But of course Biden does not get the final vote. He can carry the day only if his boss, the president, lets him. For all of Obama’s feints toward the right, it seems that in the end he cannot get over the fact that he launched his presidential bid—and won the Democratic nomination—by opposing the war in Iraq. Whenever he talks about the achievements of his administration before a partisan audience—as he did, for example, at an August 8 Democratic National Committee event in Washington—he brags not only about rescuing the economy from the 2008 recession and implementing health care and financial regulatory reform, but also ending “the war in Iraq” and “transitioning into a posture where in Afghanistan, Afghans can take responsibility for their own security.”

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