Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Baghdad last week on what was probably his last official trip to the country he helped save from devastating sectarian war. His visit was hardly a victory lap. His comments were as demure as they usually have been. That tenor was appropriate, for it is still too early to declare “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Iraqi politics remain unsettled. Tensions along the Kurd-Arab frontier are high. Iranian-supported militant groups continue to attack American and Iraqi forces. Al Qaeda in Iraq is struggling to regain its footing. The Iraqi Security Forces will be unable to manage the many challenges they face at the end of this year.
Children wave Iraqi flags in Baghdad.
AP Photo / Khalid Mohammed
But the Obama administration appears more than willing to declare “mission accomplished” when the last American soldier leaves Iraq in December, regardless of the situation there. A “senior U.S. defense official” put it this way: “If [the Iraqis] are going to ask for a modification [to current withdrawal schedules] or anything else, it would probably be in their interest to ask for it sooner rather than later because we’re starting to run out of months. . . . The ball is in their court.” The implication of these comments, and of the administration’s Iraq policy to date, is that America has no substantial interest in what happens in Iraq after December. If the Iraqis want to have a relationship, the United States may be willing; if not, not. Either way, the mission Obama gave himself when he took office—“end this war”—will have been accomplished.
Defenders of administration policy say it is a mistake to conflate a continued American military presence with the overall Iraqi-American relationship. The Strategic Framework Agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in 2008, they say, was not predicated on American troops in Iraq. It was intended, instead, to foster a series of nonmilitary exchanges, programs, and relationships designed to bind Iraq and America together. The U.S.-Iraqi alliance, these defenders might say, is merely entering a new phase that is appropriate to conditions in which U.S. military forces in Iraq are neither needed nor desired.
Such arguments are alarmingly naïve, however. There has been no meaningful development of Iraqi-American nonmilitary ties, although the State Department surely can produce a laundry list of initiatives along those lines. The current administration plan, for instance, envisages thousands of American civilians going into Iraq in 2012, expanding the embassy in Baghdad and several large civilian bases around the country. A military officer would head up an Office of Security Cooperation (OSC) of the sort that oversees American military assistance to many countries around the world.
Of the many problems with this plan, a few stand out. We have been hearing about “civilian surges” into Iraq and Afghanistan for years, yet the nondefense contributions to such surges have been limited, slow to arrive, and painful to maintain. Nor is even an expanded OSC of the kind the administration proposes appropriate for a country that requires a large and diverse set of peacekeeping, training, equipment, and support missions. For example, the thousands of civilians contemplated in the administration’s plan include a mini-army controlled by the embassy just to provide security for U.S. officials after the actual military has left. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to allow the U.S. military to perform such functions with troops and equipment already maintained for that purpose?
America has done virtually nothing on the nonmilitary side to bind Iraq to the West. On the contrary, Iran has done everything in its power to drive a wedge between Iraq and the United States. Not only do Iranian weapons and Iranian-trained fighters continue to flow into Iraq, but Iranian businesses (many tied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), money, officials, clerics, and propaganda pour into the country. America has made no attempt to counter this Iranian offensive. We have not encouraged Western companies to compete with Iranian investment. We have conducted no public relations efforts in Iraq to counter the Iranian narrative. As Iran’s leaders have aggressively courted, cajoled, threatened, and promised Iraq’s political elites, the United States has almost entirely ignored them. If the future of the U.S.-Iraq relationship depends on soft power alone, then there is no future. The Obama administration has forfeited that game.