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.
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 TheAtlantic.com 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.”
Given the administration’s current ideological tilt, the best we can hope for in Iraq is an agreement that does not impose a numeric limit on U.S. forces. An open-ended agreement for the United States to help and support the democratic development of Iraq could be used by a future administration to send more U.S. troops—as long as our Iraqi partners see the need for them.
Clearly Obama envisions running for a second term as he did for his first term—as the “antiwar” candidate. The sad irony, however, is that an American drawdown in both countries makes continued war—and with it the possibility of a catastrophic American defeat—more likely by emboldening our enemies and disheartening our friends.